What are the best types of supporting characters that can create a better protagonist?
Most great stories have a strong protagonist, often accompanied by a well-conceived antagonist — a character that works in opposition to the protagonist's wants, needs, and goals.
But the most overlooked characters are those that reinforce the stories between the two — supporting characters.
Many pundits point to sidekicks, best friends, love interests, henchmen, underlings, mentors, and comic relief characters as archetypes for supporting characters that writers need to use to fill up any given story. But there are three broad types of supporting characters that writers can categorize those specific individuals under. And those types are necessary to create a better protagonist.
Here we share the three types of supporting characters that are necessary within any story to help create a better protagonist. And when you have a better protagonist, your story prospers even more.
This goes beyond the supporting character tag. Supporters are those that, well, support the protagonist.
Almost every protagonist needs someone to support them throughout their emotional and physical journeys. Often referred to as caregivers, supporters exist to help the protagonist through the conflicts that they are dealing with, while often offering a moral and ethical base to keep the protagonist honest and on par with their true character.
Without them, we don't get a chance to understand what's going on within the mind of the hero. In novels, you can explore that element through inner dialogue and inner thoughts. But as a screenwriter, you don't have that luxury. Everything needs to be on the screen. Yes, narration and voiceover are tools that screenwriters can use effectively to service the story and the character, as long as they aren't being used as a crutch.
Read ScreenCraft's 15 Movies Screenwriters Should Watch to Study Narration and Voiceover!
But supporters and caregivers offer chances to challenge the protagonist's decisions and reactions. And we get to learn about their inner and outer character arcs through the exchanges between them and their support crew.
There’s a purpose for this type of supporting character in every story. In some genres, they can be the comic relief, offering moments of levity in otherwise dire situations. In other genres, they’re just as important as the protagonist in the big scheme of cinematic stories. The protagonist relies on their friendship — sometimes even when they lose sight of that bond if the conflicts or temptations they face in their journey steer them away.
Where would Harry Potter be without Ron and Hermione?
Where would Frodo be without Sam, Pippin, and Merry?
Where would Maverick be without Goose and Charlie?
Where would Indiana Jones be without Marcus, Sallah, and Short Round?
These types of supporting characters create a better protagonist.
So take a look at your screenplay's cast of characters and ask yourself, "Do I have enough supporters?"
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Yes, the antagonist within your story is the ultimate individual that challenges the protagonist. But a single antagonizer isn't enough.
The best screenplays are full of conflict at every turn of the page. Conflict is what drives the story, the plot, and the protagonist. So you have to do your due diligence to throw as much conflict at the protagonist as possible. Antagonizers aren't always necessarily bad guys. Yes, you can use them in the form of henchmen and such, but they can often just provide a way to anger, alienate, estrange, annoy, provoke, offend, aggravate, irritate, rile, or vex the protagonist in any way, shape, or form.
They can challenge the protagonist by questioning their choices, which reveals more character depth for the protagonist as we watch them maneuver through these disagreements, arguments, debates, and character tests. They can make the protagonist question their own worth and skills. They can make them feel alienated and alone.
They are basically the antithesis of the supporters — which helps to balance the effects the conflict has on the protagonist.
Harry Potter had to deal with Malfoy and his gang.
Frodo had to deal with many different types of antagonizers, big and small.
Maverick had to deal with Ice Man, Slider, Jester, and Stinger.
Indiana Jones had to deal with Belloq, the Nazis, and endless henchmen.
It's best to have as many different antagonizers as possible within your story. Some will only appear in a single scene, while others may take on a more significant role. Take a look at your screenplay and ask yourself, "Who is going to anger, alienate, estrange, annoy, provoke, offend, aggravate, irritate, rile, or vex your protagonist?"
Informers do just that — inform. They are the type of supporting character that helps move the story along by giving the protagonist information, inspiration, and informative guidance.
Teachers, mentors, wise men, gatekeepers, relic-holders, technicians, captured and interrogated antagonizers, and a bellyful of other examples are supporting characters that populate your script for the sole purpose of giving your protagonist information to drive the plot forward, and to offer them opportunities to reveal their arc by how they use that information.
Informers can come in the guise of supporters, antagonizers, or supporting characters that have no direct place within the protagonist's journey beyond having some form of information, inspiration, or informative guidance.
In Home Alone, Kevin's at-first scary neighbor gives him the inspiration that he needs to truly appreciate the family that he has lost.
In Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Maz helps to offer Rey insight into the Force.
In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Gandalf takes a more significant supporting character role, as both a supporter and an informer (in the form of a mentor), much like Ben Kenobi does for Luke in the original Star Wars.
While it's good to have the protagonist be proactive within the story by finding necessary information on their own, the best stories — dating back to mythology — offer the protagonist reveals, revelations, and discoveries from supporting characters they meet along the way.
Review your script and see if there are opportunities to present information, inspiration, and informative guidance through compelling and engaging interactions with informers.
As you go through your story, always be aware of who your supporters, antagonizers, and informers are. If you can't find them or don't have enough of them, create them. If you can't tell what category a supporting character falls under, find ways to define the role they play within the protagonist's story.
And if you have characters that aren't supporters, antagonizers, or informers, maybe they don't need to be in the story at all. This designation process for your supporting characters can be used as a tool to make sure all of the characters present within the script have a purpose. For those that don't, you've just saved yourself prime script real estate in the form of script pages.
It's good to be aware of who your supporting characters are and what purpose they serve within the context of the story. And the supporting characters you surround your protagonist with opens up many more doors for additional character depth and arc.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures. He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies