Side characters, one of the most useful tools in fiction writing. Supporting characters present the writer with an opportunity to not only create smaller stories to make your book more interesting, but also develop main characters and add to the world of your creation. Afterall, a well-written side story can make your already great story better. The challenge is making good use of this writing tool.
Time for some essential tips on writing good side characters!
Ah, but before we get into it, this is the fifth ‘episode’ in a series I’ve started on writing a good book. So far, I’ve talked about main characters, plot structure and dialogue. If any of these interest you, be sure to check them out on my blog or YouTube channel!
Now, let’s get into it!
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Support from Supporting Characters
First and foremost, we need to discuss the purpose behind side characters.
Otherwise known as the supporting character, the side character serves little to no purpose in regards to the main storyline. These characters are a sidetrack, in many cases, a distraction. That does not mean they are unwanted, or unloved. Many side characters have grown to become important features in novels, even if their influence on the main story is nonexistent.
However, side characters can still serve a greater purpose.
Many great side characters can serve to deepen the lore in a complex fiction world, or provide comic relief in the darkest times. These characters can serve to develop main characters as well, through small dialogue or their actions. In short, side character’s are like the optional extras in a new car. While they serve no necessary function, they can make the ride more pleasant in one way or another.
As a writer, I would recommend you look at side characters as tools, the most useful tools. If you feel your story is on the right track, but the effect is not what you desired, you can use side characters to change that, thus serving a purpose for the feelings and understanding you want to convey, without detracting from your overall plot.
For example, let’s say you are writing your story, the plot is flowing as it should, but you feel the story has grown too heavy, too emotionally gruelling. You want to lighten things up, but you can’t do so through the main characters without affecting their personality or the story. In short, you are a little stuck. That is when you need to step back and consider solving the problem with a side story, a side act to your main play.
You can introduce side characters, who give no real effect on the story or the main characters, but certainly provide the reader with a lift. It could be comic relief, but there are many ways you can lift a reader’s emotional state. Heart-warming side stories spring to mind.
By the same token, if you feel the story needs to tone things down, you can introduce a side story that brings everything back to reality. It could be a couple of cruel characters who simply highlight or bring attention to the darker side of the story, or a scene where something unfortunate happens to a character who is of no real consequence to the story.
Despite this lack of necessity, these characters still have a purpose and serve it well. Thus, they are supporting characters, supporting your story and the vision you have for it.
The Friends and Family
The most common examples of side characters are the friends and family who provide ‘support’ for the protagonist. It could be as simple as the parent who drives the protagonist to school, providing their pseudo-wisdom through anecdotes or simple understanding. It could be the friend they chat with at work, or the barman who they tell their problems to at the end of the day.
These characters are more than minor, as they not only provide the protagonist with opinions, but some might even provide support or obstacles.
The friends and/or family also serves to bring the character down-to-earth, so to speak. A character instantly becomes more relatable by their behaviour around their friends and family, with it being friendly or rebellious behaviour. It’s common in real life, thus it’s common in literature. These are character’s so easy to include as there doesn’t need to be a justifiable reason for their presence.
These characters simply are, thus reader’s can’t really question why they are, let alone who they are. An acceptance that makes writing these characters much easier.
The Fantastic Fools
The fools are a particular favourite of mine in writing.
It is customary for the protagonist to have a lot of weight on their shoulders, not only plot wise, but book-wise. The reader wants to connect with the protagonist, root for the protagonist, but it is hard to do that if the protagonist never takes anything sincerely. That is a restriction hard to lift, which is why the burden of comic-relief, of brightening a dark scene, or lightening the burden, goes to the fool.
The fool being the character with enough humour in their personality, and/or their writing. You could have a side character who has some hilarious one-liners, or uses wonderfully cynical sarcasm or simply takes everything seriously and unknowingly creates that amusing contradiction of expectations that makes the reader laugh.
Whether the character is simply funny on purpose or not, their purpose is clear.
Of course, that is the underlying role as a supporting character. A humorous character could also be involved in the plot in some way. These characters are not to be underestimated and can be found sarcastically questioning the protagonist or bumbling about behind the villain as they set a trap for the hero. Without a doubt, these are the side characters I enjoy the most, as I find comical writing golden when done right.
The Sinister Side Characters
Having mentioned villains, it would be foolish of me not to talk about the opposite side of the spectrum. These sinister side characters are not always nameless, faceless goons who serve no purpose other than to slow down the protagonist. Quite simply, characters like that are minor characters and nothing more.
No, the truly villainous side characters serve a purpose similar to the friends and family of the protagonist. These are characters that affect the story or it’s characters in some way, but they do it through their immoral actions or behaviour.
Stepping away from just villainous side characters, I would like to discuss momentarily how distant your side characters can be from the main story. Before I talk about this example, I would like to stress you can do this with other characters, not just antagonistic characters.
Now, let’s say you have an entirely separate side story with characters separate from the main plot, yet the events of their one story affects the other at least once to tie them together. However these stories play out, these side characters have shown who they are and they have played their role. By no means have they been a bad distraction as there is a connection to the main story.
Of course, this is side-track, so returning to the subject…
Your villainous side characters will also have their purpose, just like protagonist side characters. These side characters could have an affect on both sides, good or bad. These characters could make a scene darker, they can make it lighter.
It goes without saying, that if you have the chance to create a side character on the evil side of the moral spectrum, you should do so, as they can be just as useful as a morally good side character.
One of the greatest benefits of all!
You as the writer have the creative freedom to approach your story from various perspectives. You can create and include characters and stories that add to your world. Of course, you cannot include a vast array of characters in one book, let alone stories, but the limit is still pretty high before you overwhelm the reader.
A writer with an excellent understanding of pacing and the desire to create a lengthy book can create a truly epic journey with this much freedom.
The point I am trying to make here is that you are presented with an opportunity to expand on what you have. Any ideas you feel are great, but can’t include in your main story, you might want to consider turning into a subplot. Of course, you don’t need to do this. Many writers have focused on the main story alone.
But, afterall, you have read this far. You have shown interest in side characters and might have even a few ideas jotted down and ready to be made into something. As writers, we have the potential to create something that others might enjoy, others would love to see more of our imagination at work. I highly encourage you to raise the limits of your creativity when it comes to side characters more than any other aspect of your book.
Even a truly crazy story will have crazier side characters.
There we have it. Side characters in nutshell. I could dwell on the subject further, rattle off many side characters I have created in the past and plan to create in the future. From a lovable, tubby merchant and his heart-of-gold to cruel and terrifying henchman who appears far more sinister than the antagonist.
However, let me not bore you any further. If you have any side characters you wish to share, please do in the comments. If you are anything like me, you might have written or plan to write a side character who is more than just a name.
Finally, I will leave you with this.
Whenever you plot a story, you consider the protagonist and the antagonist above all else, the story between the two. However, no journey is so simple, so barebones. There are ups and there are downs. Sometimes, these ups and downs are people. Sometimes, these people make the story great.
Thank you for reading and as always,
Good day, goodnight and happy writing!
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