Writing Excuses 8.4: Side-Character Arcs

Who needs a character arc?

Do your side characters, your non-POV characters need some sort of development during the story? We cover what we mean by “arc,” and we lay down some guidelines for who might need an arc, who might not, and what you might take into consideration when writing these characters.


The Hero of the Most Boring Story Ever—your job is to make it interesting.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, by Philip K. Dick, narrated by Tom Weiner

16 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 8.4: Side-Character Arcs”

  1. I’d like to point out that, while this podcast is using character depth as a function of character arc, the two things are distinct (though related) facets of characterization. Character depth (or three-dimensionality) is regarding how believable they are – having flaws, a developed believable personality, etc, as opposed to being an archetype plant. As Brandon says, the latter characters do have their purposes, but they’re fairly limited. Character arcs generally involve them being dynamic – they change over the course of the story in some way.

    A good example of a character with depth without dynamicism that I can think of is Shan Elariel in Mistborn (spoilers for Mistborn book 1 follow). (You may not remember her, but she’s Vin’s main antagonist in the court/ball side of the plot.) She’s believable within the context of the story, but she’s very constant – the revelation that she’s Mistborn too is surprising, but it’s not so much a change in the character as it is a secret being revealed. She doesn’t develop or change over the course of the story, right up until her death. (That said, she has relatively little time devoted to her, so the lack of dynamicism doesn’t make her boring, as it eventually does if it goes on too long). Kelsier is arguably the best Mistborn example – the changes in his character all predate the start of the book.

    Conversely, if you want a dynamic, relatively 2d character (it’s impossible for a completely 2d character to be dynamic almost by definition), I’d go with another Mistborn character (so more spoilers for book 1): Yeden. At the start, he’s virtually stereotypically shy – has to be encouraged repeatedly to speak his mind, etc. Later on, he’s developed enough self confidence to lead an army in a suicidal attack against the Final Empire. We don’t see him enough to see the slow development, and both ends of his arc are pretty flat. (Realistically, I don’t think you’d see this very often – dynamic characters generally need a bit more depth of personality for it to work well.)

  2. Fantastic! I’m currently writing a novel with multiple tight third person p.o.v. I feel like I’m cheating a bit, seeing as there are many plot restrictions (I find) when we only have one character with a tight p.o.v. I can’t just do one hero + side characters. I get tired when the heroes have to discover everything themselves (or must be told by others.) That’s difficult when you’re writing a massive epic fantasy where everyone has his/her own motives. So many of my side characters end up getting their own chapters because, in an attempt to empathize with them, I find that they’re really integral to the story–there’s more than one hero. Or maybe I just fell in love and have become blinded. Whatever.

    But I do think it’s absolutely crucial for writers, when employing tight p.o.v, to not wander off into describing/perceiving sidekicks objectively. I think, as writers, we sometimes wander from omniscient God-description to character p.o.v. description. Living the hero’s subjectivity makes a story more engaging, even if the hero is annoying or a jackass.

    Also, thank you for mentioning the “descent into madness” arc. I’m currently trying it out with one of my heroes.

    P.S I LOVE The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldtritch.

  3. Really enjoyable episode, this week, and solidified for me, finally, the role of the secondary character and whether or not they need a PoV or just a side arc. As well, I finally understand what constitutes the difference between a side arc and a PoV and how to successfully write it in to a story.

    Thanks so much!!

  4. Oh, I want to see those Hoid chapters so much… (Yes, I’m a Sharder)

    Also, you guys are awesome.

  5. A big reason I give everyone a viewpoint is more because I have a large cast of characters. Although not as large as some anime of course, I have around nineteen characters. And no I’m not going to merge them if all the critique is basing it on is a world building exercise.

    Thats a bit like saying you should merge Golem and Frodo based on the world of Lord Of The Rings. Your not going to get an idea like that from a world building exercise.

  6. Actually I’ve been considering, actually having separate stories or books set in the same world, but a different character arc, so one book does not have a million characters. But its all centered around the same war or briefly after.

  7. Thanks guys! I don’t know how you guys are reading my mind, but the past couple of episodes have spoken directly to the fantasy story I’ve been working on. In the past few days, I’ve been trying to sort out my secondary characters and what I need to do with them to give their stories more depth and impact.

    Again, thank you.

  8. The timing of this podcast is spooky as not only does it fall on the heelsof David Farland answering my question about writing large ensemble casts (a topic I would love you guys to cover too) but today I just was thinking about how to delegate a main character to side character status without losing his character arc. Now I might even be able to do that without giving him a POV which would knock my list of main characters down to seven or eight.

    I do have a question. If you have once or two scenes that would only be possible from a side character, can he go from a non-viewpoint character, have his one or two scenes and then go back to being a non-viewpoint character?



  9. Brandon, how would you feel if someone wrote a fanfiction (not to be published or sold at all) including some of your magic?

  10. I think it was a podcast that needed to be released. It’s one of those aspects of writing that not a lot of beginning writers really think about or know what to do with once they are faced with writing side characters. Thanks for the great tips.

  11. Great podcast, it’s nice to hear I’ve been handling my character arcs and secondaries the ‘professional’ way. Plus this episode might’ve solved a different problem I’ve been having.

    There’s this scene I’ve been working on, five characters in a meeting, three of them show up for the first time.

    The first time I wrote it, it was from the leader’s point of view. But he didn’t have enough at stake and the scene was boring as a result (noob mistake, I know).

    Then I wrote it from the character who did have the most at stake. It was far more engaging to read, but the other three characters fell to the wayside – I believe this is because I don’t know them well enough.

    So I’m going to use the trick Brandon suggested and write the scene from the other three POVs, then revise the scene using that knowledge. I bet the scene will improve tenfold.

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