A lot of my story ideas are about one character’s thoughts and goals. How do I make supporting characters help the main character without them either a) being nothing more than the main character’s extensions and b) overtaking the main character’s personal story?


Hi AlgaeNymph,

The role of a supporting character is to, well, support the main character. Making them their own person is nice, but it takes room in the story, and it will always be less essential than the ways they support the main character’s story. So how much you can do in that area depends on how much room you have left for nice-to-haves. If your story is already very complex, maybe because it has a complex plot or a complex world or lots of characters, it’s going to be hard to develop supporting characters that much because it will overload your story.

If you don’t have much room, there are a few things that will help make them feel more like their own person:

  • Make sure they have a distinct personality. Generally this can be done in a short space.
  • Give them their own motivation for doing things. Instead of doing everything just because they want to help the main character, maybe they care about the cause the main character’s involved in. If you don’t have a lot of room though, you’ll need to look for motivations that are simple and don’t require a big backstory or a lot of explanation.
  • Make them more proactive. Instead of the main character asking them to do a supporting task, the supporting character might notice the main character could use help and suggest how to help.

If you do have a pretty simple story and you can afford to add more complexity to supporting characters, simply giving them their own arcs should really help. That could mean a character arc, a relationship arc with another character, or a simple external arc like a personal grudge between them and one of the antagonists.

As for preventing supporting characters from taking over, there are two things to look out for in particular:

  • The main character should be at the center of the story’s most compelling problems. If all the big problems involve a side character foremost, that’s not great.
  • The main character should have the most agency in the story. More than any other character, they should determine the story’s outcome. They need to be the one saving the day at the climax.

I hope that gives you some idea of the right balance.

Happy writing!

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