Writing Essentials: Characters Part Five: Side Characters

>> Thursday, February 4, 2010

Disclaimer: I'm not an expert on writing. I am not a published author, don't have any sort of English or writing degree, have never taught English or writing and, in fact, do something entirely different for a living. I am simply stating my opinion and caution any reader to assume that every statement described as if it were incontrovertible be assumed to include an "in my opinion" on it. This series is my own opinion as an aspiring writer to describe things I work to do in my own writing and what I look for when I read.

I love secondary characters. L-O-V-E them. I love them so much that 2/3 of my fairly completed novels are effectively ensemble pieces. Sure, I have "main" characters, but the interaction of the other characters are so integral to the whole that it's not about 1-2 people; it's about the team.

One reason I love them is that there are virtually no limits on the type and scope of side character you can include, from the relatively dastardly, to the absurd, to the profound, to the inane, to the... You want to play with a particular character but aren't sure how to center the story around them - make 'em a side character. They can be funny, silly, officious, curious, troublesome, protective, loyal, creative, clever, nitpicky. They can epitomize a group of people (stereotype) and make them come alive. They can personify key aspects of a time, place or social structure. They can do nothing more profound than make the story more entertaining - nothing wrong with that.

Side characters can add texture and flavor to an otherwise humdrum story or breathe life into a time and place without being a distraction. They are an excellent opportunity for exposition without making it seem contrived - Watson provided an opportunity for Holmes to elucidate his mental processes without awkwardness, for example. They can provide insight into the main characters just by their reactions/loyalty/disaffection for the main characters. Somewhat haughty and officious who treats your protagonist like a wayward child can let you know your main character isn't as concerned with "right and proper" as the side character before he's said a word. The dedication and loyalty of a capable and intelligent side character can provide insight that a bristly or grumpy main character has hidden depths worthy of merit long before they are otherwise visible.

Side characters can be foils for main characters or reinforcement for their character traits. They afford the writer an opportunity to reveal key aspects about a character by interacting with him or her. See, it's not enough that a character "be" in the writer's mind - the writer needs a way to demonstrate that character. The writer can just "say" what the character is supposed to be, but, let's face it, that's rarely as compelling as demonstrating those characteristics through word and deed. Interaction with side characters can bring those qualities front and center, can reveal warmth or softness or cleverness or other aspects of a character that wouldn't shine through without them. A side character of the less savory type can give your main character a chance to be witty, sarcastic or just argue better.

And they're fun. I frequently have fairly serious characters. Side characters are often what adds the humor and bring out the charm of my main characters.

They can also help the plot develop, provide traits and skills the hero (who shouldn't be perfect) might be lacking, provide a contrast and, if doing a series of novels, can be the focus of a later book. They can add depth to the story, providing history or color or humanity to a time that might seem short on it.

In movies, there's a whole host of "character actors" who have made a career about playing the people around the lead. Time and again, these are the most versatile actors out there and their characters are far more diverse than those lead actors play.

A fairly common characteristic among my favorite authors are books where the side characters are so charming, I frequently stop to giggle and say, "I love Beautiful" or "I love Edger" or the like. And, that's what I want people to do when they read my work.


  • The Mother

    I personally like side characters that figure into the plot. Maybe it's my type A personality. I just assume from page 1 that a character that the author bothers to write has to fit in, somehow. If they don't, I feel gypped at the end.

    (On a side note, I hate the introduction of the important character that helps solve the mystery on page 350. That's an Agatha Christie signature, which is perhaps the reason that she and I don't see quite eye-to-eye on how to write a mystery.)

  • Stephanie B

    I begin to see why I don't read mysteries. I never really thought about why, but I'm starting to catch on.

    I don't, personally, have to have the side characters pivotal to the plot (though I have a lot more admiration for a writer who makes everyone contribute to the whole). However, I'm not a plot oriented writer/reader. If I were, I have no doubt that I'd feel like I'd been given clues that were red herrings or feel manipulated. Meaning that I can see your point.

    And I can see why that little AC trick would be infuriating. I can feel myself getting irritated and I don't even read her books.

  • Jeff King

    Same here steph, I don't like "plot" driven books.

    I love stories of the Group doing what one could not. the working together to overcome an over whelming challenge.

    That’s right up my alley.

  • Stephanie B

    I'll be honest. I like a good plot, but, if the characters don't work for me, the book won't really be a winner. It will likely be a read-once for me. And, if the plot is weak but the characters are excellent, I'm pretty forgiving.

    But, if I can get a juicy plot *and* wonderful characters, I'll be reading that book again and again and again.

  • Aron Sora

    I also think side characters are key to achieving show, don't tell. For example, in one of your book, the general is described as a person who no wants to be around by Hollis' (I hope that is his name) reaction instead of a narrator.

    Question though, where is the cut off line for side and main character? Is there something in between. I think Hollis is far from a main character.

  • Aron Sora

    I mean "I think Hollis is far from a SIDE character."

  • Stephanie B

    I don't think there's a hard and fast line. That's why I often say much of my work is an "ensemble" situation with several key characters.

    But I don't think the way you read it is wrong, Aron.

  • Jeff King

    I should have made it clearer. Plot has to be good, and so does the story, but the main force driving the book has to be a cast of GREAT characters.

    That is what I meant, just got too lazy to be more clear. Thx

  • Stephanie B

    Oh, well then I'm the same way.

  • Project Savior

    In my books the side characters are absolutely vital as to get the details of the plot out. If the history and importance of transposons via RNA intermediates, is delivered by the third person omnipresent voice it is called a textbook. If that same information is delivered via a lecherous doctor with a fascination with poop that the main character hates, it can be entertaining in itself while getting the key science points across.

  • Shakespeare

    For me, side characters have to be necessary, either to the plot, or (more likely) to the main characters. Contrasting, interacting, all sorts of things help the characters build and grow.

    I love ensemble casts, but I am horrid at writing them. I am too Piscean, and that makes me scatter-brained. I often forget characters are there, and then when I revise, I have to go back and track them through the entire work, just to make sure they haven't disappeared entirely.

    That's why I revise... a lot...

  • Stephanie B

    Project Savior, most of my books would fall apart without the extra characters, too. I love 'em. I have two books that are currently swimming around just two protagonists and I already know I need to change that. I can feel it's too dry, not interesting enough, too contrived.

    Once I have some other characters to liven things up and add texture and content, they'll be much better.

  • Stephanie B

    Ensemble casts do make tracking difficult. I often make up a list of characters when I start one of those novels, noting hair/eye color (a disconcerting thing to have change halfway through the book) and key traits. This is especially helpful on projects that have spanned years in the making.

  • Jeff King

    Also have completely different names, so they are clear in the readers head. So visualizing the character when reading the name is second nature...

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