When building a story, it’s normal to have a main character fleshed out. You’re excited to tell your tale, you know what your character’s goal is and what they’ll need to do to achieve it. Most people delve into a story aware of their protagonist, but side characters are just as important to your story as your hero.
One thing to keep in mind is that even though you may use one side character or many, they should never overshadow the lead. It’s easy to do when they get the funny lines or lead the hero on a mission in a way that wasn’t expected. They can be fun to write because you don’t have all the same issues that your hero faces, there’s not a ton of drama surrounding them, and they don’t get as much “screen” time.
Don’t let that dissuade you from putting proper thought into your side characters. They have an important job in your story, and you’d be doing your readers an injustice if you don’t flesh them out properly.
The Role Side Characters Play
Think about popular side characters in movies or books you love. There’s Batman and Robin. Sherlock and Watson. Luke Skywalker and Hans Solo. They can play the comic to your straight man, the logic-based character to your quick reactive hero, or mentor to a hero that needs guidance.
The size of your cast may have a lot to do with the role they play as well. Consider a larger cast of characters. In this case the best friend’s role maybe somebody to riff off, while the mentor is a different character. Each scenario is different based on the type of story you’re telling and how inclusive it is. Look at Castaway, his sidekick was a soccer ball, Wilson. In big epic mysteries with multiple layers and a police procedural, you may have a slew of side characters that each play a role in the story for a different purpose. Determining which side characters that you want in your story and why they are there is a big undertaking.
Different Ways Side Characters Can be Used in a Story
There are multiple types of side characters that can have an impact on your story. What you need to decide is what role they’ll play and how important are they to the main character and story flow. Just like there will be random people woven in and out of your story, like a bartender if your character is at the bar for a drink, it doesn’t mean that the bartender needs to play a major role, need a name, and have a massive backstory. The point of that character may be to simply show how your main character interacts with certain people, or almost as part of the atmosphere of the scene.
With that out of the way, do think about each character you add to your story and think about if they need to be there. Do they bring a layer of depth to the scene? Would it work as well by omitting them? Some characters simply aren’t necessary, while others do more work.
Let’s look at a voice of reason character. You may have a character where they are the balance to help your hero see a side of something they might not have considered. A mentor character will guide and lead your hero in some way, through experience or wisdom. Your side character may be a love interest in an action movie. They can be used to show a human side to a tough, edgy character. Obviously, in a romance, they’ll play a much bigger role.
Another thing to consider is your antagonist. They’ll be pitted against your protagonist, but what about the characters they interact with? Do they have a sidekick? Even something like a family member of the antagonist can give a moment to show another side to your character, if they seem vile in most circumstances…and yet, maybe they’re a tender, caring father.
Side characters allow you to enhance your tale by highlighting aspects of the story or other characters from another point of view.
Side Characters Can be Fun to Write
One of the challenges you may face is not making your side character overshadow your hero. Did you ever watch a movie or read a book, and think the side character was more interesting than the lead? Yeah. It happens.
How do you make sure that your side character holds the right balance of key ingredients? Think about the role that they’re playing. What is their purpose? Are they there to highlight another angle of your story’s theme? Are they there to show a different side of your hero? Are they the hero’s support system that you’ll yank away at the last minute, leaving the hero to fend for themselves? Are they there for comic relief in a heavy drama?
Subplots are a Great Opportunity to Use Side Characters
One of the things you can do with a subplot is use it to show a piece of your story in a new light. Whether it’s a break from the tension you’ve built, or to highlight another perspective of the story’s theme, the subplot is a great chance to let your side characters shine. Just remember that the subplot should host a beginning, middle, and end, not just be randomly placed scenes that have no rhyme or reason. It should reflect something about the main story in a unique way.
Think of it this way, there could be a battle over the custody of a child. The main story could be the plight of the mother’s custody battle, but the father who might be seen as the antagonist in this book could play a big part of the subplot.
Maybe we see sides of the father that we didn’t see in the main part of the book. We start to see the faults outlined earlier in the book are simply one side of the story, and the subplot can be a great place to balance the story and show you a perspective you hadn’t thought of.
For example, the mother vilifies the father as never being around. And yet in the subplot, we see the father’s struggle of having to work multiple jobs to afford to care for the family and is exhausted and maybe hiding that he has a new medical diagnosis that has left him completely fatigued.
So, while one side of the story showed this father that seemed absent, the other side is showing him forced to spend time working and in medical treatments. He’s heartbroken that he doesn’t have the time he desperately needs to spend with his child. He worries the court will be biased for that reason.
The point is that it shows another layer of the story, deepens it, shows you perspectives of characters you might not have seen without completely changing the story.
When you have a good reason for your side character, think about ways you can use them to advance your story, accentuate aspects of your main character you want to highlight, and make sure they fit the scene. With that in mind, how would a great side character change the story you’re working on?