This question came from the priority request queue for my Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!
Dear Story Nurse,
How do I figure out which supporting characters need to be in my story? I’ve read oodles of articles about the importance of secondary characters, how they drive the plot and reveal important things about the protagonist, but none about how to figure out who those characters are in the first place.
My protagonist starts out very much alone—recently discharged from the military and estranged from her family of origin. Over the course of the story, she builds a support network for herself. Some of that will be people who are new to her life; others are people who were already there, but she didn’t realize she could rely on them.
There are quite a lot of ideas that I want to explore in the story, though I’m not sure how many will make it to the final draft. Here’s a short list:
- the control that money exerts over our lives
- family, community, and accepting support
- coming to terms with your own weaknesses and those of others
- trauma and recovery
- openness and acceptance as the antidote to shame
- the importance of telling your own story
I have a solid sense of who the protagonist is as a solitary person, but I don’t know who the people around her are. Who are her friends? Her coworkers? It’s such a broad question that I’m not sure where to start.
—Who’s Next? (he/him)
Dear Who’s Next?,
This is a great question! And you’ve already got the beginning of your answer to it. Just as protagonists in some ways embody the Big Idea of your story, supporting characters are often avatars of those themes you mentioned, as well as vehicles for tone. When you’re looking at the push-pull of plot momentum, supporting characters can provide both the push and the pull. And a well-rounded cast will do a lot to fill out your setting.