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  • Writer's pictureJenna Moreci

How to Write Side Characters

HelloOoOo everybody!

Today I'm talking all about side characters. What are they? How many do you need? How do you make ’em memorable? All that good stuff. This topic was requested by one of my newsletter subscribers, Demi. Demi had a ton of amazing questions about side characters. These are questions that I've heard from a lot of you, so now seems like a good time to tackle ’em. A lot of people get overwhelmed with the idea of creating a cast of characters and quite often, the side characters don't get the attention they deserve.

You either create way too many side characters that don't serve any purpose, or you have only one or two side characters that carry way too heavy of a burden plot-wise. It’s time to find a happy middle ground between those two extremes. Thus I am answering your ten most common questions about how to write amazing side characters. A huge thank you to Demi for requesting this topic. If you would like to be able to request a topic in the future you gotta subscribe to my newsletter, it's linked here. And now I am diving into your questions. Let's get to it.

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Number 1: What Is a Side Character?

A side character is just that, they're not the focal point of the story, they're off to the side. This essentially means that they are associated with the main character's life and journey, but the story does not revolve around their personal life and journey. Now you can probably tell this is an extremely broad definition, so sometimes side characters are divided into two categories: supporting characters and minor characters. Supporting characters refer to characters who aren't the main character, but they're still pretty important to the story, and show up relatively frequently. Minor characters are characters that just pop in once or twice, they may just be the mailman or a cashier. They often don't get physical descriptions, and sometimes don't even get names. Looking at The Savior’s Champion, Delphi would be considered a supporting character, whereas the unnamed helmeted soldier would be a minor character. For the sake of this post, most of the content will be applicable to supporting characters since minor characters usually don't require a lot of depth on the author's part.

Number 2: How Many Characters Do I Actually Need?

Your novel needs as many characters as it takes to tell your story effectively. For some stories, that means ten characters, for other stories that means forty. It completely depends on the book. Sometimes there are trends within genres. For example, a contemporary novel usually has fewer characters than say, an epic sci-fi. But ultimately there's no one-size-fits-all answer. So long as your characters are necessary to the plot and enhance the storytelling, they're worth having.

Number 3: How Do You Know if a Side Character Is Worth Keeping or Not?

How often does the side character appear in your book? If they only perform one task in one scene, is it possible for another, more recurring character, to perform that task instead? For example, in The Savior's Champion, Tobias meets four servants: Nyx, Hemera, Damaris, and Faun. Originally he was going to meet a fifth servant named Malia, but I quickly realized that the task Malia performed could easily be performed by Damaris instead. Thus Malia was deleted, and Damaris got a heftier role in the book. But the most obvious thing to consider is, what does this character do for the story? How do they move the plot along? What would happen to the story if this character was removed? Would it completely mess up the flow of your story? Would certain plot points no longer make sense? If the answer is yes, then they're worth keeping. If not, they should get the boot.

Number 4: How Do I Make a Side Character Memorable?

Depending on the depth of characterization, I recommend fleshing out your side characters before the writing process as thoroughly as you would a main character. Create a character profile for them, figure out their strengths and weaknesses, and give them unique traits that set them apart from the other characters. This could be personality traits. For example, Raphael is notoriously the grouch of The Savior's Champion. It can also be physical traits. Characters are a lot easier to remember when they look different from one another. This is why diversity in fiction is an asset to your story. When all your characters look the same, they become interchangeable and hard to remember. In The Savior’s Sister, Talos is covered in scars, he's even missing two fingers and a nipple. Faun has tattoos on her arms. Enzo is very white, which is unique in Thessen, and he's got a shaved head. But most importantly, as we already covered, give each character a necessary role in the story. Even if their role is just to be the worried mother or the voice of reason. They need to contribute something that isn't already covered by another character. That's what makes a side character memorable.

Number 5: How Do I Know if a Side Character Is Relevant to a Particular Scene?

