How to Give Supporting Characters Character

One of the chief complaints I’ve noticed in recent reviews on Amazon is flat one-dimensional side characters. There is a simple way to correct this problem.

All individuals are motivated by self-interest. A man–or a woman–will act in ways that serve his self-interest. In other words, all actions are self-enhancing. Even those actions we would class as charity to others are in some way serving the benefactors.

“I feel good about helping others. I help others so I can feel good about myself.”

While this might seem a bit cynical on the surface, understanding this principal is a vitally important part of the development of any and every character in your novel.

Susie goes on a diet. Susie loses ten pounds.

In simple diagram, you have the activity and the outcome, but you know nothing of the motivation. Why did Susie go on a diet?

Susie wants to date Butch, the high school quarterback. Susie goes on a diet. Susie loses ten pounds.

Now we have motive, activity and outcome.

To extend this diagram a little further.

Susie wants to date Butch, the high school quarterback. Susie goes on a diet. Susie loses ten pounds. Butch asks her to the homecoming dance.

The diagram is now – motive, activity, outcome = satisfaction.

Susie wants to date Butch, the high school quarterback. Susie goes on a diet. Susie loses ten pounds. Butch asks Laura, Susie’s best friend to the homecoming dance.

The diagram is now – motive, activity, outcome = frustration.

Since this is a novel, we assume Susie isn’t giving up at the first roadblock. When she reaches frustration, she will choose another activity that will (presumably) give her the result she wants.

Susie steals her mother’s credit card to buy a designer dress, hoping to get noticed by Butch.

Ad infinitum.

So, each character should have a diagram. What is his or her motive? What does he or she do to get what he or she wants? What is the end result of that action?

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