The psychology of world building

Use these tips and exercises to make any story come to life on the page.

Layer 2: The supporting cast

Your protagonist is not the only character who affects the world of your story. The supporting cast also plays a part because they influence your main character and that character’s journey. If the protagonist is the character who drives the story forward, then the supporting characters exist primarily to support the development of that main character. This is why we call them supporting characters and not “side” or “secondary” characters. They may not be the central focus, but these characters still serve an important purpose in your story.

The supporting cast can influence your story’s world building in many ways, but the two most common are either by helping to establish the status quo or by shaking it up. Supporting characters who are allies to your protagonist (e.g., friends and family) often help to establish what’s considered “normal” in your story’s world. For example, in the opening chapter of The Hunger Games, the author brings the world of Panem to life via interactions Katniss has with her best friend, Gale, as well as her mother and sister. These scenes give us a baseline for how that world works, so that when Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place during the reaping scene, we know things are now going to be very different.

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At the opposite extreme, we also have supporting characters whose job is to shake up your protagonist’s world and create obstacles. These are often villains, but they can also be allies of your main character. Continuing with our Hunger Games example, President Snow is the classic super-villain of the series but, interestingly enough, we see little of him early in the trilogy. Instead, Katniss’ enemies in the first book are the career tributes she must defeat in order to survive. It is only in the later books that President Snow becomes a more visible and prominent enemy. Right away, it’s easy for readers to root against the career tributes who are trying to kill Katniss in the arena, but it’s much harder for us to despise the far-away super-villain who has helped maintain that unfair system for his own selfish ends. Only after Katniss has emerged as victor from the Games does it makes sense for this super-villain to become more present in the story.

Exercise: follow a supporting character off-stage. Choose a supporting character, follow him or her “off stage,” and explore some aspect of this character’s life that would not appear in your actual story. Craft a full-length scene where you show the supporting character’s experience from his or her perspective.

When you get to know your supporting cast more deeply, it will inform how these characters relate to your protagonist. What you discover through this exercise can ripple out to other scenes in your manuscript where this supporting character appears. As you explore these new facets to your supporting cast, consider the roles these characters play in your protagonist’s life. Do these characters help to establish the status quo of your story’s world? Or is their primary job to create conflict and make life more difficult for your protagonist? Your supporting cast not only helps enrich the development of your protagonist’s character, but they can also help make the story’s world more vivid and engaging.