3 Questions to Ask to Bring Stagnant Side Characters to Life

January 7, 2021

Characters are like a magnetic force that either pulls readers into the story or repels them. If they can identify with the cast, they’ll be more forgiving of other mistakes. But even a riveting plot, intriguing setting, and beautiful prose can’t save a story if the characters aren’t relatable. Readers need a reason to become emotionally invested, so all of your primary characters must be three-dimensional, not just your protagonist.


Unfortunately, you can fill out every questionnaire on Pinterest but still end up with a character who seems incomplete. You might be able to disguise this issue with a protagonist because her arc stretches across the entire novel, giving you extra opportunities to develop her. Side characters, however, get less page time, and understanding them poses both a challenge and an advantage. The answers to three simple questions can help you deepen them—whether you include all the information in your manuscript or not.


1. What Is the Character’s History?

Unless your side characters are infants, they’ll carry a collection of memories into the opening of the story. They’ll have gone through good and bad experiences that define who they are (and who they’ll become). Try free-writing about their pasts. What were their relationships with family and friends like? Which events shaped their beliefs and personalities?


Wonder by R. J. Palacio focuses on the first year of school for Auggie Pullman, a boy with facial deformities, but his sister and classmates also take turns narrating. Readers have the chance to explore the book’s themes of empathy and acceptance through each kid’s perspective, which lends a richness to Auggie’s struggles that would be absent otherwise. One such character is Miranda, a long-time friend of Auggie’s sister. Miranda felt lonely at summer camp one year and lied about having a little brother with facial deformities to gain sympathy. Auggie doesn’t know, so the only way the detail can be revealed is through her point of view.


In contrast, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby never ventures outside of Nick Carraway’s mind, yet his observations provide readers with subtle glimpses into the surrounding characters’ backgrounds. His description of Daisy Buchanan may not tell all, but it drops several hints: “Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright, passionate mouth—but there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget.” He continues the trend with George Wilson: “He was a blond, spiritless man, anaemic, and faintly handsome. When he saw us a damp gleam of hope sprang into his light blue eyes.” Nick doesn’t explain how George fell into depression or why his eyes light up in this moment. The goal is to make readers curious.


2. What Is the Character’s Motivation?

We all have inner longings that drive our actions, and the same should be true of side characters. If your sidekick assists the hero without desiring any reward for his effort, you’ve created a minion from Despicable Me. To turn him into a complex human being, figure out what he wants, what’s at stake if he pursues it, and what affect both will have on the plot. Once you’ve filled in those blanks, you’ll have a pattern to base the sidekick’s behavior on. As a bonus, you can stir up interpersonal conflict through any motivations that your characters don’t share.


Jean Valjean, the protagonist in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, relentlessly searches for redemption from his crimes while Javert, a fanatical police inspector, vows to recapture him. As Valjean runs from Javert, he encounters many other characters, each with their own distinct values. Fantine works under horrible conditions to protect and provide for her young daughter, Cosette. During childhood, Cosette is loyal to Valjean, but as an adult, her attraction to Marius takes control. Marius is equally impassioned by his love for Cosette but also politics as he fights in the French Revolution. None of these facts are telegraphed. Instead, Hugo subtly shows his characters’ motivations through their actions and conversations.


3. What Purpose Does the Character Serve in the Plot?

If something doesn’t enhance your story—whether a chapter, scene, sentence, or word—you should cut it. Characters aren’t any exception. When unnecessary characters tug the plot in multiple directions, books become messy to follow, so you need to determine why each character exists to begin with.


What does a side character’s presence achieve? If you remove her, would anything important change? How do her actions impact other characters? If you can easily answer these questions, she has a purpose. If you can’t, reevaluate her role and consider deleting or combining her with another character.


In Lord of the Flies by William Golding, a plane crash strands a group of schoolboys on a deserted island, and each one portrays a different facet of humanity. Because of this, all of the characters are fascinating and none of them are unessential. Ralph, the chosen leader, strives to maintain order, making him a symbol of civility. Jack, a rebel, forms a clique of hunters along with his righthand man, Roger. Both are examples of savagery. Piggy, who offers intelligent suggestions to Ralph, represents rationality. The twins, Sam and Eric—also collectively called Samneric—personify general society because they follow the people in power. And the youngest boys, whose choices are governed by fear rather than right and wrong, embody ignorance. When circumstances throw these opposing personalities together, tension is the result, and it pushes the plot forward.


Creating a Complete Character

You probably noticed that I cited different books to support my points. Each title, though a good example in its respective category, falls short in others. One might delve into the motivations and pasts of its side characters without connecting them to the plot. Another might contain side characters who have been meticulously designed to influence the plot yet lack backstories.


This proves that you don’t have to cover all three areas to write a compelling story. You just need to be able to slice through the noise to hear your characters’ innermost voices. You can either look at character questionnaires through the lens of these questions, or you can free-write instead. But remember that no matter what method you use, it won’t be successful unless you know your characters. So stop building and start learning.


  1. Julie P.

    This was so helpful. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Rachel L.

    Super helpful! Have been struggling with one of my side characters recently, so I will definitely be putting this into practice!


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