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Support characters


Disciplines > Storytelling > Characters > Support characters

Defining the support character | Support characters | See also


Defining the support character

Support characters, as oppose to other characters, are motivated in some way towards helping the hero on the quest.

As many of us put ourselves first, at least in some key respects, it can be suspicious when one person dedicate themselves to another, perhaps even unto death. But prosocial behavior does happen and love does not have to be sexual or gender-based. Support characters typically gain support for their sense of identity through association with the Hero.


Support characters

There are many characters who can play in a support role. Here are just a few...

The Party

Although not a single support character, the Hero is often aided by a group of people who form the Party (the Gang, the Companionship, etc).

The Party may be highly cohesive, with a single and clear aim, or may be a relatively collective who work together because of some mutual benefit, from safety to dislike of the villain. a False Party may be formed where characters work together to find a treasure, whilst each seeks to deceive the other at the last minute to carry the treasure away for themself.

The Party is often made up of complementary characters, each of whom contributes something to the story. Although they may be heroic, typically none of these is as brave or skilled as the main Hero, thus highlighting the Hero's remarkable qualities.

If we do not identify well with the Hero, the Party gives us a choice of support characters with which to associate.

The Faithful Companion

The Faithful Companion dedicates themself to supporting the main character, who they define as superior in some way. They often feel honored to be in the place they are, with the opportunity to support a great person.

In the Lord of the Rings, Samwise Gamgee is an archetypal Faithful Companion, carrying Frodo on his back when Frodo is unable to work and even staying faithful when Frodo rails unkindly against him.

Companions gain much of the esteem from the reflected glory of the Hero and knowledge that they have contributed in ways that perhaps others do not. They are grateful for the position of trust and will never betray the Hero, even under severe duress.

In stories, we admire the complete integrity of the Faithful Companion and perhaps envy the Hero such unstinting support.

The Friend

The Friend is not as attached to the Hero as the Faithful Companion, but will nevertheless put themselves out significantly in the name of Friendship.

In the Lord of the Rings, Merry and Pippin are very good friends of Frodo, but do not have the dedicated closeness of Sam.

We often associate more easily with Friends than with Companions, as this is a more common role that we play. It reassures us that we can indeed have a place in an adventure story that is close to the heroic role.

The Ordinary Person

Help comes from many places and Ordinary People, who are often bystanders in the main plot can provide unexpected and significant support.

Most ordinary people have decent values and, when asked to help a good cause will help perhaps even beyond what might reasonably be expected.

Many of the the main characters in stories may start out as Ordinary People and, through character development and trial take on other roles. Many Heroes, in fact, start out as Ordinary People.

More than perhaps all other characters, the Ordinary Person represents us. We associate with them, then as they offer increasing support we a vicariously proud of their actions.

The Father

The Father has the archetypal role of Protector. He may also take on roles of Teacher, helping the person learn to live in the new world of grown-up adventure.

The Father, particularly for a male, is often the target of Oedipal envy and adolescent revolt and some villains may have a father element to them. For a female, the father plays the Protector role for much longer (though may also have some ambiguity, being an 'unattainable male').

When the Hero is older, the Father may add wisdom or perhaps even be a bit bumbling, such as the role played by Sean Connery in the Indiana Jones movies.

The Mother

The mother is the archetypal Nurturer, providing kind and thoughtful support that asks nothing in return.

The Mother is the earliest carer in a person's life and has deep and original significance. For a male she represents early desire and loss (through the Oedipus Complex). For the female, she may be both Companion and Friend, against whom males (including the Father) are a separated species.

Parent figures thus have deep psychoanalytic meaning and tug at ancient neonatal memories.

The Kin

Beyond parents, blood ties leech off through siblings, grandparents, cousins and so on. The critical aspect of Kin is that there is a duty of care on both sides. Cousins are not supposed to fight one another. Aged grandparents must be cared for, whilst their wisdom is listened to and preserved.

Stories thus may include both the good support that comes from Kin and the obligations fulfilled to Kin. Stories may also come from Kin actions that are non-supportive, such as family feuds and family members who take different paths in life. 

The Nurturer

The role of the Nurturer is to provide emotional support to the Hero, who may well be suffering significant stress during the adventure. Within a party, the Nurturer provides general support to others and helps to keep up the general spirit. When anyone is ill or depressed, the Nurturer will be there to help them.

This role may be played by a Mother or other Kin, such as a sister. It can also be played by a Companion or Friends. A Leader may take on Nurturing if it is needed.

In stories, we are grateful to the Nurturer for providing much-needed support and humanity in what may sometimes become an inhuman trial.

The Teacher

The Teacher helps the Hero learn and develop the knowledge and skills needed to complete the adventure. The Teacher may thus be a swordmaster, a Thinker, a Magician or other.

The Teacher help the Hero and party grow and develop and hence become three-dimensional characters. They often take the form of an old man, such as Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars or Gandalf in Lord of the Rings. In a reversal, an Innocent can also take on the Teacher role.

As observers, we also may learn from the Teacher and this may well be intentional on the part of the storyteller. It can be easier to learn from characters in a story than be criticized for our own actions. Stories thus can form very useful teaching tales.

The Thinker

The Thinker provides the brain-power for the Hero and the party, alerting them to unthought-of issues and finding solutions to tricky puzzles. They 'un-stick' the plot when everything seems lost, finding ways forward that nobody else could credibly find.

