#35: Making Side Characters Feel Real

Dear Story Nurse,

Once again I’m looking back at a first draft and making notes of what needs fixing. It’s my usual list: Slow down, set the scene, connect things better, and fill out the ancillary characters. It’s the last one that I continue to find the hardest, particularly in my longer fiction. (In this case a near-future science fiction novel.)

My main characters are generally good, each having their own full and distinct personality and voice. But my supporting characters, the ones who reoccur occasionally to help move the story along, are all the same generic piece of furniture, saying or doing only what is necessary to further the story. They usually embody some specific purpose. (The Informer, the Boss, the Scientist, etc.) I feel like it’s important to make these characters distinct for the benefit of the reader. If the character has been off page for several (or many) chapters, I’d like the reader to recall their value without too much prompting. These characters also tend to be the third (or fourth or fifth) person in the room, and giving them a distinct presence can help calm the mayhem of group scenes.

Since they aren’t main characters, I don’t want to spend too much page time developing them, so I feel the pull to draw from familiar clichés. (The sniveling Informer, the clueless Boss, the Scientist with bad social skills, etc.) But applying broad clichés doesn’t really do any favors to me, my readers, or the characters themselves.

On the other hand, when I sit down and give them all the consideration of a main character, they get away from me, doing all kinds of things. I love that behavior in my mains, but it’s downright rude of my supporting characters since it’s not particularly… uh… supportive.

How can I balance all of these competing forces to best serve the story and the reader?

—Ancillary Justice (they/them)

Dear Ancillary Justice,

There’s a broad range between “plot furniture” and “side character gets uppity, wants to be the protagonist.” I think you can aim for somewhere in the middle of that range and have it work out well, as long as you have the writerly discipline to keep your characters in line. Or you can develop side characters as embodiments of the setting, which will probably serve your books better in the long run.

Characters further the plot, and it sounds like you have a good handle on how to use your side characters to do that. But when you try to build them out as characters, they start to want plots of their own, and I think that’s what feels to you like them getting away from you. Here’s an example from some imagined epic fantasy:

  • First-draft potion seller: “Say, did I hear you mention looking for an enchanted harp? A long time ago when I lived in Rumblebrook I heard a story of an enchanted harp that was buried there behind a music shop. But I’m sure it’s only a legend.”
  • Second-draft potion seller: “I heard you’re looking for an enchanted harp. Well, give up! No one’s ever found the Rumblebrook Harp and no one ever will. I gave it a try myself back in the day, and I still carry the scars. It’s a fool’s errand. That said, if you really do plan to give it a shot, I could come along and give you some pointers. I’d hate to see a kid like you make all the same mistakes I did. Gosh, the thought of adventuring really takes me back… wait here while I get my rucksack.”

By giving the potion seller some mannerisms and backstory—things that one usually employs to build out a character—you’re opening the door to her having a frontstory of her own. Now there’s a sixth member of your adventuring party, and she’s got all sorts of useful knowledge that completely derails your plan for them to get in trouble through foolish blunders, and halfway through the book the protagonist falls in love with her and now your romance subplot’s gone. Whoops.

Wait, aren’t you the writer? This is your book. You get to stop this overeager potion seller before she takes over the story.

  • Evade. By the time she gets back with her rucksack, the adventuring party has already departed, rather in haste. No forwarding address.
  • Deny. “That’s really nice of you,” the party leader says, “but we’re full up.” After all, there’s no actual reason for the party to include this totally random washed-up former adventurer, so why would they let her come along? This is the character exercising discipline on your behalf. If you are willing to say no to the character, the protagonist will say it too.
  • Subvert. “Actually,” the party leader says, “we already found the Rumblebrook Harp. We were actually looking for an enchanted harpist who knows how to play it.” This is a different sort of writerly discipline, where you explain to this side character that she isn’t in the story she thinks she’s in. She’s picturing herself as Heroine About to Go on a Journey. You need to make it clear to her that her actual story is Potion Seller Provides Useful Information. That is sad for her. Maybe she goes off on her own journey later. Feel free to imagine that—and not write it.
  • Coopt. Make the potion seller a running gag; every single person who buys potions in her shop has to stop her from trying to join their adventuring party, puppetry troupe, or medical college. “I see you got that from Allemary’s,” warriors say to one another as they heal their wounds after the battle. “Did she try to stow away in your luggage?”