Ask yourself one simple question, “What the hell does the character do?” This is especially relevant if you have several characters featured in the same scene. It may not be noticeable while you're writing it, but a reader will definitely notice if one character is silent or takes no action throughout the entire scene. Recently I was working on The Savior's Army and I was writing a conversation between a group of characters. After I wrote the conversation, I realized Enzo didn't speak at all, he wasn't even mentioned throughout the entire conversation. So I removed him from the scene because he didn't contribute. If there are a lot of moving parts and you're having trouble seeing which characters are contributing and which aren't, try color-coding their dialogue and actions. If Enzo was coded orange, I would see zero orange on the page, and thus I’d know he had to go.

Number 6: How Do You Manage a Large Cast of Characters?

First, as we already covered, ask yourself, “Do I need all of these characters?” The more characters you have the more you can potentially confuse your readers, so it's important to make sure that you are only providing the characters necessary to tell the story. This doesn't mean you shouldn't have a large cast of characters. After all, Game of Thrones exists. Just make sure you're not shoehorning in side characters that don't need to be there.

Second, spreadsheet your characters. You can do this through a multitude of writing programs, or you can use good old Excel. The Savior's Champion has a pretty large cast of characters, and at first, it was overwhelming. So I created a spreadsheet listing every single character in the story. I listed their age, their gender, their physical description, their role in the story, whether or not they died, and how they died. This made it a lot easier to manage and then eventually memorize my characters.

And lastly, as we already mentioned, you can color code your characters. This gives you a clearer view of what your characters are doing and how often they come up in your manuscript.

Number 7: How Can You Make the Most out of a Small Cast of Characters?

While I've been asked this question a lot, this worry usually isn't necessary. Unless your cast of characters is so small they can't move the story forward, you probably have nothing to worry about. As we already covered, the only characters you need to write are the ones that are necessary to tell the story. If that means you've only got ten characters, that's not a bad thing. It just means you have lower odds of writing filler, which is a plus.

Number 8: How Can I Make My Side Character Highlight or Improve My World-Building?

This goes back to diversifying your characters. Give them different jobs, different status levels, and different places within society. This is important in most pieces of fiction, but it's especially important if you're writing a story that doesn't take place in our contemporary world. Diversifying your characters is a great way to teach your readers about the world they live in. Is one of your characters from a foreign land? The way the character speaks and behaves could highlight the differences between those two worlds. Is one of your characters highborn or affluent while another is poor? This can showcase the class system in your world. Again, it’s as simple as fleshing out your characters and making sure they bring something unique to the table. A diverse cast can be extremely helpful in teaching your readers about the world they live in.

Number 9: How Do I Make Sure My Side Characters Don’t Overshadow the MC?

Usually for a character to be necessary to plot they need to have agency. That means that at some point they take action or make decisions that affect the overall plot of the novel. Typically when a side character overshadows the MC, it means they have more agency than the MC. They're making more decisions and taking way more action. That's not to say your side characters should never have decision-making power, after all, that's how they benefit the story. In The Savior's Army, one of the side characters saves one of the MC’s life, and honestly, so far it's one of my favorite parts of the story. But it would be a problem if that side character was doing all the saving, while the MC was just coasting. It's okay if your readers enjoy a side character more than the MC, but you wanna make sure that your MC is pulling the most weight in terms of moving the plot forward. If they're sitting on the sidelines while the side characters run the show, ya done fucked up.

Number 10: What Do I Do if My Side Character Has Overshadowed the MC?

If your side character overshadowed the MC, it's time to ask yourself, “Did I give the role of MC to the wrong character?” Maybe the side character shouldn't be off to the side, maybe the story should follow them. If the story absolutely could not function with them as the main character, then it's time to take a look at your characterization choices. Sometimes a side character takes the lead because they're your favorite character. And it's great to love your side characters, but not to the detriment of your MC. I personally try to craft main characters that I adore because then it's a lot easier for me to write content for them and thus make them the star of the show.

If you adore a side character far more than the MC take a look at why you like them more. Is it because they're snarky or witty? Are their personality traits or strengths and weaknesses more engaging to you? If that's the case, consider giving those traits to the MC instead. Make the MC the snark master and let your side character stay on the side.

So that's all I've got for you today!

Author Jenna Moreci.

Those are your ten most popular questions about writing side characters. I hope these answers help you bolster your story with a strong supporting cast, who have mayyyybe a little fun on the side.


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