Saturday, August 11, 2012

Developing Side Characters

Side characters can be tough to pull off.  How can we make them memorable and realistic without having them take too much glory from our main character?  How does J.K. Rowling do it?

Honestly, I think Rowling is a master of side characters.  I've seen the number of total characters in the Harry Potter series at 772, depending on who/what you count as a character.  Other sources put the number closer to 300 or so.  Still, that's a lot of characters. 

While searching for this number of characters, I came across a game.  It gave you 18 minutes to list the top 200 (by number of mentions) characters in the series*.  I came up with 111 of the 200.  (If you don't want to actually do it, I'm sure you can just click "give up".)

This is how I wish I could create side characters.  I wish I could create 111 memorable characters in a single series. 

Because that's the trick to creating side characters.  Make them memorable.  But how to go about that?

The important thing to remember about side characters is that they are not your main character.  And thus, it is not their story.  Side characters are there to support your main character (it's why they're called a "supporting cast").  Not necessarily to help out your MC, but to contrast with them, to make things harder for them, to create conflict, to give them a friend, to create comic relief, etc.

The first thing to figure out when developing a side character is this: What is their purpose in the story?  If you can answer this, everything else will fall into place much more easily.  Use that lens to figure out the rest of the character. 

For example, let's look at one of my side characters, Kentar.  His purpose in the story is essentially to provide a father figure for my MC, Davi.  He serves as the paternal influence Davi lacks, which serves to change Davi's mind about his own biological father.  Kentar also forces Davi to make up his own mind, provides guilt about something Davi did in the past, and periodically challenges Davi's beliefs. 

Notice how Kentar's entire purpose pertains to Davi.  Kentar is his own character, but he only comes into play to relate to Davi.  This is how it should be.  Develop your side characters, yes.  Know that your side character, Bob, is having trouble with his marriage.  Don't show us his arguments with his wife at home, though.  Instead, show us how Bob is cranky with your MC and counsels him against getting married.  Maybe his purpose in the story is to inadvertently lead your MC away from his current girlfriend.  Because of this, your MC finds another woman whom he loves even more.  All because of Bob's influence on the story. 

Once you know what their purpose is, you can develop them.  Make sure you cover the Four Aspects of Character Development.  You don't need to be as detailed as you would for a main character, but you should definitely know the core of their personality and key elements about the character.  How much you need to develop them is proportionate to how large a role they play in the story.

You also need to figure out how they interact with your MC.  How does your MC view them?  How does this character view your MC?  These factors will go into every aspect of their interaction.  It affects how they talk to each other, feel when they are around each other, etc.

When working on side characters, there are a few things you should watch out for.  One of these is naming.  If you have two side characters with similar names, readers might get them confused.  It's so much easier to have a Nick and a Mitchell than it is to tell the difference between a Michael and a Mitchell. 

Another is introducing your character at an inapporpriate time.  If this side character has no purpose in the story until chapter 7, don't introduce them in chapter 2.  There's no reason to do it, unless you've got some important foreshadowing to do.  But be careful with that.

A common problem is having too many side characters.  Do you really need to have Cindy, Jill, and Lily the overenthusiastic cheerleaders?  If they all have the same purpose, it would be much easier on your reader if you combined them into just one Cindy the cheerleader.  Less is more.  You could also combine characters to serve multiple purposes.  If Cindy's purpose is to provide comic relief, and your MC's sister, Samantha, is there to make your MC believe in herself, why not combine them?  It's easier to just have one Samantha who makes the MC believe in herself and provides a bit of comic relief at the same time. 

To recap, there are three main steps to developing a side character.
  1.  Figure out their purpose in the story.
  2. Develop their personality, backstory, etc.
  3. Know how the MC sees them and relates to them, and know how they interact with the MC.   
  4. Don't get yourself into a common side character pitfall, like having similar names or having too many side characters.

How do you develop side characters?  What advice do you have?  Who are some of your favorite side characters?

(This topic was requested by Tiny1. Hope I answered your question!)

*Even by itself, this list is interesting.  For example, Fred Weasley has 99 more mentions than George, despite the fact that for the first 6 books they pretty much act as a unit, a Samneric (here, let me Google that for you) sort of thing.  And Ron has around 1000 more mentions than Hermione.  Though I have no idea who actually counted all that out.

Have a writing question? Don't hesitate to send an owl email to theanniemarie(at)gmail(dot)com. I don't bite. Really. 
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1 comment:

  1. You're so right! It always amazed me how every one of Rowing's side characters had a story of their own. My favorite was the Remus-Tonks-Teddy story. But others, like Ollivander and Griphook and the Longbottoms really helped make you feel like you're a part of that world!

    I think the problem of side characters is sometimes a product of rushing. For the first story I tried writing, I really wanted to get it right, so I wrote short stories from each of the four main characters perspectives before I started writing. Even though it was only told from one character's POV, I now knew everything about all five of their families, histories, interests, and goals. It really made for a fuller feeling.

    My next story I didn't take so much time pre-writing, and it shows. The main plot is developed, but the other characters seem a little hurried or one-sided.

    Right now I'm working on a full length Harry Potter prequel series (see my blog) and I'm trying to make my characters more like JK's. I'm working out this side plot for Dorcas Meadowes that gets unraveled throughout the series about her parents disappearing or something and her two sisters deserting her in the fight to do magical research and go hunting for Snorkacks. It's things like that that really make you feel like you are the narrator, because you know just as much as he/she does about all the other characters, instead of just the surface stuff!

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