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Monday, January 30, 2017

Creating Stunning Side Characters (and Why They Matter)

Several years ago I attended a writing workshop at LDStorymakers that was focused entirely on creating side characters. One of the points made that struck me most was that when you create strong secondary characters, you make your novel feel authentic. You make it feel real.

This is because as an audience we don't feel as if all the side characters exist for the sake of the main character or the plot. They feel like real people with lives that extend beyond our protagonist. And yet sloppy side characters aren't uncommon. You've probably seen them before--the love interest that is only there to kiss the protagonist, the mentor that's only there to give the main character special skills, that poor geeky kid who's only there so that the main character can show off how kind and caring he is by sticking up for the weirdo, and of course, how can we forget the two-dimensional bully that every hero has these days?

Keep in mind that none of these character roles are bad or wrong per se. In Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling gave Harry a bully, a mentor, and a bunch of geeky kids he stands up for, but Rowling is a master at creating real, authentic secondary characters, to the point that it's not uncommon for fans to point to one as their favorite (Luna Lovegood, Fred and George Weasley, Dobby, McGonagall).

The trick is to make your side character feels real, and in this post, I'll give you some tips on how to do that.

Different Degrees of Characters

Before we get too far into this though, I want to mention a warning. Not every character on the page needs to be fully realized. Sometimes the taxi driver who is driving your protagonist to the airport is really just a taxi driver. He's referred to once and never mentioned again. Don't get all excited after this post and try to over-characterize everyone. You don't need to give the illusion of fleshing out every character in the coffee shop your protagonist is reading at. Think of these sorts of people as an extension of the setting. For this post, I'm talking about secondary or tertiary characters. They aren't "set" pieces, but they aren't the main characters either (and almost never the viewpoint character). They are the space between.

Tricks to Creating Great Side Characters

Suggest that They have Their Own Lives

Side characters should have their own lives. The sum of their existence should not be their role in relation to the main character. Often we don't see much of their lives, but it should be suggested that they have them. It might be a ballet audition a cousin is practicing for mentioned in passing. It might be Dumbledore having to travel to the Ministry in London in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. It might be the fact that Mrs. Hudson got all her money from her dead husband, who actually ran a drug cartel.

Their lives can be implied in passing or can crop up in direct dialogue. Maybe they even refuse to help the protagonist because they can't miss their dream job interview. You don't need to fully flesh out every side character's life. You just need to suggest that they have one beyond the protagonist and main plot.

Give Them a Unique Characteristic or Skill

So often I see side characters that are generic or "stock" characters. Like I mentioned in the intro, the bully who is just like every other bully in every other story. If you have a bully, cool, but give him a characteristic that sets him apart from all the other bullies. Bonzo in Ender's Game is a good example. He's definitely a bully, but he's very small. He's not portrayed as a complete idiot, like most bullies, but he's not as intelligent as Ender either. Orson Scott Card also takes time to specify what kind of anger Bonzo has. It's a hot anger, a blinding anger. And he compares it to Ender's, which is cold and controlled. The specificity makes Bonzo seem like a real person, not a cardboard cut-out to pester the protagonist.

Pick characteristics that are unusual, but they don't need to be outlandish. Maybe the love interest (who isn't a big player in the story, but exists) has a stuttering problem. That's unusual. It feels real.

Love him or hate him, in a lot of his movies, M. Night Shyalaman is pro at giving his characters unique attributes or skills. Just watch Lady in the Water and you'll see what I mean. We have Reggie, a guy who weirdly only exercises one side of his body, Mrs. Bubchik who can't help but divulge her husband's embarrassing secrets every time she talks to someone, Joey Dury who enjoys making up stories based off cereal boxes, and his father who loves crossword puzzles. Then there is Mrs. Choi, who doesn't speak English and is unfriendly to everyone but children. 

To top it off, each of these characters seem to have their own lives. You can see this same thing happening in The Village, The Visit, and Signs

To make your side characters feel real, give them a unique characteristic or skill, and then be specific about it.

