2 Errors that Can Sabotage Your Side Characters (and How to Avoid Them)

December 28, 2020

When my children were growing up, they performed in the theater. Occasionally they earned starring roles, but more often than not, they played side characters. That didn’t stop them from trying to steal the show, however. Their facial expressions became more animated during group scenes, or they delivered their lines with extra drama. Since their antics amped up the audience’s reaction, sometimes the director overlooked their schemes. But, in other moments, she stepped in to remind them where the focus needed to remain—on the lead.

 

As authors, we face the same issues with our own side characters. If we’ve fully fleshed them out, they’ll spring to life and form their own ideas about whose story we’re telling. Then we have two choices: allow them to run wild or keep them in check. Either way, we need them.

 

I mean, let’s be honest. We adore our heroes. But we hold their sidekicks in high esteem too. Think about all the famous duos in fiction and film:

 

  • Chewbacca revved up Hans Solo’s stardom.
  • Samwise ringed in Frodo, keeping him grounded.
  • Logically speaking, Spock supported Captain Kirk.
  • It’s no mystery that Dr. Watson served Sherlock Holmes well.
  • Huckleberry Finn gave Tom Sawyer street credit.
  • Igor made a monstrous impact on Dr. Frankenstein.
  • Haymitch set aside his own inner turmoil to help Katniss deal with hers.
  • Mercutio won hearts while Romeo wooed Juliet.

So why do side characters exist? To be cute or snarky mascots? The real reason, as author Crystal Caudill explains, is much deeper: “Relationships affect decisions. Just like we need people in our lives to push us, our protagonists need other characters in their lives to help them grow and change.”

 

A story with an isolated protagonist would be a chore to write and read. As Crystal pointed out, interactions with others serve a purpose. The characters who surround your protagonist should all have a significant role within his arc—you just have to identify what it is. Maybe they…

 

  • bring comic relief to a heavy tale (or multiply the humor in a light tale).
  • reveal the rough hero’s vulnerable side.
  • offer insights that no one else can.
  • draw out the best or the worst in the protagonist.
  • motivate the hero to succeed.
  • provide a shoulder to cry on so readers can glimpse the hero’s heart.

Popular literature contains numerous examples of side characters who strengthen the protagonist instead of being a distraction. In all the Sherlock Holmes stories, Dr. Watson asks questions that readers are probably wondering about. His curiosity not only nudges the plot forward, it also gives Sherlock opportunities to display his keen awareness and intelligence. In Lord of the Rings, the beloved Samwise Gamgee has simple needs, and though he talks little, all of his dialogue is pivotal in shaping Frodo. He never strays from loyalty to his friend, nor does he shrink from danger. His gritty determination protects and encourages Frodo, enabling him to fulfill his mission. Instead of claiming the spotlight, Samwise aims it on Frodo. 

 

Author Heather Kauffman adroitly sums up the power of side characters: “I believe it’s the interplay between the main and the side characters—the way they support and illuminate one another—that adds nuance to the story and makes it feel believable.”

 

Evaluate your own work-in-progress. How do your side characters influence both the protagonist and readers? If you removed them from the story, how would their absence impact the plot? Once you determine why they belong, you can tailor their personality traits accordingly. Understanding what makes them unique will also help you fix two common mistakes that can undermine your hard work at building a cast of relatable characters.

 

Pitfall #1: The Clone

When I was younger, the opening chapters of a fantasy novel (which I won’t name here) hooked me. It wasn’t just the quest. I fell in love with the company of elves, dwarves, sorceresses, and warriors.

 

At least at first.

 

As the tale progressed, the characters lost their distinctiveness. Soon, without a tag, I couldn’t distinguish one speaker from another. All five of the main characters could have been blended into one, and a conversation between them felt like a monologue. Although I finished reading the series (yes, I’m that dedicated), to this day, I can’t pinpoint a single memorable side character from it.

 

You can prevent cloning with a simple tip shared by Danielle Harrington, author of The Unseen Ones: “Base your side characters on real people you know. I’m serious. It’s the easiest way to create realistic characters. You don’t have to write a carbon copy of someone in your life, but use them as a template. How do they talk? What quirks do they have? How do they react when they’re stressed? Happy? Sad? Angry? By using other people, you have a framework that allows you to write characters that feel real. The success of a story hinges on the reader connecting with the supporting cast just as much as the main character.”

 

I have one word of caution, though: don’t use a real person as inspiration if the only detail you fictionalize is their name. That could set you up for a case of libel. Instead, take the traits or quirks that you need from different sources and fuse them together with a dash of imagination. When I needed a perky coworker who would pull my protagonist out of his depression, I borrowed the cheerful disposition of a friend, paired it with the relentless concern of my mother, and added a touch of my own flirt. The resulting character fit my intent perfectly.

