This post has been sitting in my head for the whole day and I am determined to write it. It is inspired in part by the latest Writing Excuses podcast episode, called “Transitioning Characters in Prominence”, and it’ll probably just echo a lot of what they said, but I had a few more thoughts I wanted to give on the subject. If you’re looking for an excuse not to read this post, I recommend that episode.
This post is primarily about making characters interesting. I know I’ve done a post before about the same subject, but that was characters in general, and it missed quite a few things. This is mostly about side characters.
Side characters have to be interesting for many reasons. Yes, it’s the main character who runs the show, but the side characters are part of his surroundings, influencing him and generally making things interesting for everyone. It’s the side characters who are always halfway faded into the background, there but not interesting. Some side characters are rather boring, and have to be– too many subplots and your book turns into Les Miserables (which wouldn’t be a bad thing, I merely meant it would be really big)– but other side characters have to be interesting or the plot moves far too fast. The best stories are woven together with several subplots between characters, and the most interesting characters aren’t always the main characters.
Take Dustfinger, for instance. The most interesting side character I have ever had the pleasure to read. He comes through every aspect of the story and yet doesn’t take anything away from the main character or plot– he’s just there, existing and being awesome. How do you write someone like that?
Agent Phil Coulson from the Avengers. He’s one of the movie’s most beloved characters, and yet he takes less than ten minutes of viewing time. How did they do that?
The traitor from any book you choose. He’s always my favorite character (unless he’s done badly), and yet he’s always a side character. How do you bring someone out into that sort of importance?
More importantly, why? Why do you need to make side characters interesting? They’re only side characters. Although the subplots need to be there to make a truly great story, you don’t necessarily need to make them interesting. In fact, if you made all the side characters dull, the main character would be, by contrast, terribly interesting! That makes sense!
But it doesn’t work like that. The main character needs help on this quest of his, and not everyone can be a throw-away character. There are some who need to be interesting. For instance, someone needs to act as the dynamic character to make sure the main character gets his mandatory character development. Someone needs to take the important part of this plan so they can succeed. Someone needs to get the main character out of his low point without creating a Deus Ex Machina. Someone needs to die. (I’m not saying this is the only reason to make someone interesting, though Moffat and Whedon seem to make a living from it.)
So. How do you make a character interesting… without making them the main character?
Give them a life. Obviously, if you explore their character a little more and make sure they aren’t completely focused on the main plot, you’ll have a lot more options for subplots. Not only that, but they become independent and begin to break the mold of their stereotype– which, by the way, side characters need if they’re going to be successful. The stereotype defines them until they can make a personality for themselves, and that stereotype keeps them a background character as long as it’s there.
Following this line of reasoning, attitude and personality play a large role in how interesting a side character is. Not everyone should agree with the main character, you know. Conflict is important, whether it’s from the villain or a side character. Not only that, but a good attitude, or a strange one. This character has a different perspective from anyone who’s ever walked the earth. Bring it out. Influence it with their backstory, with their life, and you’ll have an excellent character foil as well as an interesting side character. This too helps break stereotypes.
Take a little time to see things from their perspective. Obviously, this goes along with showing their life and personality, but it’s more than that. Giving someone a perspective gives them importance in the reader’s mind– not just anyone can keep the reader’s attention for a scene. Of course, this goes along better with third-person omniscient than first person, which is why you see it in movies as well as from authors like Cornelia Funke and Brian Jacques. Be careful with handing out perspectives, though– keep it limited. Not everyone should have a point-of-view chapter. If you do it sparingly, it’s much more powerful.
If you don’t have the option to take time from their viewpoint, however, it might be worthwhile to have your narrator sit down with the character and hear their backstory. This can quickly become cheesy, so be careful. It also requires the character to trust the main character. If you’re writing a traitor, that could be tricky. Play it by ear.
If you think about it, this is how Dustfinger and Agent Coulson became interesting. Dustfinger gets a few of his own chapters in the beginning of the first book, quickly setting up his legendary self-loathing and inner turmoil. Coulson gets less of an obvious beginning, but his arc was amazing in its simplicity. In both Iron Man 2 and Thor he’s portrayed as the stereotypical agent, walking around in a suit and sunglasses all the time, babysitting superheroes. He doesn’t seem to like Tony Stark, which immediately shows him as a killjoy… until we get to the Avengers, in which he’s so excited to finally meet Captain America and talking to Pepper about a cellist from Oregon or something. He suddenly has both a life and a personality other than that of the stereotype we saw before. In two quick strokes he’s built into the focus of a turning point for the entire movie.
Do you have time for this? I don’t know. In your tightly-plotted manuscript, there might not be room for such frivolity as interesting side characters. You might be struggling with an overlong draft and don’t want to add another storyline. Let me ask you this. Are you including humor? At least making attempts to do so? How much time and words does that take? A one-liner or quick one-two is easy to type, adding less than twenty words to the overall story. Coulson’s entire character arc is shown within ten lines of dialogue. You might not have time for a scene from the character’s perspective, or the possibility, but a few words will do. When it builds a character up into something the audience will love, it’s worth it.