From Dr. Watson to Samwise Gamgee to Jane Bennet, no beloved classic would be as engaging without side characters. They’re the protagonists of untold stories that thrive between the lines. But have beta readers ever confessed that they kept reading your manuscript only to see what happened to a side character? Although the protagonist was present, she fell flat beside her quirkier companion.
Your first instinct may be to jettison the hijacker, but a sidekick who grabs all the attention often indicates an underdeveloped protagonist. Isolating her will push her deficiencies to the forefront instead of turning her into a heroine readers will root for.
Before you attempt to tone down a side character, you need to amp up three aspects of your protagonist.
1. Give Your Protagonist Memorable Goals
I recently picked up a novel with a unique premise, but the protagonist lacked direction. As near as I could figure out, she seemed to be trying to maintain the status quo, an attitude that didn’t resonate with me. I kept waiting for the chapters involving the side character because I didn’t care about anything except the romantic subplot. Finally, after slogging through sixty percent of the content, I flipped to the end to learn whether they became a couple.
Readers want a protagonist they can connect with, not a pawn who moves at the mercy of the plot. Without needs, desires, and ideals to pursue, her actions will be meaningless. She won’t run into obstacles or grow. Because of that, if a secondary character has a well-defined arc, he’ll shift into the top position in readers’ imaginations. You can reset the two characters’ relationship by assigning a mission to your protagonist that her sidekick supports.
In the Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo vows to deliver the One Ring to Mordor, while his friend and gardener, Sam, aims to help him avoid death. Sam is arguably more endearing because he continually exemplifies hope and loyalty, but Frodo tethers readers to the forward movement of the quest. His fight against the Ring’s supernatural darkness provides a rich analogy for Christians, allowing Sam’s protective role to enhance rather than distract from the main story line.
2. Give Your Protagonist Relatable Flaws
Every hour of the day, human beings grapple with their sin natures. Unsurprisingly, readers empathize more with mistake-prone characters than paragons of virtue—because they’ve believed lies and surrendered to temptation too. Watching a character face challenge after challenge until she discards her old self is both encouraging and satisfying.
In the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, Captain Jack Sparrow deviates from his attempt to commandeer a ship so he can save a drowning woman. Although he intersperses his escapades with similar valiant acts, the cheeky captain has a conflicted moral compass that makes him unpredictable to the audience, his enemies, and even his crew. The crimes he is and isn’t willing to commit trigger problems and plot twists that separate him from the rest of the cast. He sells out Will Turner, divulges the British navy’s plans, and steals a cursed Aztec coin from under Barbossa’s nose.
Like Captain Jack, your protagonist needs to display a misguided conscience, relational issues, inexperience, or sometimes all of the above before she’ll seem real. Signpost her flaws along her arc and let each one lead to complications readers won’t expect.
You don’t have to limit a side character to being an accessory or a role model, however. Instead, layer him with strengths and weaknesses that complement the protagonist’s traits. For example, in Brandon Sanderson’s Elantris, Raoden arrives in a corrupted city, naïvely determined to improve it. He befriends Galladon, a pragmatic farmer who not only serves as a foil but also an ongoing reminder that Raoden’s optimism is essential to the citizens’ future. While Galladon can freely voice the skepticism that’s probably on readers’ minds, he never becomes a distraction. He deepens their hope for Raoden to beat the odds.
3. Give Your Protagonist Agency Over the Plot
If a side character keeps usurping your protagonist, maybe the solution is simpler than you realize: he belongs in the lead. Is he naturally more compelling? Is he instigating events? No wonder readers are gravitating to him! When a story flows around instead of with the protagonist, readers will feel like they’re tracking a log floating down a river. Why should they care about a chunk of wood and where it ends up? The river’s power and motion is much more fascinating.
Arthur Dent, who stars in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, survives the destruction of Earth, but rather than participating in his new environment, he’s dragged here and there. The technique works partly because of the humorous tone, but also because Arthur lends a human perspective to the nonsensical adventures. However, if you’re planning to write a character-driven story, a passive protagonist like him isn’t an option.
A protagonist’s choices should create cause-and-effect momentum that not only influences the plot but also her mental and emotional state. Although she may sweep surrounding characters into the mess too, she’ll always be forced to respond to the results of her own actions, which is the tension that draws readers in.
Keep Exploring Your Protagonist
Protagonists do the heavy lifting. They carry the scenes and endure the trials authors subject them to. Yet they often get relegated to being the least interesting characters. To add dimension to a flat protagonist, maybe you just need to renew your appreciation for her.
I recently tried an exercise where I inserted my protagonist into a handful of random situations—including a conversation with Aragorn and Legolas, which was a blast to write. My goal was not to use the scene (so no pressure) but to get to know my character better. Your protagonist probably has untapped potential too, so invent four or five opportunities for her to reveal who she is. Stage a battle, planet-hop, or have her bump into characters from another universe like I did. It’s just a snippet in time. No need to worldbuild or do any setup. If the experiment goes well, though, you might decide to sneak pieces of it into your manuscript.
Rachel Gilson has been writing stories since she found a dusty old typewriter buried in her parent’s basement at the age of nine. What started as a love for writing whodunit shorts (that she never finished before starting new ones) developed into a love for writing fantasy and science fiction.
Currently she’s working on an epic fantasy novel exploring sibling dynamics, free will, and hordes of flying, burrowing, and galloping creatures ready to kill or be killed. With her stories she hopes to glorify her Creator, who definitely holds first place for being the most impressive world builder ever.
When she’s not writing with her golden retriever Nova nestled at her feet, you can find her tabletop gaming with her awesome husband, out in the garden picking berries, or reading fables to her daughter in the hammock. She loves traveling to explore medieval castles and talking all things writing craft.