Creating one interesting character is hard enough — but when it comes to writing a whole novel or series of books, you have to create dozens of them. How can you keep your supporting cast from seeming like cookie-cutter people? There's no easy answer, but a few tricks might help you create minor characters who don't feel too minor.
Here are 10 secrets for creating a supporting cast that sticks in your readers' minds.
It's the curse of science fiction and fantasy — these genres need worldbuilding. And worldbuilding means lots of people. Your spaceship needs crewmembers, your magical kingdom needs knights and warrior nuns. A world that's populated by stick figures will feel like a barely sketched world.
And most really beloved books have one thing in common — minor characters, who get a fraction of the column inches of the protagonists, wind up becoming audience favorites. This isn't really an accident: A main character needs to be sympathetic and engaging, but a supporting character needs to do much more — the supporting cast hold your scenery up and either sell the fundamentals of your story, or fail to. If they fail, you fail.
This is something I've struggled with for years, and have been grappling with a lot lately. Out of all my obsessing over how to create a supporting cast with staying power, here are some guidelines I've come up with:
1) Give them at least one defining characteristic.
The master of "sprawling supporting cast," for my money, is Dickens. He probably created a few thousand people, out of thin air, over the course of his career, and many of them are so recognizable they've become words in the English language. One thing you'll notice about Dickens is, his minor characters often just have one really weird quirk that defines them — a weird way of talking, or a strange habit. Think the Aged Parent. People are like this in real life, too — lots of people have one or two habits that you notice the first time you meet them, that stand out in your mind even after you learn more about them.
2) Give them an origin story.
And by origin story, I don't mean "She was born in Somerset, to a family of glove-makers, and she grew up with the scent of glove dye and the endless fingers of unsold gloves, hanging from the ceiling over her crib." I mean, an origin story like a superhero has an origin story. Your main character doesn't necessarily need an origin story, because you've got the whole book to explain who he/she is and what he/she is about. But a supporting character? You get a paragraph or five, to explain the formative experience that made her become the person she is, and possibly how she got whatever skills or powers she possesses. This is more important that bullshit like what her favorite color is, or what she eats for breakfast. (I don't care what most people's favorite color is in real life, much less in fiction. Unless it's like infrapurple or something.)
3) Make sure they talk in a distinctive fashion.
This goes back to making sure all your characters don't talk alike. Possibly, if you followed the advice in item #1, you've already given your character a verbal quirk, like he always says "wellum" before every declarative sentence. Either way, you still have to make sure your characters don't all talk the same. Some of them talk in nothing but short sentences, others in nothing but long, rolling statements full of subordinate clauses and random digressions. Or you might have a character who always follows one long sentence with three short ones. Some of your characters talk mostly in Anglo-Saxon words, others mostly in Latin words. Some of them only talk in sentence fragments, or avoid nouns almost entirely. ("Gone to war. Won't be back." He looked at his feet. "Sorry to break the bad news.") It's a disaster if your main character talks the same as all your other characters — but it's also pretty terrible if all the supporting cast speak the same way. One dirty shortcut is to hear the voice of a particular actor or famous person in your head, as one character talks. (In my current novel in progress, I have one person who speaks with the voice of Ricardo Montalban. In my head. I'm hoping this isn't going to look too pathetically obvious in the finished product.)
4) Avoid making them paragons of virtue, or authorial stand-ins.
People who have no flaws are automatically boring, and thus forgettable. And there's nothing worse than a character who is obviously the voice of the author, or a way for the author to wander into the story and interact with the other characters. (This is another reason to make sure your characters all have a distinctive way of speaking — that makes it much less likely that one of them will seem like your mouthpiece.) You can solve both these problems by giving a supporting character a real, identifiable flaw, that threatens to make him unsympathetic but winds up making him more sympathetic in the end. Any character who has foibles, or bad habits, or destructive urges, will always stand out more than one who is pure and wonderful in all ways. And nobody will believe that you've chosen to identify yourself, as the author, with someone who's so messed up. (Because of course, you are a perfect human being, with no flaws of your own.)