You’re operating by improv theater rules, where as soon as a character introduces a new idea, you say “yes, and” to it. But this theater troupe answers to your direction. Set and enforce some boundaries and keep your story as the story you want it to be.

I am not writing a 2000-word essay here about the dangers of portraying authors as helpless while the muse, plot, and/or characters are in charge. But I think those are very pernicious and problematic ideas and I encourage you to uproot them from your mind. You aren’t helpless. You don’t have to let the characters walk all over your plans for the story. Your subconscious mind is not automatically a better writer or plotter than your conscious mind and your spontaneously generated ideas are not automatically better than the ones in your outline. You’ve already got an entire first draft with a complete story that presumably hangs together pretty well, since you didn’t mention having any issues with plotting. So as you turn your plot-furniture characters into real people, turn them into real people that you sometimes say no to, just like the real people in your life.

(If you never say no to the people in your life, that’s a different problem that I can’t help you with, but it might shed some light on your difficulties saying no to your characters. If you’re great at saying no to the people in your life, apply those skills here.)

So you’ve evaded, denied, subverted, and/or coopted your potion seller. You could totally leave her there. She’s still got enough personality and backstory to feel real, and your characters have smartly taken steps to keep her in her place, narratively speaking. As she pushes against their plans and they push back, that touch of conflict helps make her memorable to the reader. This is definitely good enough for most writers, and is where most writers stop.

However, if you want to go further, you can.

We all know the world is full of real people. We brush our lives up against theirs every day. One of the things that makes them real, and not just figments of our imaginations, is that we don’t matter to them at all. They existed before we were born and will exist after we die. The real-world equivalent of that potion seller is the Starbucks barista who forgets your name a half-second after reading it off your coffee cup. To them, you aren’t real.

If you want to make your side characters really real, develop them without any regard to your protagonist at all. If your protagonist never came into their lives, they would still exist quite happily and not feel they were missing out in any way.

  • Third-draft potion seller: “Six gold, please—Madi, don’t touch his sword! I’m so sorry, my wife is on guard duty up at the castle today and I have to watch our kid. I’d walk through fire for him, but I swear he’s given me more scars than I got on my quest for the Rumblebrook Harp.”

The potion seller’s story is now completely orthogonal to the protagonist’s. When the adventurers leave the shop, the reader knows that the potion seller’s wife will come home and their kid will go to sleep and they’ll eat some Fantasy Stew™ and fall exhausted into bed. The potion seller doesn’t want to follow the protagonist, or challenge the protagonist, or be the protagonist. She’s got a small independent business and a family. She’s got her own story. She doesn’t need yours.

It’s very challenging to de-center the protagonist and the book’s plot in this way. You’re used to thinking of them as the be-all and end-all, and of course there’s some writerly ego wrapped up in there too. But when you do it, your side characters become part of your world-building in a way that tremendously enhances your story. This character’s original purpose was to provide the protagonist with specific information about the world. Now she’s providing much more general information to the reader: this world has same-sex couples with children, women who run businesses and go on quests and are soldiers, six-year-olds who like to do dangerous things, parents who love their kids even when they’re exasperating. Oh, and also, there’s this harp.

Clichéd characters actually tend to take up more page space because you have to differentiate them from their clichés. Unique characters can be sketched in with just a few words. You don’t need to spend pages developing a character for them to feel real. You just need to give the impression that you could.

The informer has become so rich from bribes that they’ve donated millions to literacy charities. The boss is exhausted from going to business school after work, but she really wants to learn effective management skills. The scientist is the reigning trivia champion at the local pub, but terrible at karaoke. They have friends and spouses and lives that extend far beyond the beginning and end of your story. The protagonist is one of thousands of people they know, and they probably couldn’t sketch a portrait of her if they tried. And that’s just fine.

Happy paradigm-shifting!


Story Nurse

This advice is brought to you by my generous patrons on PatreonGot a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s