Look at the Roles They Fulfill and Have Them Fulfill Them in Interesting Ways

There are many tropes and archetypes in the world, but that doesn't mean all the characters who fulfill them need to be the same. I've said this before, but in The Hunger Games, Haymitch fulfills the "mentor" role, and yet his character is so unique from the stereotypical mentors. He doesn't have this refined air of wisdom like Dumbledore or other mentors have. Haymitch is a drunk. How great can a mentor be if he is drunk? What in interesting combination.

Molly Hooper in Sherlock is one of my favorite characters. She's a pathologist. Seen them before. Seen that sort of thing a lot on detective shows. But Molly isn't a role, she's a person. And what makes her stand out from all the other characters in that role is that she's awkwardly cute with what could almost be considered a "schoolgirl crush" on Sherlock (who is often uninterested or blind to such things). Furthermore, she's awkwardly cute in her own way, rather than a stereotypical, generic, or stock way.

On the flip side, you could say she fulfills the role of that character who has a crush on the protagonist, but the fact she is a pathologist, works in the morgue, is romantically attracted to psychopaths, enjoys working with dead bodies, and has her own unique demeanor puts a spin on that role too. So you can also smash roles together in interesting ways.

Whatever your side character's role, brainstorm a unique take on it. You don't need to give your mentor an air of wisdom and poise. The love interest doesn't always have to be seductive and flirty.

Imply Character Arcs and Suggest Changes

Side characters are side characters. We don't usually see a full arc from them like we do the main characters. But you can still give us the sense that they are growing and changing, on a small scale or a significant scale. It could simply be one side character saying he doesn't want to ever get married in the opening, and then in the denouement, saying he does want to get married. It can be a bigger arc. Neville in Harry Potter has his own full arc, moving from social outcast to hero.

In Sherlock, Lestrade goes from trusting Sherlock with everything in season one to thinking Sherlock is a killer in season two. Anderson goes from hating him to immortalizing him by starting a fan club of sorts. Ginny Weasley moves from being shy and silent to being the most popular girl in her class. Great side characters are in motion.

Character arcs often refer to growth or decline in internal progression. But you can also have changes. A change is just a change. It can be a character changing the way she looks from one scene to another. It can be a change in what the character drives. It can be a change in health. Or a change in who he is dating. Just be careful that the change doesn't beg for more attention and explanation than you can give it. It shouldn't draw attention to itself to the extent that it slows the pacing or takes away from the story. It should be adding to the story, not taking away. But how much is too much is gauged by your own specific story, so I can't give you a black-and-white answer.

Expand the Character

You can make your side character richer by expanding him or her. It's not necessarily an arc or a change, it's just that the audience learns more about the character in a later scene than they knew before. For example, when we first meet Mrs. Hudson, we are told that Sherlock helped her out with a legal case about her husband, which resulted in Mr. Hudson's death (which ironically, was the outcome Mrs. Hudson wanted). In a later scene we learn her husband ran a drug cartel. So you can expand something we knew before. Another option is to add something different. Luna Lovegood's father runs The Quibbler. In a later scene we learn that Luna's mother died in an experimental mishap. They aren't related, but our knowledge about the character is expanded.

This can be a great way to make a side character become more interesting in a later scene.

Use Thoughtful Descriptions

How you describe your side character can make them feel real. Like I've talked about in another post about descriptions, your descriptions should move beyond the generic. We need more than hair color, eye color, and maybe height. Describe something that doesn't get described enough--elbows, ears, legs, nose, the tone of her voice, her facial expressions. You can find a whole list of ideas here. You should probably note, however, that the attributes that gets described should usually be what makes your character most unique. Those are what people notice first. If his voice doesn't match his appearance, then that's probably what should be mentioned. If she has a birth mark in the shape of screwdriver on her neck, that's probably what needs to be mentioned.

Also, often appearances can give insight into the character's life, personality, and self-image. If she has a dancer's build, she's probably a dancer. If he has soil under his nails, he might be a gardener. If her shirt is inside out, maybe she doesn't care enough to look in the mirror before she leaves the house. All these details speak to something more, something bigger, about the character. Molly Hooper doesn't have lipstick in one scene, but she has it on when Sherlock comes--that tells us something about her and her feelings toward Sherlock.


In closing, as you work on creating stunning side characters, just make sure you don't let them take over the story and main characters (unless you intended to break the rules and had that planned all along). Don't forget who or what the story is really about.


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