Supporting Characters and Theme: 6 Important Questions to Ask About Your Story by K.M. Weiland - Usa
Raise your hand if you’ve ever written in a new supporting character just because, hey, somebody had to start that tavern brawl. Creating delightfully colorful, unexpected, and sometimes just plain convenient minor characters is half the fun of writing. That said, we might all want to now sit on those hands we raised. However random our supporting cast may sometimes seem, writers mustn’t overlook the crucial correlation between supporting characters and theme. Raise your hand if you’ve ever written in a new supporting character just because, hey, somebody had to start that tavern brawl. Creating delightfully colorful, unexpected, and sometimes just plain convenient minor characters is half the fun of writing. That said, we might all want to now sit on those hands we raised.
In short, the more important your supporting characters, the greater your responsibility to ensure they contribute more than just that first punch to get the conflict going. Once you’ve properly set up the foundations of your story’s thematic presentation (via your protagonist’s arc and your antagonist’s generation of the plot conflict), your supporting characters are going to provide your greatest opportunity for deepening the complexity, maturity, and subliminal power of your story’s thematic premise.
I’m going to repeat an analogy I’ve used before because it’s one of my favorite ways to view theme:
Think of your overall theme as a big mirror smashed on the floor. The biggest chunk of glass is your protagonist. The second biggest is your antagonist. And every other shard represents every other character. They all reflect the theme. They all show a different piece of the big picture.
Naturally, the bigger the piece of glass—the bigger the character’s role—the more explicit its relationship to theme should be. But ideally even the walk-on character with no lines can present symbolic opportunities. Think about it: the character who starts that tavern brawl could be a drunken miner, a bartender, a little girl, a fancy gambler, or the landlady. Even if that’s all that character contributes to the story, each choice is going to say something a little different within the context.
If dreaming up thematic significance for each and every supporting character sounds like a lot of work, don’t worry. With a little practice, using thematic criteria to choose or groom supporting characters will become second nature. More than that, it’s a fun and effective way to create a surprising and dimensional cast.
6 Questions to Refine Your Supporting Characters and Theme
To help you get a sense of how your supporting characters can play a defining role in strengthening and deepening your story’s theme, here are six questions. Eventually, these questions should become instinctive, but until then you can use them as a reminder of ways in which you can spot and take advantage of missed opportunities.
1. How Does Each Supporting Character Represent the Theme?
Take a moment to scan your cast. If every character is pertinent to the forward progression of your story’s plot, then there’s already a strong probability these characters have a strong thematic impact as well. Still, it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees. For that matter, thematically vetting supporting characters can be a great way to spot weak spots in their relation to the plot as well.
Refer to the question inherent within your story’s thematic premise. Is each prominent character asking (or answering) some version of this question?
For example, if your story is about duty, your characters may ask any range of questions from “What is duty?” to “Do I owe duty to a tyrant?” to “Can doing your duty go against your conscience?” to “Am I hiding behind my duty?” to “Am I hiding from my duty?”
The more varied the questions, the more opportunities you will have to explore your thematic premise from every angle.