Use Supporting Characters to Help and Hinder Your Protagonist

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I’ve been working my way through John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller for a few weeks now. Going into my fifth month of procrastinating building a revision plan for my first original fiction story, I couldn’t seem to get my head wrapped around everything that needed fixing. I completed the first developmental editing round sometime in mid-December. And yes, I indeed ripped it apart, about three times worse than I ever would for a client.

For me, one of the biggest takeaways from Truby’s book thus far is his discussions of characters other than the protagonist. Authors spend an exorbitant amount of time fleshing out the star(s) of their book: building out core values, backgrounds, weaknesses, and maybe even traumatic events; tracking their change arc alongside the plot’s developments; and even how the main character moves around and interacts with their environment. Protagonists need this kind of completed scaffolding for readers to not only see them as whole, realistic characters, but to empathize enough to want to follow them from the first page to the last.

The characters not so focused on are the ones around the protagonist. I don’t include antagonists/villains in this because those characters are not only distorted mirror images of the protagonist, but they serve a specific function that make the story worth reading in the first place. After all, if you don’t have conflict, you don’t have a story.

I’m talking about the two to three major side characters in your protagonist’s immediate circle. So, let’s look at a few examples of pairings that may help you raise the importance of your own side characters without them taking over the story.

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Yogi and Boo-Boo (aka “I’ll go along, but I’m complaining the whole way”)

I’m showing my age here, but Yogi Bear and Boo-Boo are believed to be one of the most famous cultural pairings in modern history. Yogi Bear was the spontaneous, no-filter, nonchalant-to-the-extreme piece of the pie. Boo-Boo was his down-to-earth, civil-minded, and cautious partner in woodland crime. Another more famous literary pair, of course, are Samwise Gamgee and Frodo Baggins. Both duos serve the purpose of being the “buddy.”

The buddy is the person who’s both your protagonist’s first opponent and first ally. They help your protagonist stand yet aren’t afraid to knock them down a peg or two. Because their differences are more complementary, your readers have a chance to see diametrically opposite approaches to the same problem. While the protagonist may be rash, hot-headed, or as spontaneous as Yogi, their buddy should be equally rational, analytical, and strategic. They should balance out your protagonist’s spontaneity while supporting them through that spontaneity all the same.

Captain Kirk and Spock (aka “Are you sure this is a good idea?”)

The thing I always loved most about the original Star Trek‘s Spock character was his endless patience with James T. Kirk. It would take a while, and a lot of debating, but more often than not, Kirk could be made to see (some of) the errors of his ways. Like Boo-Boo to Yogi, Spock served as Kirk’s rationale and logic, even when Kirk refused to acknowledge him as such. Initially fraught with disagreements, the pair eventually bonded tighter than most families. Yet Spock remained that nagging voice in Kirk’s ear, reminding him that certain decisions may reap short-term benefits; those same decisions, though, could eventually have long-term negative consequences.

In creating your protagonist’s conscience, dive deeper into their mental makeup and figure out what their arguments would be for their own choices. Put those arguments in the voice of the character who will serve to calm them, to pull them back from the ledge of gut instincts and on-the-spot choices.

Tom and Jerry (aka “I kind of like you, but I wouldn’t feel bad if you failed”)

When you hear term “frenemy”, an image likely comes to mind from the movie Mean Girls (which I have admittedly never seen and don’t plan to watch, but I digress). That or your petty middle school or high school days when you had a best friend one week and a mortal enemy the next…for the entire school year.

Tom and Jerry had very much the same relationship. Of course, more often than not, Tom was trying to unalive Jerry, but the point stands. If Jerry wasn’t fighting for his life, then Tom was pretending to mind his own business until he could hatch another plan to take the beloved mouse off the animal census.

Truby calls this character the “fake-ally opponent.” This is the person who pretends to be on your protagonist’s side. In reality, they are working against the protagonist, often behind the scenes. Their treacherous behavior usually comes to light anywhere between your story’s three-quarter mark up to right before the climax. So how can you use a frenemy to your story’s advantage?

Give the character a moral dilemma. This is a debate they’ll have with themselves throughout the book. It should center around the motivation behind their treachery. They’re in a bind in that they know they’re betraying your main character, but they believe in a higher cause or the more powerful (in their eyes) antagonist/villain. You’ll have the freedom of a throughline subplot that keeps the frenemy close to the protagonist while simultaneously working through their own internal and external conflicts.

Picking out who you want to elevate as a side character is one of the most difficult when it comes to planning a story. Like protagonists, they each should have a function that would make the conflict fall apart with them. Unlike protagonists, their individual stories should never overtake the main plot thread. Their side of things is meant to make that main plot thread—and in turn, the protagonist’s internal conflict—all the more impactful.

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