5) Anchor them to a particular place
This sounds like a no-brainer — after all, the main reason you need this annoying supporting cast in the first place is, to help with the worldbuilding and stuff. But once you've got your world and you're populating it with random characters, it's all too easy to have them float around with no particular location to call their own. Like, they just hang out on the street, at the corner of Nondescript and Dull. And then the next time you see them, they're out in the forest, near that tree, with the leaves and the branches. (You know the one.) A huge part of making a supporting character "pop" is placing her somewhere. Give her a haunt — some place she hangs out a lot. A tavern, a bar, an engine room, a barracks, a dog track, wherever. It works both ways — by anchoring a character in a particular location, you make both the character and the location feel more real.
6) Introduce them twice — the first time in the background, the second in the foreground.
This is a trick I've been experimenting with. You mention a character in passing: "And Crazy Harriet was there too, chewing on her catweed like always." And you say more about them. And then later, the next time we see that character, you give more information or detail, like where she scores her catweed from. The reader will barely remember that you mentioned the character the first time — but it's in the back of the reader's mind, and there's a little "ping" of identification. It feels like you've seen someone at a party or in a group of friends, and then later you had a conversation with them. It creates a sense of familiarity, when you vaguely remember that you've heard about this character before, and now they're suddenly in focus. (Oh, and by the way, catweed is called that because it makes a "meow" noise when you chew on it.)
7) Focus on what they mean to your protagonists
Again, it sounds like a no-brainer — but this is easy to forget. You're so in love with your world, and with all of the characters and how they interact, that you can rathole. But your main characters are your readers' way into the world — and what matters to your protagonists matters to your readers. (If you've done your protagonist-crafting right, anyway.) We don't care what Blind Simeon thinks of Randolph the Grifter, nearly as much as what your viewpoint character thinks of both of them. (Of course, sometimes having one minor character talk about another can tell you something interesting about both of them.) What does this minor character mean to your hero? What role does he fulfill? What does your hero want or need from Randolph the Grifter? If you know what your hero finds memorable about Randolph, then you're a long ways towards finding what your readers will remember, too.
8) Give them an arc — or the illusion of one.
Arcs are hard. But faking an arc is easy. Writers on television do it all the time. Shakespeare did it all the time, too — read Henry IV, Part 2 and look for Hal's arc. You can create the appearance of an arc by establishing that a character feels a particular way — and then, a couple hundred pages later, you mention that now the character feels a different way. Admiral Hargroves hated children on page 100, but on page 400 he suddenly likes children. We don't get to see Admiral Hargroves' attitudes evolve, or even necessarily find out what changed his mind — we just know that over the course of the story, Admiral Hargroves has been having a whole mental process about children. That's all a fake arc needs: a starting point and an end point. A minor character who changes in some way is automatically more interesting than one who remains constant — even if we take it on trust that Admiral Hargroves wasn't just brainwashed by a cabal of evil children with a brainwashing ray. (Or maybe that's a plus — your readers can construct "evil children" conspiracy theories and mine your text for clues.)
9) The more minor the character, the more caricature-like they may have to be.
This one is debatable — you may be a deft enough author that you can create a hundred characters, all of whom are fully fleshed out, well-rounded human beings with full inner lives. But again, think of Dickens — many of his supporting cast are, frankly, cartoons. Henry Fielding also comes to mind, and so does Douglas Adams. To some extent, this is a stylistic choice, too — some writing styles simply can't support or abide cartoony minor characters. But for your third ensign, who appears for a grand total of two pages, on page 147 and page 398, you may have to go for cartoony if you want him to live in the reader's mind as anything other than a piece of scenery. The other alternative is...
10) Decide which supporting characters you'll allow to be forgettable after all.
And this is probably inevitable. You only have so much energy, and your readers only have so much mental space. Plus, if 100 supporting characters are all vivid and colorful and people your readers want to go bowling with, then your story runs the risk of seeming overwritten and garish. Sometimes you need to resign yourself to the notion that some characters are going to be extras, or that they're literally going to fulfill a plot function without having any personality to speak of. It's a major sacrifice they're making, subsuming their personality for the sake of the major players' glory. And maybe, if your book hits a home run, you can reward them for their selflessness by giving them a beefed-up role in the sequel. Or at least, that's what you can tell them while you exploit their thankless dedication. You selfish bastard.