 

What if you don’t know anyone similar to the character you want to create? I believe you can still employ Danielle’s strategy by becoming a people watcher. That might sound creepy, but grab a notebook, settle into a coffee shop or busy park, and observe everyone around you. What you learn about human nature can bring authenticity to your characters. I guess that popular writer meme is true: “Be careful, or you might end up in my story!”

 

Pitfall #2: The Takeover

I’m part of an amazing critique group that meets once a week to swap stories. I often receive comments like “Emily is my favorite character” and “I love Kayla” (from my chapter book series), which makes me worry that my sidekicks are too prominent.

 

I’m not the only author who struggles with attention-seeking side characters. Hope Bolinger, author of Dear Hero, says, “You give these characters larger-than-life personalities. And like the diva actors they are, they want more screen time. They’ll find a way to sneak themselves in.”

 

This presents a dilemma that’s both frustrating and exhilarating. Endearing side characters can enhance a story, but they can also tug readers’ emotions in unexpected directions. In Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series—a romance between a vampire and a human girl—the lesser love interest, Jacob, won the hearts of many readers (mine included). His likability polarized the audience so that Bella and Edward’s eventual wedding disappointed several readers. (Still, that situation seemed to benefit Meyer. The rivalry between Team Jacob and Team Edward meant wide media exposure and a slew of merchandising opportunities.)   

 

On the flip side, when side characters have the freedom to wander across boundaries, sometimes magic happens. In Loving Isaac, Kauffman let one side character go rogue. “I almost cut Julie’s character right out of the story, but then something interesting happened. My main character, Hana, had a strong reaction to her that piqued my interest. When Julie entered a room, Hana freaked out, and I had to find out why. In exploring the ‘why,’ not only was the story enriched, but I discovered new depths to Hana.”

 

When one of your side characters threatens to dominate the story, explore the whys behind her behavior. Examine the pros and cons of additional screen time. Then decide whether to trim and contain her or embrace and grow her.

 

After analyzing my two latest manuscripts, I didn’t restrain the side characters from hamming it up. While neither one drives the plot, they gently prod the hero toward his goal and, more importantly, introduce a ton of comic relief. With characters of less consequence, I either combined them or limited their exposure. Like wiseman number three in a Christmas play, they do their parts, then fade.

 

A Place for Every Character, and Every Character in Their Place

Although my children have left the stage behind, I still watch videos of their performances. Even if someone else was the lead, they put 100 percent into their roles, and their contributions—costumes, chorus, one-liners—allowed the stars to shine all the brighter. Sweeter yet, they delighted the audience.

 

Let’s do the same with our manuscripts and create side characters that our stories can’t thrive without. Giving special consideration to their purpose and personalities is the first step to developing an authentic and invaluable supporting cast.

2 Comments

  1. Katie W.

    I enjoyed this reflection on side characters, Lori! I definitely smiled over your description of your children’s theatrical experiences. I can recall similar schemes from my own childhood theater days (my improvisational antics as one of four Wicked Stepsisters, for example…).

    Your article got me thinking about some of my favorite books (such as “Winnie-the-Pooh” and “Anna Karenina”) and who my favorite characters are in those books (not Winnie-the-Pooh or Anna Karenina, no disrespect to either). I do tend to favor side characters over main characters! Without going too far down a psychological rabbit trail, I wonder how much of that relates to my own life experiences: sometimes I get preoccupied with my “side character” role in other peoples’ life stories. I’m still figuring out how to be the main character in my own lived narrative. Perhaps I gravitate toward side characters in books because I resonate with that role, or perhaps it encourages me that every side character could be a main character in another story.

    I like your point about main characters needing side characters to help them grow. We are beings-in-relationship, and good stories often bring out that community element. I love how the Heather Kauffman quote you shared beautifully highlights so many important features of this relational component: interplay, illumination, support, nuance.

    As much as I love a good side character, I agree that it’s important not to let them take over the story. In a way, each of us has tiers or concentric circles of supporting characters in our lives and we are supporting characters for others in turn. Some of these occupy more space than others throughout our lives or during certain seasons of life. In a story, it makes sense that side characters would reflect those tiers and circles in the main character’s life as well.

    Your article is going to have me analyzing every story’s side characters from now on! 🙂

    Reply
    • Lori Z. Scott

      Wow, Katie, what an insightful comment. I’m glad the article spurred such thoughts. I’m like you– I often gravitate to the side character. (Eeyore was one of my favorites.)
      Thank you for sharing.

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