While many films include archetypal supporting characters, these molds are a little worn out. The audience is getting smarter and more curious. They crave more than the all-too-familiar “mentor” or “sidekick” as a way to convey information or to push the protagonist forward. Watching to see what a supporting character is capable of by themselves and how they relate to the main character, is much more interesting. Writing supporting characters that build conflict creates much more dynamic on-screen relationships than tired old tropes. But before we jump into all of that, let’s answer what is a supporting character the best way we know how.
Defining Supporting Characters
First, let’s define supporting character
All great stories have at least one protagonist and one antagonist with opposite goals and desires that create the initial conflict. Supporting characters are responsible for reinforcing the narratives that exist between the protagonist and the antagonist.
Supporting Character Definition
What is a supporting character?
A supporting character is a character who isn’t the main focus in the story but instead supports the protagonist in to ultimately help them achieve their goal, have a transformation, or move the story forward. They can exist as many different kinds of characters. Common archetypes have often been used to describe each supporting character’s purpose. And of course, the supporting characters themselves could be antagonistic. Some of these archetypes are helpful to get the writer thinking of the purpose of each one of the characters.
Common Archetypes for Supporting Characters:
- Supporters (the care giver, the best friend or sidekick, the fool or comic relief, the love interest, etc.)
- Those that provide information (the mentor, the prophet, the wise men, teachers, etc.)
- Antagonists are also support (the henchmen, the nemesis, even a love interest, etc.)
Supporting characters can be developed as much or as little as needed. Though the most realistic and enjoyable characters are those that have full back stories with fully formed goals, desires, and needs.
In fact, the supporting characters are, well, there to support the lead. So without them, the narrative would fall apart. And if that’s not the case, then it’s likely those characters may not need to be in the story at all.
As an example, look at the characters in Harry Potter — it’s hard to imagine the story without Ron and Hermione. It’s hard to imagine who Harry would become without Ron and Hermione. They’re integral to the story.
Ron and Hermione exist within two kinds of character archetypes — Ron being the comic-relief/fool while Hermione is a kind of caregiver. But because their individual characters and friendship is so developed, they often oscillate between support and antagonism for Harry.
And the best kinds of supporting characters are the ones that cross archetypal lines. By nature of being a fully developed character, the nuances naturally break the mold of the archetype.
Supporting Character Archetypes
Get to know the archetypes
Archetypes aren’t a bad thing in the general sense. They’re helpful when we’re trying to convey information to our audience. They can even help us with understanding a character’s purpose for being in the story.
Maybe exploring a trope will lead you down a creative path to subvert the predictable. Or you may discover a brand new version of a character you didn’t think existed. A character that isn’t perfect but perfectly supports your lead.
Let’s start with the ultimate supporting characters — the ones that really support the main character, i.e. the caregiver or the best friend.
- The caregiver
- The best friend/sidekick
- The love interest
- The fool/comic relief
They typically provide emotional support or act as the protagonist’s voice of reason. Our character archetype series includes the video below exploring “the caregiver” and how it’s used in contemporary cinema and TV.
When we look at someone like Sam from Lord of the Rings — we get a caregiver in the truest sense — generous, empathetic, with an innate ability to anticipate the needs of Frodo.
In other instances this particular archetype is simply distinguished as “the best friend.” This support system can lend itself easily to comic-relief. Like in Get Out, how Rod is incredibly logical and warns him and the audience about what could happen. But he is also equally hilarious that gives context for their closeness and eventually Rod’s final decision at the end of the film.
Actually, while this archetype often appears useless in battle whether emotional or physical (like Sam in Game of Thrones), in the case of Get Out, this archetype was subverted a bit. Rod was able to turn off his fears, and take charge to save his best friend at the end of the film.
Many times this character is a victim, as it’s incredibly easy for the antagonist or villain to take advantage of this kind character. It’s an opportunity to show the audience just how far the antagonist will go and this can heighten tension as it shows exactly what the protagonist is up against.
Now this is compared to a character with a different purpose — like an antagonist. Or a character with a completely different goal than to be a supporter but instead to give information like a messenger or a teacher.
But there are of course blurred lines here.
These bulleted supporters could be antagonists too...
- The nemesis/henchmen
- The bully
- The skeptic
Everything that falls in this archetype is still a supporting character. They may not be lovingly supporting our main character, but without them, there wouldn’t be conflict so alas, there would be no story!
The antagonist challenges the protagonist simply because they have opposing goals. Or they have opposing views of how to reach the same goal. They exist to teach or to help our protagonist overcome something internally and externally.
While the love interest can be a supporter, they can also be an antagonist if they’re getting in the way of the protagonist achieving their goal. Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, may be Joel’s love interest and vice versa, but they are both the other one’s antagonists without question.
Well, it’s likely none of these archetypes inhibit a character in isolation — the majority of the time, in today’s stories, well written characters embody many facets of each of these archetypes.
What about the skeptic?
While the skeptic could be a supporter by being the voice of reason one minute, they could truly challenge the protagonist later with their pessimism.
Think of the animated film Inside Out. Sadness always tries to bring the mood down, and it impedes a lot of what Joy’s entire mission is — to make Riley happy. Here's a collection of Sadness' best moments.
But at the same time, she’s also supporting Joy by the very nature of her skepticism. She allows Joy to see a new side — that life can’t exist without sadness — both joy and sadness are needed. Which leads to the next kind of supporting character.
Providers of Information
- The Mentor/teacher
- The skeptic
In the same movie, Sadness remains the skeptic but moves from an antagonistic place to one where she’s teaching Joy something she needed to learn in order to have a transformation. Sadness became Joy’s teacher.
The mentor, teacher, or prophet serves to provide information to the audience and protagonist that either inspire a transformation, teach something, or move the story forward in some way.
Again, of course love interests, skeptics, and funny best friends could also become your lead’s teacher. The interplay between archetypes is the most fun to watch on screen as it creates more nuanced and dynamic relationships that we actually care about.
These could be so deeply embedded in us from what we’ve seen or read in the past, we may unconsciously write to a stereotype without noticing. But understanding how archetypal lines blur especially for supporting characters, is a great tool to try out in your own writing.
Character Development w/ Worksheet
In the next post, we’ll show you how to write stronger characters that pop off the page. Ones that aren’t limited to "one size fits all" archetype. Stories cannot exist without characters. Events are meaningless until we measure a character’s relationship to it. We’ve laid some helpful tips out which also includes an in-depth character development worksheet for you to get started writing today.