Side characters can get a bad rap sometimes.
Often weaker, dumber, or simply less cool than the main characters, side characters are often thrown by the wayside. If this sounds like your writing style, you might be doing it wrong.
The beauty of side characters in novels and stories is that they don’t have to have extensive backstories. You can tell the reader a lot with just a few sentences and they will thank you for livening the world you’ve created with nuances an
d subtlety. Think of the original Star Wars cantina scene. Most of the characters were not originally named, but do you know that most of them actually do have names? When you’re writing, it can help to think of your story as part of a much larger expanded universe. Many readers will skip over the minor side characters without much notice, but for those who are truly into the story, their experience will be richer than ever.
The J.K. Rowling method: Next time you read Harry Potter (I’m assuming everyone has read the series. If you haven’t, what are you doing?) be sure to look at the side characters. Think of someone like Parvati Patil. In the entire series she only gets a few lines and there is very little description surrounding her character. She goes to the Yule Ball with Harry in Book Four, but during my several read-throughs, I always found her to be more of a set-piece. For a side character, I would wager that’s fine. If she was a main character and treated that way, that would be a different story entirely. However, there’s a lot more to her character if you look more deeply and include nuances from the films. Just check out her Harry Potter wiki if you don’t believe me. The moral of this little anecdote is to treat every character in your book as though a wiki page might be made out of them someday. Your super-fans will thank you.
Ok, I get it. But how? Side characters are often known for one trait above all others. Readers might be able to remember that the taxi driver had brown hair, but if he was a chain smoker or had a mild Dr. Pepper addiction, it’s more likely they’ll remember him. Your job as a writer is to ensure that every character has some memorable feature. That is, of course, unless the reader is not supposed to remember them. That’s where the fun really begins.
Shadow Characters: Sometimes it’s refreshing for a writer to add in a character that is entirely forgettable. Why? Maybe the character is a spy and is supposed to be adept at concealing themselves. Maybe they are so incredibly average that that in itself makes them stand out (this can have comedic elements to it as well). Or, my favorite, a minor throwaway side character could become a villain. What’s more unsuspecting than a character most readers will only catch on a second reading? You can put all the signs there, but because the character is so unassuming the reader has a hard time they could be a villain, killer, baddie, etc.
There are countless ways to go about adding vibrant side characters to your stories. No one way is really right, but there are a lot of wrong ways to go about it. If all of your side characters are shadow characters, that’s lazy. At least give a few of them drinking or gambling problems, OCD, or a quirky preference. If nothing else, it will keep things fresh for you as a writer. What are you waiting for? Go add some spice to your writing!
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