Friday, July 25

Sharing the Spotlight: How Much Page Time Do Supporting Characters Need?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Everyone knows the protagonist is the star of the show, but supporting characters can be just as critical to the story. They’re the ones influencing your protagonist and causing changes in the plot. Without them, your story can feel empty, but how much time do you really need to spend on them?

It depends on their function.

The supporting characters needs to feel credible in whatever role they’re in. The fewer scenes they get, the harder it can be to lay the groundwork for whatever their task is. If the task is simple, they can show up and vanish and readers won't mind or notice anything wonky. Like a waiter at a restaurant, for example. Little is required for that role to be believable in that situation. But if the character has more impact on the protagonist or the plot, you might need better reasons for her being there.

Let’s say your protagonist encounters someone who has information they need that’s critical to the plot. If she walked up to this person, got the information and walked away, readers will likely cry foul. It’s too coincidental."Really?" they'll say, "She stumbles upon the one person with these details out of the blue?"

But if the protagonist had been looking for this person specifically because he had that information, and that character was mentioned earlier in the story, readers might even have seen that character briefly as a walk-on, then finding him won't feel contrived.

(Here's more on determining if a walk-on character could be more)

To make a character feel like part of the story world, ask yourself:
  • What does this character do in the story when the protagonist isn't around?
  • How are they connected to the protagonist, if at all?
  • Why would this character help the protagonist? Not help? What's in it for them?
  • What other scenes could this character show up in, even briefly, to establish them?
There’s a character in The Shifter who only shows up in a few scenes (Kione), but he’s important to the plot. He needed to be someone in a position to help my protagonist, Nya, who might consider helping her, but who also wouldn’t just hand over what she needed (metaphorically speaking). Nya finds out about him through a mutual friend.

Now, had I simply had the friend say “Oh, I know someone who can help you there” when Nya mentioned the problem, it would have felt contrived. I had to lay groundwork (devote time) to this character for him to be plausible. He needed to be part of the world already.

(Here's more on why the protagonist needs friends)

To make this even more plausible, I made Nya's friend someone who knows everyone right from the start of the book. Nya runs into this person earlier, establishing that he did indeed work where she'd later need him. I even gave him a few lines of dialog so he’d be a little memorable to readers, but not enough to draw too much attention (and those details were relevant to both the later plot and his personality, so they worked on multiple levels). Finally, I added a little conflict between him and Nya so getting his help wasn't that easy just because they both knew the same friend.

When Nya finally meets him, he gets more page time so readers can get to know him a little, but only as much as they need to know for the scene to work. The kind of person he is, what he can do for Nya, why he might be willing to do it or not do it, what his conditions are for helping her, etc. His life story doesn’t matter. What matters is what he can do and why he might be willing to do it.

He gets more page time later, but all of it is establishing him as the type of person who can and would do the things he does for the plot to work. Those are the traits I focused on, as well as a few general traits that further fleshed out my fantasy world and fit my theme (world building).

(Here's more on developing secondary characters) 

Never did I have a “this is all about Kione” scene. He’s not that important to the story, even though he was critical to parts of the plot. In fact, by me holding back, he became a character readers wanted to know more about and he ended up with a much larger role in book three, Darkfall.

Focus just enough on supporting characters so readers understand their actions and for them to be credible in their roles. A little does go a long way here, and too much can draw attention to a character and signal to the reader that they’re more important than they really are. And when nothing much happens with them, the reader might feel they were left hanging.

How much do you want to hear about a supporting character? What makes you more (or less) interested? 

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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  1. How much time I want to see spent on a supporting character really depends on the protagonist's emotional connection to them. The more they get the protag's heart pumping, the more interested I'll be.

  2. I will forgive a lot of characters if they are funny and interesting :)

  3. How do you always know what I need to hear? (Pauses to re-think a couple minor characters and cross check that they'd legitimately be in the place where they meet the protagonist.)

  4. Supporting characters...have you ever noticed how challenging it is to keep them from taking over the plot? Some of them enjoy the spotlight too much. LOL

  5. Part of your story planning is your character setup. You might consider assigning a 1--5 value to each character.

    1.0 is the main. "There can be only one."
    1.1 or 1.2 might be the main supporting character or the main antagonist.

    2.0 etc. could be the occasional side-kick.

    Etc. You get the drift.

    Put these characters in a spreadsheet and sort (descending) by character level. That can tell you right off who gets the most page time.

  6. Chicory, I have gnome spies out there :)

    M.E. That happened to me on my first novel. I went from two POVs to like nine. Was terrible! lol

    BHJ, I like the rating scale. That could be a good way to star out, maybe have a baseline of how much goes into what level character.

  7. I have an inspirational character that supports a supporting character that I talk about for a page.... is that ok?

    1. Hard to say without seeing it, but if it fits the scene, moves the plot, and is interesting, sure. It's all in the execution.