Every good novel has a fascinating and relatable protagonist. The best novels pair their protagonists with a cast of intriguing side characters. While they may not be the stars of your show, side characters are so important for world building, plot development, and the character growth of your protagonist.
Despite their importance, it can be difficult to write engaging side characters. Writing side characters can be a constant balancing act between preventing your cast from stealing the show without reducing them to two-dimensional props.
If you’re struggling to build a believable supporting cast, these methods can help add depth to the minor roles in your novel.
Compare, Contrast, and Catalogue Your Characters
When things aren’t turning out right in your prose, diagrams and charts are always a good step to take. The same can be said for enhancing your supporting cast.
List out your side characters in columns to compare and contrast their personalities. As you do so, try to add as many relevant details to your columns as you can. A chart can help you examine which characters are more developed when compared to the rest of your cast, and it can help you spot similarities between characters.
Examine all aspects of your characters. Are their names all too similar? Sometimes we can give our side characters all similar sounding names without even realizing it, which can cause your readers to struggle with differentiating between them.
Do they all have similar jobs? How are their professional backgrounds different and how could that relate to the story? Are their family situations all identical? How could you manipulate their background to make them more true-to-life?
Update your chart as you write and keep an eye on the differences between your characters. While some similarities may connect your cast, they should all retain their individuality with diverse traits and background.
Free-write from Your Side Characters’ Points of View
Now that you’ve outlined your side characters, get to know them further by seeing your story from their point of view. Even if your novel takes place from the protagonist’s point of view, try writing what your side characters see to better understand what they are experiencing while the plot unfolds.
For this activity, start by choosing a scene to write from a side character’s point of view. This could be an existing scene you have planned for your novel, a scene you’re still workshopping, or something that isn’t even in your novel, but may help provide background on your side character.
With your scene chosen, let the words flow while focusing on what the side character is experiencing. How is their view of this scene different from the main character’s? What can you learn about them from they way they experience this point in time? Don’t focus too much about continuity errors, focus more on seeing life through your side character’s eyes.
Take out your character planning page upon completion of your free write. Read it over, jotting down any details you notice about your side characters on your chart. Did the writing activity provide insight on any traits you hadn’t considered?
Repeat for as many side characters as you need. Remember not to focus on perfecting the scenery and background, focus mostly on how you can show your side character’s personality through the excerpt.
Chart How Your Sidekicks fit into the World
Good side characters are believable, realistic ones. Their day job isn’t just following your hero around, they have lives, families, careers, and jobs, just like any other main character. If all of your side character’s actions and thoughts are centered around the main character, your audience may not find them compelling or interesting.
Start with explaining how your side characters tie into the plot. Do they have any stake in the outcome, or are they just along for the ride? What are their personal goals and how do they relate to the main character’s?
Next outline how their lives tie into your world building. What do they do for a living? Hopefully they don’t just sit around all day and wait for the protagonist to do something! How did they meet the protagonist? Who are their friends? What are they doing when they’re not featured in the story?
A web diagram may be helpful for this exercise. Place your main character and their goals in the center of the web. Using lines spanning outwards from the center, connect your side characters and their goals. How do their goals relate to the story? How are they involved with the main character? What do they have to gain from the outcome of the plot?
If you struggle to connect the side characters to your center circle, brainstorm on how you could connect them. How could you get them interested in the main character’s goal? What got them invested in the plot in the first place?
Whenever you find your protagonist and side kicks in a situation, ask yourself – what are my side characters getting out of it? You might not have an answer. Find a way that your side characters benefit from the outcome of the conflict, and you’ll be able to deepen their motivation.
Give Your Characters Memorable Quirks
Every person you know probably has some small, unusual quirk, whether it is an attachment to a certain object, an odd catch phrase, or just a funny handshake. Give your side characters a similar usual trait to give the audience more insight into them.
Thinking along with speech patterns, maybe one side character has a southern accent carried over from their hometown. Another might have a distinct piece of jewelry given to them by a beloved family member. Maybe one side character is left handed, another is right handed. Small details like this can help your audience build a better picture of your sidekick in their mind.
As you add quirks, do your best to diversify unique traits that your characters have. The audience for your novel is probably a diverse one. While your protagonist is lovable and relatable, they can only be so diverse as one person. Use your side characters to showcase some personality traits that your protagonist may be missing to relate to other readers in your book’s demographic.
Just remember to keep each character unique in some way! Real people are diverse in so many ways, and your cast of characters should reflect that.
Don’t Be Afraid to Experiment
Most writers can be extremely attached to their protagonist. They love their personality, appearance, speech patterns, moral compass, and might be hesitant to experiment with changes to them.
If you want to inject different traits into your story, try experimenting with your side characters. Try out some different tropes, different speech patterns, and see how they fit your story. You may find something you love, or you may realize it doesn’t fit the mood you’re seeking. The best part is that if you don’t care for your experimental traits, its less work to undo a side character than your big name protagonist.
While you’re experimenting, you could also try swapping one of your other main characters with a smaller side character. If you have three primary characters but one feels a little too flat, try switching them out with a more dynamic side character. If you like the switch, keep it, but if after a few chapters you decide to switch back, there isn’t as much re-writing to do as opposed to messing with your main character.
Remember that you can undo anything you write, so don’t be afraid to try something new.
A common trait of flat side characters is their tendency to frequently fall in agreement with the main protagonist. They’re always on board with any adventures, or happily agree to any decisions the protagonist makes along the journey.
Are real people like that? Absolutely not.
Don’t be afraid to throw your side characters into disagreements with your main characters. This doesn’t mean the side character has to win the argument, but disagreements can reveal some underlying traits of your main character, like their knowledge of a subject, their ability to debate, or their own reasoning for their choices.
Disagreements can also reveal the morality of your side characters in contrast with your main characters. How are their morals different? Maybe your main character acts primarily on their own interest while one side character is focused on acting in the interest of society as a whole. This can create an interesting debate between characters that allows your reader to see several sides of an issue.
In your planning, outline some issues that your side characters may see differently from the main character. What issues do they agree on? How do their disagreements affect the plot? Will their different moral compasses be a point of contention?
Don’t shy away from conflict just because two characters are working together or supposedly on the same team. Giving your side characters opposing opinions and different morals can let your reader see many sides of the world you’re building.
When writing side characters, it is important to see them as individuals, not just extensions of your protagonist. Even if they are there to support your main character, make sure they have plenty of diverse traits to let them stand out as individuals.
Take the time to experiment with your side characters and get to know them outside of the context of your protagonist. Remember that in order to give your book realism, your characters should reflect real life relationships, which are filled with disagreements, diverse moral compasses, and strange quirks.