Falling for Your (Side)[1] Characters

path divergingHave you ever gotten side-tracked in the midst of a climactic scene? Say your Hero is just about to charge into battle, or the Heroine is finally going to open that forbidden door, and a side character pops in to play a partial/ important/ crucial role, and then suddenly you’re off, writing their backstory, romping through their history and quirks, and discovering what their dreams in life are.

If this phenomenon sounds familiar, then welcome! In my head, I call this occurrence “THE SEQUEL,” and the distraction of it can be as ridiculous and flighty as the idea that every side character will get their own book in which to tell their story. The reason I’m treating that idea so cavalierly is not because the SEQUEL never happens, but that getting sidetracked by your amazing side characters is generally not a good thing.[2] Generally, because we’re going to talk about the necessity of it.

When you are writing in a fully realized world[3], it is inevitable that your side characters will have depth outside the scenes they might feature in. That IS a good thing. If your supporting roles are 2D and paper-thin in depth, it’s going to be noticeable to your readers. Maybe not all your readers will care, but the ones who will get excited about your world and your story – the ones raving about you to their friends – will set it aside when they are done,[4] and think on it no further.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if your side characters are not clamoring for your attention in a desire to share their own stories, your own protagonist’s tale is going to suffer from it.[5] Characters (people) grow by interacting with others, be they human, animal, imaginary – or stories themselves.[6] Characters need foils: people to teach, people to be taught by, people to disagree with, people to help or to guide them. If your side characters are only around to deliver pithy one-liners or to drop a hint about the Great Secret at the right time, a lot of potential depth is lost. A lot of intriguing characters get left on the page as clichés.

So how do we make our side characters shine without creating a footnote monster? Or asking the reader to pause and read THE SEQUEL? You could use the 20 questions Candace listed in Creating Memorable Characters. You as the Writer could have a conversation with them, asking about their motivations for interacting with the Hero. You could sit them down in a row boat with the Heroine and see what kind of topics arise. You’re pretty much only limited by your imagination when it comes to fleshing out side characters.

Mine pretty much shove their way in, (as I mentioned above), frothing at the mouth in wanting their moment in the spotlight, wanting to tell me about their messed up psyches, or the regret that’s been haunting them half their life, or the brother who was adopted to carry on the family business … you get the picture.

I’ll continue talking about how to build up your side characters in later posts, but for now

Katie, signing off

[1] I hate calling them minor characters, for the reasons mentioned above.

[2] At least, that’s what I hear from published authors. As publishing is still a blurry shoreline away, I defer to experience.

[3] This hopefully being the fully realized world of your story.

[4] We hope they read to the end!

[5] Obviously, if you get too side-tracked, your whole story will suffer, but how to keep yourself on task while giving your characters free will is a topic for another post.

[6] Haven’t we all been shaped by stories, and therefore believe in the power of telling our stories?

One thought on “Falling for Your (Side)[1] Characters

  1. Yes!!! My plan, when I come across those characters, who huff and puff at me when they must go off scene, is to write a short story just for them, and publish it later on my blog. That way, any readers who fall hard for them as I did, will get the opportunity to know them deeper. 😉
    Also, when I brainstorm and write, I imagine their story and how it shaped them into the person who is reacting with my character. It’s so much fun to get to know them!


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