A Quick Little Guide to Developing Characters: The Side Character
A good story is composed of several elements- and side characters are one of those many pieces that pull a story together. Side characters bring in necessary information about the world, help the main character or challenge the main character, and give the reader a fuller view of the setting as a whole. Side characters are just as important as the main character and should be treated with just as much care.
While the main character is the vessel for which the reader navigates the world, side characters are vital for readers to fully picture this world. Side characters create obstacles, give vital information, teach the main character, and give the readers other outlets for which they can explore your world. Not every story will contain multiple human characters, but side characters still exist. A side character can be an animal, an inanimate object that the main character personifies, or simply a narrative voice that gives perspective outside of the story.
Although side characters don’t take up as much room in the story as your main character, they are still important. Many stories will have an A-story, a B-story, and a C-story. Essentially, the A-story consists of your main character/characters. This makes up about 60% of your plot/story and has the most weight. The B-Story consists of your side characters- at least, the important ones. Any side character that is meant to have a story arch and change will hold the B-story spot, which is about 30% of the plot. This spot does not necessarily have to be the same character- perhaps the side character/characters holding this position in the beginning finish their arc, or leave the story entirely. A new character/set of characters can take this place. The C-Story is all other characters and is about 10% of the plot.
Although this is only one formula, and there are many others ways to divide up the plot based on the needs of your story and the characters involved in that story, but it is a good place to start. Regardless of where the side characters in your novel stand, it is still important to develop them. Here are some things you can think about while going through that process:
- Your side characters are just as important as your main character!
- Yes, I said this in the last section. Yes, I’m repeating myself. Why? Because it’s important. If you don’t know who your side characters are, why are they in the story? What is their purpose there? Even if they are only there as a plot device, they must feel like more developed characters than that. At the very least, you want to know their basic personality and backstory. Even if they don’t take up a lot of room in the story, knowing these things will help you write a more realistic character. Will the fact that your side character once ate a whole pizza on a dare come up in the story as an important plot device? Probably not. But you know from this action that the character is impulsive- and that is handy knowledge to have when writing this character’s interactions with people.
- Know their role in the story
- It’s important to know from the beginning what a side character is going to do in your plot. Having a character show up one time in an important scene and then disappear forever (unless it’s clear why they disappear i.e. they die, or their disappearance is a serious plot point) muddles the plot. The reader may be thinking “wait what happened to so and so?” If a character enters an important scene and then leaves, the reader needs to know why.
- Move beyond the plot device
- A side character can be so much more than just a plot device. A side character can connect with a reader just as much as your main character- sometimes even more. While side characters may fill a specific role in the plot (the mentor, the villain, the catalyst, and so on) they should still feel like real, dynamic people. Just because they are there to fulfill a specific plot point doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be developed, and have a personality and a goal and a life beyond that plot point. Make your readers love your side characters, and they will be even more engaged with the story.
- Your side characters have lives outside of the main character
- The world does not revolve around the main character. Side characters have lives, families, histories, fears, hopes, and everything that your main character has. Make your side characters feel real, give them things to talk about other than your main character. Even though the story is about the main character, and focuses on the main character, a dynamic story will move beyond that. The inclusion of side characters is a great way to show that the state of the world affects people differently and that the experiences of the main character do not define the world or the experiences of everyone who exists in that story.
- Avoid using other characters to force your reader to care about current characters
- What I mean by this is basically: your reader should care about a character because they are real, and have real emotions, not because they tragically lost their S.O. and child, or their sister, or best friend, or whatever else they lost to make them feel pain. Now, I’m not saying that your characters aren’t allowed to feel or experience loss- in fact, loss is a very good thing to bring into a story. But it shouldn’t be the ONLY reason someone cares about a character. Focus on the emotions rather than the action, and you have yourself a dynamic character. Loss is a very complicated and complex device that includes a lot more than just “this character lost someone and is now a total jerk but it’s ok because loss.”
That’s all I can think of right now. Some of this is a little repetitive from part A, but I thought it was important to separate out side characters and main characters because they are very separate building blocks of a story, and are used in different ways. If you have any questions or want me to elaborate on a specific part of this guide, leave a comment. If you have a suggestion or something you want to see me write on for another Tips & Tricks blog, let me know and I’ll see if I can get to it. For more tips on how to build a dynamic story, look for the other Tips & Tricks guides for world and plot building.