In the past couple weeks, I’ve talked about what makes a strong protagonist and antagonist. This week, I’m going to talk about the side characters (as far as I know, there is no “agonist” term for these guys). These aren’t the good guys or the bad guys of your stories—though they will certainly have their own alliances. Personally, I find creating strong side characters can be more complicated than creating a strong protagonist or antagonist, but it’s also sometimes more interesting. Don’t get me wrong, I love my good guys and bad guys. It’s their story I’m telling after all. But the other guys can be lots of fun.
In some ways, you don’t have to know quite as much about your side characters as you do about your main characters. Of course, this depends on how important each character is, both to the plot and to your main characters. You don’t need to know as much about these characters because they aren’t going to be claiming center stage, but you need to remember that they are often important people in your main characters’ lives—friends or family or coworkers—and this means you probably want them to feel important to the reader as well. And even though they aren’t the protagonist or the antagonist, they’re still going to have goals of their own, and those goals are going to contribute to or complicate the forward momentum of your plot (this is one way you get subplots). I feel that side characters, like antagonists, should think of themselves as the protagonists of their own stories.
But the big difference between your main characters and your side characters is in how you have to develop your side characters, their contribution to the main plot, and their own subplots. In most cases, you aren’t going to be telling the story from your side characters’ point of view. You’ll be telling the story from your protagonist’s, or sometimes maybe your antagonist’s, point of view. It’s very rare that you’ll be telling significant portions of your story from a side character’s perspective, though it can be done. (Never fear, I’m going to talk more about point of view in a few weeks.) So, most of the time, while you’re working with your main characters from inside their heads, you’re working with your side characters from the outside. So your readers perceptions of your side characters will be colored by your main characters’ opinions of them. This can lead to interesting complications—if your main character misinterprets your side characters’ actions, for instance.
Complicating matters further is that not all side characters require the same amount of development or attention. The cashier at the grocery store on the corner, for example, probably doesn’t matter as much to the main character as their best friend or their sister or their love interest, and consequently the cashier probably won’t be influencing the plot as much. So you won’t need to devote as much time to him as you would to someone else. Your characters best friend or sister or love interest, on the other hand, will probably have strong influences over the main character and their decisions, as well as their own decisions and goals that could influence the story in their own right.
While I find working with side characters a bit more difficult than working with the protagonist or antagonist, I also sometimes find them to be more interesting and even more fun. There’s so much you can do—so many factors you can play with. Think of it this way, if you are the protagonist in your story, you do not stand alone. We do not exist in a void with our nemesis. We all make choices, at least in part, because of other people. We are social creatures by nature. Even introverts have family and friends they rely on. And if you want your characters to ring true to your readers, they have to be the same.