How to Write Side Characters

When written correctly, side characters can actually be some pretty interesting people. Plus, they add a lot to the story. Yes, we all have to put effort into making our protagonists and antagonists multi-dimensional characters, but that doesn’t mean we’re allowed to forget about our side characters. While they might be minor characters in the grand scheme of things, they’re still vital to the telling of the story as they serve many functions such as revealing key details, motivating the protagonist or foiling the protagonist, and sometimes helping to outline certain plots in the story. These secondary characters can either interact with the protagonist through dialogue or through a memory that the main character has of them. 

Whichever way you choose to have your main character interact with your side character(s), it’s important to remember the main function of the side character: to help progress the story forward somehow. 

With that in mind, here are some tips to making sure your side characters are not one-sided.

Don’t get stuck on the little details:

Yes, writing a rich backstory is important to understanding your side character. But not everything has to be in your story. Just include the parts of the character’s backstory that are relevant to the plot and that move it forward. Don’t get stuck on the little details that don’t matter. It’ll only end up confusing your reader. A good tip to bear in mind is to ask yourself “does this add to the main story or distract from it?”

Don’t make them solely good or solely bad:

The best way to add dimension to your characters is to avoid making them one-sided. If they’re completely good or evil they’ll read completely flat. What I like to do for all my characters, including the side characters, is to give them three good virtues and three negative ones and work from there. The way I see it, if you mix black and white you get grey – and grey is where things get interesting. 

Don’t create too many characters:

Creating characters is fun. That is why it’s so easy to get swept up in the desire to write more and more characters, leading to your story to become very convoluted. If you ever read War and Peace, you know just how long that list of characters is. And if you read Tolstoy’s masterpiece, you probably had to refresh your memory a couple times while reading as you tried to keep up with all the characters. While Tolstoy somehow made it work in 587,287 words, most of us are probably working with a much smaller word count goal. Therefore we shouldn’t make it too confusing for our readers to keep up with our cast of characters. 

The side characters are there to develop the main character(s):

No matter if you have one side character or five, they all share the same exact purpose: to develop the main character. Side characters can be used to expose key plot points without you necessarily going into exposition mode and “telling” what is happening, but rather “showing” it through the characters. A side character should never be just background noise, each side character should be an active participant in the story and either support your main character or provide an obstacle for them (without necessarily being the antagonist). 

Use them to help bring the world to life:

This is particularly helpful if you’re writing fantasy or sci-fi. Secondary characters can be tools used to help bring the world you built to life. Physical descriptions, personal experiences, these are all ways that the side characters can help to better illustrate the world you’ve created. 

Try to keep them in one space:

In order to make it easier for your readers to keep up with your secondary characters, it’s a good idea to tie them to one location whenever possible. That means that your side character exists in one spot, like the bar, school, the library, etc. and they never venture beyond this point. But remember, even if they only exist as the woman in the coffee shop, they still need to serve a purpose to moving the story forward. It’s easier for your reader to learn character names etc. when they are in one location. But if you do move a secondary character around, do it with purpose. 

Give them a reason for being in a scene:

Speaking of purpose, you should make sure that your secondary character has a purpose for being in a scene. Like I said in the previous point, your side characters should really be kept to one location if it can be helped. But if you do end up moving them around, make sure that there is a reason for them to be in a different scene with your main character. If there is no good reason for your side character to be in the scene then it’ll just read as awkward and confusing. 

Preptober Plotting Tips

Welcome to Preptober! If you’re like me, you’re probably gearing up for November, which for lots of writers is simply known as NaNoWrimo. I’ve spent the last four years participating in every NaNoWriMo and Camp NaNoWriMo, but I’ve never been able to fully finish a challenge. After much careful consideration, I’ve concluded that it’s probably because my writing habits could use a change and a little more self-discipline. I’m very much a pantster when it comes to writing – I just start writing by the seam of my pants and hope for the best.

While this method might be great for getting the creativity flowing, it also means that you’re more likely to encounter roadblocks to the plot. I find these happen most often in the middle of your book. It’s easy to write the beginning and the ending of a story, but the middle is where you’re most likely to drop the ball if you don’t have a set plot with a linear continuity already planned out. And if you’re participating in a writing challenge like NaNoWriMo it’s so easy to give up halfway through because you don’t know what you’re doing. 

That is why it’s a great idea to try and become somewhat of a plotster. You don’t have to detail out every single minor event or occurrence, but having a general idea will definitely help get you from point A to point C without giving up when you hit point B. And this year for NaNoWriMo I’m determined to finish a full 65k manuscript, which is why I’m spending Preptober coming up with a solid enough outline to help me next month.

I’ve been following a simple three-act outline that focuses more on the character development. The setting isn’t something that you need to worry about as it pretty much writes itself. But the plot and characters are pretty intertwined. I personally like to outline my characters’ reactions to certain major plot points. And if you follow the traditional three-act plot, it’ll create a pretty easy-to-follow outline that you can turn to when you’re in the middle of NaNoWriMo.

Check it out below:

Act One

Opening/Narrative Hook:

  • Introduce character 
  • This is also the place where you can do a bit of world building as you set up and Introduce your character’s normal world
  • Introduce your character’s unfulfilled desires or what’s holding them back

Inciting Incident:

  • What happens to disrupt your character’s sense of “normalcy?”
  • Character can react to either want to change things or escape things

First Plot Point:

  • The moment the character makes the full commitment to whatever the inciting incident has called them to pursue
  • Character struggles with fears or a lie they believe about themselves/others/the world

Act Two

Rising Action:

  • Your character begins the proverbial “hero’s quest” and along the way must confront the things that make them uncomfortable such as fear of failure, fear of their own shortcomings, breaking down long-held beliefs, etc.
  • Your character’s fight against the antagonist begins
  • This is also when your main character begins to see that their fears/beliefs are wrong

Midpoint/Second Plot Point:

  • This is the biggest part of your novel so far, in which your character comes face to face with the antagonist

Post-Midpoint Rising Action:

  • The main character devises a plan to defeat the antagonist
  • They make a small step toward their goal
  • While continuing to grow as a character, they still struggle with previous fears/old beliefs

Act Three

Character’s Darkest Moment:

  • Right after that small step toward their goal in Act 2, the main character suffers a major setback that forces them to confront the fears or misplaced beliefs that have been holding them back the entire story
  • The release of their repression further fuels them to defeat the antagonist

The Climax:

  • The conclusion of the character’s arc is complete with the defeat of the antagonist (but keep in mind if this is Book One in a series then the smaller antagonistic force is stopped, but not the overarching antagonist of the entire story)

The Resolution:

  • Your character returns to “normal” but having experienced change they can’t return to the status quo, so they begin their life in a new way