It’s no secret that side characters can be amazing in their own right. Great side characters feel like real people–even if the focus isn’t on them. They have lives that exist beyond the scope of the protagonist. When they seem to exist only to help or exacerbate the protagonist, they lack authenticity.
With that said, untamed side characters can water down a strong story, or worse, steal the story. While we don’t want our characters to be exact copies of each other (unless, of course, you’re writing a story about characters being exact copies), it can be helpful to examine the main character and his or her journey to bring balance, depth, and meaning to your cast. After all, side characters are also called supporting characters, which means they are meant to support the protagonist’s journey, not take away from it.
In her book, Story Genius, Lisa Cron explains that while we need to develop secondary characters that have their own driving agendas, realizations, and often, own arcs, we also need to create them with this purpose in mind: “to help facilitate the protagonist’s story.”
She writes, “This means that although each one of them could stand alone as a full-fledged human being . . . you’ll create them and their beliefs so they will naturally facilitate your protagonist’s story.”
Consider what role the character plays in the protagonist’s journey, and develop the character with that in mind. What kind of qualities and attitudes are going to challenge your protagonist? What does your protagonist need to learn from this person? Who would uncover a new side of your protagonist? It’s possible to fully brainstorm a side character who actually doesn’t interact well with your protagonist. But when you consider these questions and similar ones, you’re more likely to create a side character who offers meaningful exchanges.
If the character is an ally, some writers feel compelled to make him or her too similar to the protagonist. In reality, it’s often more interesting if the ally contrasts the protagonist. In Pixar’s Soul, the protagonist, Joe Gardner, has a thirst for life (jazz, specifically), but he is allied with 22, who has no desire to even be born. This contrast brings each character into sharper focus, balances out the story, and provides more opportunities for meaningful discussions.
Likewise, if the character is an opponent, it’s often more effective to emphasize a likeness between that character and the protagonist. In Soul, Terry functions as the antagonist, trying to bring Joe to the Great Beyond. Like Joe, Terry is so obsessed with fulfilling his purpose (to count the dead), that he’s blind to the inspiring things happening around him: Joe helping 22 finally find her spark. Like Joe, Terry is also aspiring to a moment of recognition–he wants the Jerries to recognize him with an award for him doing his job.
It may be helpful to consider much of the side characters as foils and mirrors of the protagonist and his situation. We can see how this balances out in Soul. Joe’s mom foils him by pressuring him to take a practical job. On the other hand, Dorothea Williams reflects what Joe wants to become. Dez foils Joe by letting go of his veterinarian dreams and becoming a barber. Connie reflects his passion for music. Paul foils by being someone who never went after his dreams. . . .
In a sense, each of these characters represents a different moment of or outcome to the journey Joe is on. In his book, The Structure of Story, Ross Hartmann refers to these characters as clones (a term that comes from award-winning screenwriter Brian McDonald). Hartmann writes, “a clone character . . . is a way for us to show what could, should, or might happen to a character if they take a particular path. . . . [We can] use a clone character to convey information about where the character is headed or might be headed either philosophically, emotionally, or physically.”
The supporting cast is also more balanced when it contains different types of arcs, which tap into the protagonist’s journey. A character may change positively or negatively, or hold steadfast (remaining more or less the same) positively or negatively. In the film, Marley & Me, the protagonist, John, changes positively as he learns to embrace the adventures of domestic life. Marley, who already embraces the adventures of domestic life, remains the same, positively, throughout the film. John’s friend Sebastian dismisses domestic life to go on career-driven adventures instead, remaining the same negatively. Had the filmmakers wanted to, they could have added a fourth character who leaves the adventures of domestic life to fully focus on her career, which would have been a negative change character (within the context of the story).
Because the protagonist’s journey also plays into a story’s theme, balancing out your cast with your protagonist in mind, can help keep your side characters thematically relevant. For more on that topic, I suggest reading “Use Theme to Determine Subplots, Supporting Characters, and Tension.”
In any case, creating your supporting characters with your protagonist in mind, will likely lead to a more meaningful, balanced cast, and story.
September C. Fawkes is a freelance editor, writing instructor, and award-winning writing tip blogger. She has edited for award-winning and best-selling authors as well as beginning writers. Her blog won the Writer’s Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers Award, Query Letter’s Top Writing Blog Award and has over 500 writing tips. She offers a live online writing course, “The Triarchy Method,” where she personally guides 10 students through developing their best books by focusing on the “bones” of story.