This is going to be a long article, because making side characters fun has always been a big, big thing to me. Because, when it comes down to it, a main character shouldn’t have to stand on their own. And in the best cases, sub-characters can become more popular than the main characters.
How cool would be be to have a character who either:
1. Isn’t as important to the story as the main character?
2. Doesn’t have nearly as many, or as powerful abilities as the main character(s) (In a superhero/paranormal/action story)?
3. Doesn’t get nearly as much screentime as the main character(s)?
The answer is: VERY. Know why?
Because if you can have a side character who’s just as interesting, if not more interesting, than the main character, then that means YOU have created a very interesting character who will add more dept to your story as a whole.
Basically, the easy trap to fall in is that side characters are there because the real world has more than one person in it. People have friends, and there are other people around to talk to (unless you’re a total recluse), so in following real life and making one’s story more “relatable”, you toss in a bunch of guys and gals and say “YEAH, FLESHED OUT STORY!” But all these characters do is drop in and out to talk to your main character, but they fall flat because their personalities are either deviations of the main characters personality, or don’t genuinely have a personality of their own and just agree with whatever the main character says.
But that’s NOT the way to do it.
Side characters don’t just exist for the main character to bounce ideas off of, or to make comments (yay or nay) about the main character. When it comes down to it, these people are PEOPLE–main, side, and other. They all have their own histories, unique experiences, thoughts, opinions, ups, and downs. Don’t fall into the trap of making side characters who only pop in when it’s convenient for the main character.
Think of it this way–
You have friends, right? Probably? Well, why are you friends with them? What kind of benefits or inconveniences do they bring into your life? When you meet up, are you the only subject you talk about? Of course not (I hope)! You have friends because they add a certain depth to your life that you otherwise wouldn’t have if you weren’t friends with them. There are things you probably wouldn’t have experienced, places you wouldn’t have gone, and thoughts you wouldn’t have had if you weren’t friends with that person. And no two people can bring the same experiences into your life, and in turn, you add depth to their lives as well.
That’s what side characters are! Added depth!
Have you ever gotten bored writing about your main character all the time?
Character A does this and thinks like this. So when you write new scenarios about Character A you know how it’s going to go, because you know how Character A thinks and what Character A would do. That gets boring, both for you and your audience, because it becomes repetitive.
Now, what if Character B comes in?
A big test is coming up and Character A hasn’t studied. Well, typically, Character A would take the test and fail. So Character A talks to Character B.
Character A: The test is tomorrow and I’m gonna bomb it, I just know it…
Character B: You have’t studied at all?
Character A: No, I’ve been…distracted…
Character B. Well… you could try cramming 5 weeks of studying into tonight.
Character A: …What!?
Character B: Yeah, do it all in one go! And don’t sleep! That way, when you take the test tomorrow, you’ll remember everything! That’s how I get my A’s!
So now, Character A has this thought to cram his/her studies into one night. That’s not something Character A would normally do, but that’s what Character B does. And because Character A consulted Character B, this becomes a new possibility for Character A!
Character C: Well, you could cheat this time…
Character A: …WHAT?
Character C: I got a copy of the answer sheet for the test tomorrow. I could lend it to you, if you want.
Character A: Uhm…
Character C: Or you could stay up all night studying, pass out mid-test tomorrow, and fail anyway because you’re too tired to stay awake. It’s your choice, really.
Character A: Well I’d hate to stay up all night studying to just fail anyway…
Character C: Right, so just borrow this tonight and remember to study next time. I don’t know what’s been distracting you lately, but it can’t be worth the stress you’re going through now.
Character A: Heh, you’d be surprised…
Character C: Well, if it would make you consult a delinquent like me, it must be a pretty big distraction, huh?
So now the monotony is broken up. Will Character A do what they would normally do, or go with the advice of either B or C? Makes it fun for the audience, and for you, the writer.
But there’s more to it than that! Because there’s more than just the main character in this story. Side characters can also talk to eachother, or have their own individual circles of friends, apart from Character A and the general group character A hangs out with.
But more on that later, because it’s late, and holy crap I’m tired.
So here’s an exercise!
Wanna flesh out one of your side characters who feels boring? Give ’em a backstory! What was their childhood like? What did they grow up doing? Have they experienced any significant losses or gains in life that shaped who they are? What do they typically do in their spare time? What are their dreams and goals? You know why Character A became friends with them, but why did they decide to become friends with Character A?
DON’T let your main character be the only one you spend significant time on. Treat EVERY character as if they were meant to carry their own story. Make it so that the “camera” could follow ANY of your characters around and the story would be JUST as interesting, if not more so. After all, in someone else’s life, you’re either just a side character, or a background character they pass by on the street. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have your own story to tell, right?
Think of these things! Get detailed! Turn your character into a person! And remember to have fun! 😀