Side Characters: Every Batman Needs A Robin

Side Characters: Every Batman Needs A Robin

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.

Side Characters
This character is a tired monkey. He sleeps. That’s his thing.

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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Tips for Writing Popular Fiction Part 1

Update: Click to read Part 2 or Part 3.

Tips for Writing Popular Fiction

The blog below will give you tips for writing popular fiction.  It is not meant to teach you to write the next great American novel.  Why not?  Read on…

There are a lot of truly great novels out there; books with deep meaning behind every carefully chosen word and a story that holds a special place in the heart of generations. Chances are, your book is not that book. That doesn’t mean that the talent needed to create such a work doesn’t exist in abundance, it means that today’s reader isn’t looking for the next great American novel. They are looking for an escape. Hear me out.

Many classic American novels deal very deeply with the human condition. The plot is secondary to the meaning the writer is trying to convey. There’s a lot of meaning behind Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, but most readers just read something they think is about drinking your way across western Europe and bull fighting. The problem for today’s reader often lies with the plot. The older the literature is, the less likely it is to capture the readers attention with vivid action sequences and the like. Why do today’s readers enjoy blistering pacing and Michael Bay-esque action sequences. I blame it on Hollywood blockbusters that change great books into mindless drivel.

Still, this puts us writers at a crossroads. Do we sell out and write solely for an audience that eschews content with literary merit (See: Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey, etc.)? Or, do we spend years completing our masterpiece, only to have the Big 5 publishers tell us it’s garbage and they want more vampires and zombies to sell books? I don’t think it has to be exclusively one or the other and I’ll tell you why.

It is possible to write the plot of a story so that it will entertain those who want to be entertained, and provoke thought in those looking for meaning behind your words. It’s a fine line, but it’s something I’ve been working on for some time. Here’s how I do it:

1. Write at an accessible level. Twilight was written at an eighth-grade level, but sprinkled throughout are what scholars call SAT words. It’s as though Meyer is trying to assure her more educated audience that she is, in fact, intelligent despite the content of her books. In my opinion, I would bring up the level to perhaps tenth grade and still use SAT words as long as it doesn’t distract the reader (for instance, using a complicated word in dialogue that the character should never have known, like using anthropomorphic instead of human-like). A certain amount of making your reader stumble is necessary if you want their vocabularies to grow, but make sure using those words fits within the story.

2. The Art of Subtlety. In my first two novels, subtle was not a word I was familiar with when it came to writing. My plot was very heavy-handed, shoving opinions down the throats of my characters so they would spew my righteous dogma. No more. After years of reflection and reading, I learned to put much more content between the lines. Not only should the reader assume certain things, the characters within your novel should jump to conclusions like any regular person would. Just because someone hasn’t directly said something or you didn’t describe something directly, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen within the contents of the story. For instance, in my latest novel Nightstalkers (out in March), misunderstandings are central to the plot. My main characters are at each other’s throats for much of the story, and for what? Not just to get my jollies, I assure you. If you read deep enough, there are plenty of cues in the first two thirds of the novel that foreshadow what’s going to happen, but they are carefully inserted in prose that is accessible to a major audience. If you don’t read deeply then close to the end of the book you’ll find out why anyway, and while the timing works, it would read differently on a second read-through. Subtlety.

Do you know who a master of subtlety is? J.K. Rowling. She put in countless clues in the first six books regarding the true allegiance of the character everyone loves to hate. If you read it from the beginning knowing what happens, there are countless references that could have tipped you off. Also, Horcruxes! Most of them we’d seen at some point or another, introduced well before we knew such a thing existed. Subtlety and foreshadowing are close cousins.

I have a lot more to talk about regarding tips for writing popular fiction that will have to wait until future posts. For instance, why should we write for the masses? What’s the best genre to reach the greatest number of people? How do I get people to read X? Stay tuned for more.

Do you have any Tips for Writing Popular Fiction? Post your comments below and you could be mentioned in my next blog on the subject!