Need Supporting Characters? Look Around!

Authors spend a lot of time developing their main characters, but sometimes forget that supporting characters are important too. Where would Sherlock be without Watson?

Here are some tips to help you find supporting characters.

  • Create a system (whether it be a form, index cards, or a notebook) to record descriptions of real-life strangers.
  • In your system, note physical characteristics you see at first sight. Then let your creativity help you create the details about their backgrounds, activities, reactions, etc. For example, why does the woman look both ways twice (instead of once each way) before crossing the street? Why don’t the man and woman at the next table look at each other during lunch?

Once you’ve got your system figured out, you’ll need to actually observe people to put into your system. Here are some ideas for doing that.

  • Sit in your car outside the supermarket as if you were waiting for someone. Observe those who walk by and make notes on what you see. Which ones caught your eye right away? Why? Did you see the person go in and come out? How long were they shopping? What do you suppose they bought? Who are they shopping for? Self? Family? Aging neighbor? Sick friend? Church supper?
  • Take a walk through your neighborhood. Observe how people keep their property. Which yards are groomed? Which ones are untidy? Which ones have flowers? For those that don’t, why not? Owner is allergic to bees, maybe? Are the shades drawn in the daytime? Why is that, do you suppose?
  • Enjoy a meal in a restaurant. Observe the other diners and how they interact with each other. How animated are their conversations? Are they even having a conversation? Does one discreetly observe the other without the other’s knowledge? Why is that, do you suppose?
  • Look around at other commuters during rush hour. Describe the car and how well the driver matches. For example, is a teenager driving a new convertible? What shape is the car in? What’s the driver doing? Texting? Phoning? Singing? Frowning? Laughing? How many people to a car? How are people driving? Aggressively? Patiently?
  • Watch sporting events, but don’t forget the fans. How do strangers participate? Cheer? Slap hands with friends? Cup hands around mouth and yell? Stand up? Sit quietly and just watch?
  • Tune into others in public places such as airports, medical or dental offices, laundromats, or just about any other place you find yourself waiting. How do people spend their time when held captive? Reading periodicals? Reading old fashioned books or e-readers? Studying their phones? Working on laptops? Eating? Watching you watch them?

Once you’ve got your notes on your observations, make sure you transfer the information into your system so you can keep it forever. You may not use every supporting character you discover, but you’ll have a plethora of them waiting for you when you need them. Every story needs supporting characters. You may as well make yours as memorable as you can.

Happy writing!


One Response to Need Supporting Characters? Look Around!

  1. Jen says:

    I’m totally doing this right now. Sitting in a cafe and watching a group of women chat. It’s helped me frame my latest character who has a hard time in social situations with other women. Thanks for the tips!

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