Wednesday, May 22, 2024

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

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Just because they're a supporting character doesn't mean they have to do what the protagonist says.

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 supporting characters really need?

It depends on their function.

Supporting characters should 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 them 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. "Really?" they'll say, "She stumbles upon the one person with these details out of the blue?" It’s just too coincidental. 

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

(Here's more with How to Tell if That Throwaway Character Is Really a Star)

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 (Kione) who only appears in a few scenes, 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.

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

(Here's more with 5 Dos and Don’ts of a Good Sidekick)

To make this even more plausible, I made Nya's friend (Aylin) someone who knows everyone right from the start of the book. Nya also runs into Kione earlier, establishing that he did indeed work where she'd later need him to be. I even gave him a few lines of dialogue 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 easy just because they both knew Aylin.

When Nya finally meets Kione, he gets more page time so readers can get to know him a little, but only as much as the scene needs 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.

(Here's more with 5 Tips for Developing Supporting 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 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 appear 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.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and examine one of your supporting characters. Make sure they feel like they live in your world, with their own life and problems. Are they helping your protagonist because the plot says they do, or do they have their own reasons for it that make sense to their character? If they just "hand over the info" for no reason, brainstorm ways to make getting that information more difficult.  

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

*Originally published August 2011. Last updated May 2024.

Find out more about characters and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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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.