Writing Advice: Side Characters

In many ways (okay, most of them), I am still a novice writer, but there are some things that I have learned, mostly by doing them poorly.  But hey, if there’s one thing I’m good at in writing, it’s figuring out what not to do by doing it.

So today I want to talk about side characters, and how not to do them.

In some works that I read, side characters really feel secondary, not just in their involvement in their books but in their own minds as well.  Everything that you find out about them, everything that they are, is related to the main character or antagonist; they are defined by that relationship.

As a writer, that’s natural.  We (generally) start with the things that drive our story, and then branch out and see what else is there.  We discover characters this way, and we’ve gotten to them by thinking about the main doers, so we find first what relates.

But as readers, this stinks to high heavens.  Can you imagine this in real life, if the only thing that mattered was how you related to your best friend?  Or mother?  Or boss?

I love quotes, so here is one that sums up what I’m driving at:  “Every man is the hero of his own story.”

In this story, they might just be a side character, possibly not even named, but in their own eyes, they are the central figure.  They have their own motivations, their own desires and fears that can be wholly separate from your main character.  Even a humble barkeep is there more than just to serve drinks to your shining hero – in his own eyes.  He’s got a mortgage to pay, an aching back, and maybe a tentacled horror locked in the basement.

You just never know.

That’s not to say that each of these characters should share the spotlight as much as the MC.  That would be nigh unto impossible, and probably bad fiction.  Ultimately, this story is the story of your MC (with a lot of wiggle room in that statement), so they shouldn’t hog the limelight, but all of their actions probably shouldn’t be in context of the main character.

I guess, if I had concrete advice here, I would tell you to develop the character before you start writing as if they are the hero of some story.  Give them a full personality (besides “henchman with gas problems”), with their own goals and motivations.  Some of those can be related to the MC (hell, some of them probably should be), but if everything important about them interfaces with the main character, you might want to step back and see things through their eyes for a bit.

This becomes especially important for villains, I think.  Most antagonists aren’t motivated by being batshit insane, or just wanting to watch the world burn.  They don’t kill puppies because it’s fun, or torch villages because it makes pretty colors.  In their own eyes, what they are doing is justified, even if it’s not for the greater good (though all kinds of actions, fictional and historical, have been undertaken because someone believed it was for the good of the world, even if it wasn’t).  A king may be trying to take over another state, but he isn’t doing it to slaughter and torture the inhabitants (even if that happens), but because he believes it will strengthen the power of the kingdom, or because it will enlighten the barbaric peoples there and show them the true way.  It may be wrong, and he could easily be the antagonist, but in his own eyes he is not evil.

After all, every man is the hero of his own story.

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