Writing Excuses Episode 33: Side Characters
Key points: Give your side characters their own voice, sensible motivation, and unique aspects. Give them a good motivation and make them the center of their own story. If they are too interesting, promote them to a main character or cut them out.
Brandon: What do I mean by side characters? I’m talking about people who don’t get a viewpoint, mostly. People who don’t get a viewpoint but aren’t the main villain. Essentially anyone who would get the best supporting actor Oscar if your book were made into a movie. How do you make your side characters memorable without giving them a viewpoint?
- Dan: you don’t tell them that they are side characters. Then they are allowed to be more interesting. As to how to do it without giving them a viewpoint, I tend to write in first person so there’s only one viewpoint.
- Howard: there’s really no viewpoint in schlock mercenary, it’s cinematic. Side characters only appear with others. I make them memorable by giving them their own voice, giving them sensible motivation, and drawing them so they look funny.
- Brandon: add unique descriptors. It’s almost a cheap trick. In writing circles, you hear people talk about giving each character at least one memorable aspect, and repeating it. This is the person with the birth mark on their forehead, this is the guy who always wears flannel, this is the peg leg guy.
[Skip garbled discussion of pirates and peg legs with psychopathic murderers]
- Brandon: you can give them visual descriptors, I like to use nonvisual ones too. It’s also how much screen time you give them. They are there to add color.
- Dan: it all comes back to conflict. Side characters are also there to let the main characters have something to work with.
- Brandon: you want your world to feel fleshed out, to do that you need to show people from different walks of life, different professions, thinking differently from the main characters.
- Howard: how did you make villains interesting? The villain is the hero of their own story. If you treat your side characters the same way — give them good motivations, make them the center of their own story.
- Dan: this is a hard balance. We’ve just said that you want your side characters to be interesting foils for the main characters and that they should be interesting on their own. This is a delicate line.
- Brandon: it’s more important to me how they interact with other characters. I don’t want to build up a huge background for every side character.
- Howard: you just have to believe that that background is there as you’re writing dialogue, and it will inform the process. They won’t be just foils, who deliver a straight line and then get a pie in the face.
Brandon: can you make your side characters too memorable? Can they steal the show?
- garbled: yes. They totally can
- Howard: if you have side characters that are so interesting that your proofreaders love them, either give them a viewpoint or cut them out. Especially if they are introduced too late in the story, cut them out.
[Various stories of doing this omitted.]
Brandon: when do you take a side character and decide to make them a main character? how do you decide this? Are there issues involved?
- Dan: [lengthy revelation of Dan’s Mary Shelley Sue story embedded in the Bunny Book results in Brandon having a headache]
- Brandon: starts to describe reusing side characters, and says, “who can I bring out to add more death?”
- Dan: Mary Shelley added more death.
- Brandon: my headache’s back.
- Howard: [story of Elf’s growth as a character]
Any final words about side characters?
- Dan: make them good, but not too good.
- Brandon: take a side character from the future, bring them back into the past, and write a story about them.
Howard: thank you, and goodnight kids.
Current Mood: sidelined
Current Music: Independence Day, Martina McBride