Help me welcome Resident Writing Coach Alumni Sacha Black, who has just an excellent post on how to avoid creating story problems caused by mismanaged side characters. Here’s a bit more about the Rebel Leader of the Bookish World:
Sacha Black is a bestselling and competition winning author, rebel podcaster, and professional speaker. She writes educational nonfiction books for writers and fantasy books for both Young Adult and adult audiences. She lives in Cambridgeshire, England, with her wife and son.
Take it away, Sacha…
Everybody loves their heroes, some people even love their villains. But it’s a rare author that actively loves and spends equal time on their side characters. Sure, some of them are fun to write, but they’re not who the story is about, which is why so many of them are simply slapped on and ill-thought out. Today, I’m going to help you combat that by giving you three mistakes to avoid when creating your side characters.
Mistake 1 — Weighing Side Characters Incorrectly
Not all side characters are created equal. While some craft teachers talk about archetypes, I prefer to look at side characters in terms of their effect and influence on the story.
Here are the three main types of side characters:
- Cameos are brief and fleeting, usually nameless or with a generic label “guard, receptionist, girl with the teddy”. They leave no mark on the story and are forgettable. Think the woman in the red dress in the Matrix, or Marvel comic writer Stan Lee’s appearances in the Marvel films.
- Minor characters are still fleeting, they still don’t leave much of a mark on the story save for transactional exchanges like a barman or a shop owner. Think Mr. Filch in Harry Potter.
- Major characters are usually scarce, only a handful of them in most stories. They have their own subplots and character arcs, they should represent the book’s theme too. Think Ron and Hermione in Harry Potter.
Too often, writers try to give minor characters character arcs, or they don’t give enough attention to a character that’s supposed to have an arc or subplot. Understanding the different types of side characters should enable you to give the right amount of page time and depth to each character.
Mistake 2 — Thinking You Need Comprehensive Character Arcs
Character arcs are easy for protagonists, you get the entire book to explore it. But side characters don’t get as much page time as protagonists. So how do you show the depth of arc you need without the side character taking over?
Well, you can’t. At least, not exactly anyway.
What you can do is create the illusion of an arc.
You’ll need to show the “what” of what they want (and the fact they don’t have it) at the start of the story. For example, early on in the Harry Potter series, we see Hermione wanting to be academically brilliant and pass all her exams. After that, you need to show a struggle to achieve the goal somewhere in the middle of your story. And, if we’re talking Harry Potter, then Hermione gets her own subplot devoted to this where she uses the Time-Turner to take more lessons than is scientifically possible. Near the end of your book, you’ll have to show the resolution i.e., Hermione passes all her exams and does well, or by the end of the series she realizes it’s not really as important as she once thought.
The beauty of a side character arc is that you can flex it up and down. Want to show a little more depth? Add another scene or two with the character grappling to change. Need to cut down your word count? Then reduce the number of scenes focusing on side character arcs.
The trick to making a side character arc work well is to connect it to the protagonist and, if possible, the theme. In Hermione’s case, her academic brilliance both impedes her friendships with Ron and Harry but also helps them at various points when she has useful bits of information about spells or wizardry.
Mistake 3 — Not Having a Reason for Existing Outside the Protagonist
To create more depth in your side characters and to make them seem realistic, use the three “whys” method.
Each side character should have:
· A protagonist why
· A life why
· A scene why
The Protagonist Why
Even though you want your side characters to look like they’re full and comprehensive, ultimately, in story terms, they exist to either help or hinder your protagonist. That’s their “protagonist why”. Are they in the story to make the protagonist stop and think? To help them reflect? To protect them? Teach them? Or perhaps put obstacles and barriers in their way? You need to know what their “protagonist why” is.
The Life Why
Protagonist aside, to help create the illusion of depth, your major side characters should have something they want outside the protagonist. Do they need to come out to their family? Are they trying to get a big important job? Maybe they want to win an award. Whatever their own “life why,” if you can make it serve the story by reflecting the theme or perhaps allowing the side character’s goal to interfere with the protagonist’s all the better. For example, in the above Harry Potter example, Hermione’s “life why” is to do well academically. It interferes with her friendships in both positive and negative ways.
Have you ever read a scene where half a dozen characters enter, two or three of them have a conversation, and then all six leave again? I can’t tell you the number of manuscripts I’ve read where that happens. When you have a group of characters in a scene, each character must do one or all of the following:
- Do something
- Say something
- Bring information
- Cause a problem
- Or fix a problem
I’m sure there are other things a character could do in a scene, but the point is, they must be doing something. If they’re not engaged in dialogue, tension creation, tension easing, or action of some kind, then they’re surplus to requirements and need to be removed. Too many instances of “surplus to requirements” and you have to question whether you need the character at all.
If you can avoid these three mistakes you will craft stronger characters. Knowing the importance of a cameo versus a major character will help you manage your cast more effectively, focusing on those characters that need the attention for the sake of your story. Remember, with side characters, it’s only the illusion of an arc you’re creating, not a comprehensive one like a protagonist. Last, try to ensure each major side character has three “whys”. Do those things and you’ll avoid the most commonly occurring mistakes with side characters and build better stories.
If you enjoyed these tips, then you can find out more about building better side characters in Sacha Black’s latest craft book for writers: 8 Steps to Side Characters: How to Craft Supporting Roles with Intention, Purpose and Power.
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A helpful post, Sacha. I have a character in a series I’m writing. He could be written out, as he doesn’t do a great deal, except he, and only he, can solve the problem that will resolve the series. That I’m unsure how to sort out if I get rid of him.
Jemima Pett says
Lots of good thoughts. I probably have too many side characters.But I think most of them earn their keep. Something to check, though.
Although, as somebody noticed when I finished the Princelings series – they’re probably all hanging around waiting for me to feature them in a new story!
Ingmar Albizu says
This was so helpful, Sacha. I like the idea of the three whys.
I can see my side characters becoming more interesting once I start applying this.
Sacha Black says
Thanks so much for having me Angela and Becca, I really appreciate it. Completely agree about each character needing a purpose @Angela 😀
BECCA PUGLISI says
Such good stuff, Sacha! I think many writers are overwhelmed trying to figure out how much research and screen time to devote to the various characters. This advice is a good way to get them started on figuring out where to go with the minor cast members.
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
Great post. Side characters hold so much potential for being a foil and helping the protagonist see who they want to be (or not), help challenge their ideas or beliefs, make them see the world differently, etc. They can add incredible dimension to a story if they have their own objectives and/or arc, too. But a minor character or not, they need to have a reason for being in the book, not just be a warm body for the protagonist to talk to on an adventure or be an echo chamber for their ideas.
Thank you so much Sacha, and congrats on your new book!
Sacha’s advice is always invaluable 🙂 <3