Thinkers may be academic geniuses who seem to live on another planet or they may be pragmatic and hands-on practitioners whose knowledge and ability is based on a long experience. Sometimes they are the Hero, as in Sherlock Holmes and sometimes they act in a support role.

Thinkers help us sometimes as an effective Teacher (a role which they may also take on), showing what was not obvious. Stories may be a series of puzzles that we are invited to resolve, such as detective stories. When we find the solution ahead of the Thinker, we may be rightfully delighted.

The Doer

In contrast to the Thinker, the Doer is an all-action person who acts first and worries about the consequences later.

Heroes are often Doers, leading the main action of the story. Doers may also be Warriors or other action-oriented roles. They also may give opportunity for lessons around thinking before acting as they get themselves into unwise scrapes.

As observers of the story, we are grateful for the Doers who provide action, heroics and comedy. It is through their actions that the plot gathers pace and interesting things happen.

The Doubter

The Doubter expresses uncertainty about some aspect of the quest, whether it is the skills of the Hero, the validity of information received or the overall likelihood of success.

The Hero or others in the party may go through a period of doubt as they consider the size of the challenge ahead. This validates doubt as an expression of humanity and gives reality to their struggle, making their final conquest even more heroic.

Doubters have a role in highlighting the virtue of those who never lose faith in the Hero or the quest. In the New Testament of the Bible, 'Doubting Thomas' plays this role.

The Doubter may well reflect our uncertainty as to whether the task may be achieved or the validity of other incredulous aspects of the story. Their expression of doubt, however, allows these fears to be allayed as others in the party can then explain why they will succeed.

The Giver

The Giver, also known as the Donor or Provider, has some knowledge or artefact that they give to the Hero or some other member of the party. The gift takes the story a step closer to conclusion as now the Hero has some tool by which the next stage of the quest may be completed or which may be used in defeating the Villain.

The role of Giver may be taken by other characters, such as the Teacher, a parent or Friend. It may also be a neutral character, such as the Guardian who gives the Hero a special weapon after the Hero completes a particular sub-quest.

We are grateful to Givers although they may not play a significant role in the story. Unless they are main characters, their time is transitory. Nevertheless, they mark transition points and often occur at pauses in the action, for example in Lord of the Rings where Frodo is given information about the future by Galadriel.

The Joker

The Joker provides humorous elements and light relief to the story through mischief, joking and other antics. As such, they offer rest points at which we can release some tension before the next stage of the story winds us up again.

In Lord of the Rings, Merry (note the name) and Pippin, with their enduring sense of fun, provide relief between the major battles and other action scenes.

The Joker can be an ambiguous character, such as Shakespeare's Puck, perhaps acting more as a traditional Fool or having a darker side. 

The Protector

The Protector serves to keep someone or something safe, guarding it at all costs (and, as such, is related to the Guardian). Typically, the Protector is the primary Warrior in the party or may be assigned to a vulnerable character such as the Maiden.

The Protector is often sympathetic as they remind of the Father figure who will keep the child in us safe from harm.

The Magician

The Magician performs feats that we have no way of explaining. These may be deft illusions, technological marvels or may involve 'true' magic, depending on the story and the form of magic allowed.

In some ways, the Magician represents hope and rescue, as their seemingly infinite powers can be deployed to save any situation. To keep the story tense, the Magician often has limitations as to the use or effectiveness of their power.

The Organizer

Some stories are wreathed in chaos, rather than being a simple A-follows-B sequence. In such tales a key role is the Organizer, who creates order from disorder, structure from random uncertainty. Organizers also enact simpler tasks, such as managing the logistics of the journey. Organizing can come in many shapes, for example detectives such as Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes organize knowledge.

The Organizer can be a major role, depending on the story, but often is not. The task may also be taken on by one of the party, typically the Faithful Companion or a Friend.

Although not necessarily a major role, the Organizer adds credibility to a story, anchoring it in the real world and helping to join up the dots of the story.

The Witness

The Witness can play a key role in stories where they observe from a neutral position and are hence arbiters of the truth. Without prejudice, they say what they see and are not influenced by social bias or influence.

In the story of the Emperor's New Clothes, the little boy takes on the role of Witness when he is the only one to declare that the Emperor is naked. In doing so, the adults are permitted to also talk about this. The Witness thus legitimizes honesty.

When the Witness writes down what they see, they become historians and archivists. When they tell what has happened, they become storytellers and narrators. They may even be a disembodied voice that tells the main story and comments on the action.

The Conscience

The Conscience of the party acts to remind them of their values and of generally held social norms and ethics. This can be particularly significant in stories where achieving the goals of the story involves shady dealings and harm of others, perhaps even innocent bystanders.

When the Conscience speaks, people may feel guilty, but they do usually listen and the audience is reminded how good the Hero and the party is. The Conscience may also highlight villainy by talking about how bad the Villains are.

It is not uncommon for the mission be prioritized above following all social values. In this case, the purpose of the Conscience is to remind the audience of the over-riding importance of achieving goals such that some values become secondary. 

The Turncoat Villain

Sometimes help comes from the most unexpected places and villains may provide help in some form or another, typically giving intelligence about the villain's plans, thus allowing the hero to avoid a trap or prepare for a significant confrontation.

The most common form of villainous support comes from one of the main villain's henchmen who conveniently acquires a conscience. Villains may also inadvertently offer support when they err or boast.

See also

Heroic characters, Villainous characters

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