I’m sure you’ve heard the age-old advice about acting and reacting; in fact, I’ve echoed that advice several times. Your good guys shouldn’t spend the entire book reacting— it makes them seem slow and apathetic, as if they’d lie in bed all day if there wasn’t a villain to trample their watermelon garden or blow up downtown. Instead, they should, at some point in the story, switch from reacting to the villain’s moves to acting. Instead of waiting for the next strike, they go after the villain. Usually, the switch comes around the midpoint. You can see it clear as day in superhero movies, or most action movies.
But there’s a different kind of reacting I’d like to talk about, one that doesn’t involve the grand scope of things. It involves the little people, the walk-ons and the side characters, who so often end up as cardboard cutouts beside your vivid, engaging main character. With all the work you put into your plot, setting, and characters, the side characters can fall through the cracks to become faces in a crowd, with speaking roles but nothing memorable.
Cardboard will not destroy your story, but flesh and blood can’t go wrong. How do we make side characters real?
One easy way to do this is to add a subplot. Giving a certain character a plot of their own gives them motion, which in turn brings them attention from the audience. It provides the sense that they’re doing something of their own, instead of riding the wave of the main plot to its destination like everyone else.
But however large your cast is, you’re going to need walk-ons sometime. Not everyone can get their own subplot, or your book would be bigger than a zeppelin. There’s another, simpler solution: reactions.
I don’t mean the same kind of reactions that I mentioned above. I mean reactions, personal reactions, in very small ways such as dialogue or emotions that don’t really affect the plot. A character who fears for his life and thus betrays his friend for safety, that’s a reaction that affects the plot. But small reactions, ones that stem from the plot but don’t affect it, can be just as useful.
Imagine the scene: Bill and Dave are trying to decide where to go. Dave is mortally wounded (he always is, for some reason), and Bill is desperately trying to find help. The night before, they had run into a band of Faraday Squirrels, ferocious beasts that kill via electromagnetic induction. Dave is dying slowly and painfully, and Bill has a pebble in his boot. Bill thinks they should rest for a bit (so he can get the pebble out), and then go toward the nearest town. Dave agrees wholeheartedly.
For your information, Bill is the main character. Dave is the side character who, even to me, feels flat as a steamrolled pancake. There’s nothing inherently wrong with him— Dave could very well want to give up at this point, or walking could be excruciating, or any number of things to make him want to stop as well— but he’s not flesh and blood either. He’s cardboard, dimensionless.
How do we fix it? Reactions. Sure, dying is a fair reaction to being attacked by Faraday Squirrels, but it’s not helping at this point. Dave isn’t making the most of his last few hours on earth; he needs something more. The easiest way to make him react is to make him disagree.
With a little insight into his situation, it’s easy to see why he’d disagree. He’s dying, and he knows it. If he’s only got a few hours left, by golly he’s going to die in a warm bed. Or, if you want to get deeper with it, his brother died when he was young, in the woods on a hunting expedition. Those with him couldn’t spare the time to bring him home, and they buried him where no one ever found him. Dave is deathly afraid of being buried in the middle of nowhere.
There are many ways you can go with this. When something happens in the plot, find different ways characters can react to it.
Another example: Bill and Dave continue their quest (because Dave has recovered from his mortal wound— he does that) and pick up Sally, an annoying little girl from a village they passed through. Sally is, as stated, annoying, but she proves useful reading into the politics of several small towns. (This is vital to their quest.) The third town they come to, however, has strange behavior. They base their system of government off of the way chickens lay their eggs. (Sunny side up, I’m president. Omelette, you lose the election. Okay? Okay.) Bill, knowing the annoying Sally is an asset, asks her to figure these strange people out. She agrees wholeheartedly. Dave loves the idea.
You can see where I’m going. Agreeing with the main character all the time is a problem that produces flat characters. If both Dave and the girl disagree, it raises conflict and makes them free thinkers. But why do they disagree? That’s the starting place of these reactions.
But disagreement isn’t the only option in this example. What if Dave loves the idea because he’s always considered eggs prophetic, but the girl is Vegan and sees it as inhumane? Or what if Dave considers eggs sacred (is that the same as being Vegan?) and the girl is eager for a challenge? With each side character, you have several options for reactions of all kinds. As more characters enter a scene, you gain more and more options.
None of these reactions must be pursued. None of them are promises in themselves, unless you hold back information or some sort of emotional payoff. As they are, they’re throwaway lines that can be expanded into subplots or left alone as you wish. In fact, a good way to brainstorm subplots is by asking yourself how each character would react in this situation. I will say again, though, don’t expand everything into a subplot. No book has room for every character to have a full life— only hints of them, dropped one at a time.
Have fun with this. Giving characters reactions can keep them from becoming cardboard cutouts, and also add conflict and other points of view to a scene that otherwise might have been boring. If you keep from making it too silly, this can get you a long way toward making flat characters flesh and blood.