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What Is a Supporting Character?

A supporting character enriches a story, providing depth and context to the protagonist's journey. They can be a confidant, antagonist, or comic relief, each one pivotal in driving the narrative forward. Their interactions and personal growth often mirror and challenge the main character's arc. How do these figures shape the stories we love? Explore their impact with us.
Tara Barnett
Tara Barnett

The term "supporting character" is a broad category including any character that, as the name implies, somehow supports but does not carry the story. Many people interpret this term differently, claiming that a supporting character must support the main characters. This is true insofar as providing a sounding board for the main characters is a form of support, but the true mission of any character of this type is to add depth and interest to the plot and story overall. Supporting characters appear in many different types of media, including television, written stories, and even video games.

Broadly speaking, a supporting character is a character with a personality and some degree of permanence in the story but whose choices and actions are not the primary focus of the story. Supporting characters may have their own missions or may be the focus of episodes, as is the case in many television series. Even so, they are not the characters on whom the audience depends for a story to be complete.

Supporting characters include background performers.
Supporting characters include background performers.

There are several categories into which a supporting character may fall. These can be used to help further identify the role the character plays in a story. Not all supporting characters are positive influences or allies, nor must they necessarily have a relationship with the protagonist. Some supporting characters never meet the protagonist and may be allied with a negative character. Negative characters are sometimes called foils.

Depending on the type of story, the role of the supporting character in the story may be quite different. This character might give the protagonist something to do or might provide a partner for dialogue. Even though these characters have very different roles, one characteristic of good storytelling is that supporting characters are easily distinguishable and have strong, fully realized personalities.

Some types of stories have many supporting characters who may change frequently because they are not essential to the continued plot. This is true of many television series, where the necessity of keeping an actor on a program can cause problems. Supporting characters are not always vitally important to the continuation of a series, but loss of a character can cause problems for storytellers.

In some cases, supporting characters can grow more important than the main characters in a story. This is particularly true of ongoing programs, such as television shows or comics. When this happens, a spin-off series can be created in order to turn a supporting character into a main character. It is not very common for former supporting characters to become the main characters in the show in which they were created, although this is possible with large ensemble casts.

Frequently Asked Questions

What defines a supporting character in a story?

A supporting character in a story is a figure who is not the protagonist or main character but plays a crucial role in the narrative by interacting with or influencing the main characters. They help to advance the plot, provide depth to the protagonist's story, and enrich the world-building. Supporting characters can be sidekicks, mentors, love interests, or even antagonists, each contributing to the story's dynamics and the protagonist's development.

How important are supporting characters to the overall narrative?

Supporting characters are vital to the overall narrative as they provide subplots, conflict, and additional perspectives that enrich the main storyline. They can challenge or support the protagonist, prompting growth or change. According to literary experts, well-developed supporting characters can elevate a story by adding complexity and preventing the plot from becoming one-dimensional. Their interactions with the main characters are essential for a multi-layered and engaging narrative.

Can a supporting character become more popular than the main character?

Yes, a supporting character can sometimes become more popular than the main character due to their unique traits, memorable personality, or the depth of their backstory. This phenomenon is often seen in various media, where a supporting character captures the audience's imagination and affection, sometimes leading to spin-offs or expanded roles in sequels. Their relatability or standout characteristics can resonate strongly with the audience, overshadowing the protagonist.

What is the difference between a supporting character and a minor character?

The difference between a supporting character and a minor character lies in their significance to the story. Supporting characters have substantial influence on the plot and the main characters, often appearing throughout the story with a well-defined purpose. In contrast, minor characters tend to have limited roles, appearing briefly or infrequently, and are not as crucial to the narrative's progression. They serve to populate the story's world and can provide background or context.

How do writers ensure that supporting characters don't overshadow the main character?

Writers ensure that supporting characters don't overshadow the main character by carefully balancing their roles and development. They give supporting characters distinct personalities and story arcs that complement, rather than compete with, the protagonist's journey. Writers focus on the main character's goals and challenges, using supporting characters to highlight these aspects without allowing them to take over the narrative. The key is to make each character's contribution to the story clear and intentional.

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    • Supporting characters include background performers.
      By: Wisky
      Supporting characters include background performers.