Creating Worthy Side Characters Sub Characters Need a Purpose
I was recently asked about what makes a good, solid side character. I happened to be reading this debut novel with excellent examples. As a writing mentor, I find it helpful to pick apart worthy published works as examples, and this book, Picking Daisy, by Kimberly Miller, fits the bill nicely.
In general, your side characters need a purpose and a personality without being able to disappear or take over a story.
It’s not a bad idea to set up a general background for these characters like you do for main characters, but it certainly doesn’t have to be as involved. At least figure out why you’re making up this character at all. “Comic relief” and “expendable” aren’t sole worthy reasons.
The importance to the plot line and main character development must be obvious–as obvious as any other aspect of story. If your main character’s pants will fall down without the sidekick to hold them up, the sidekick is necessary. If your main character wears a belt and the sidekick is merely an ankle-biter, ditch ’em. They’re not necessary.
Side characters must be memorable and unique without disappearing at any time without notice, or taking over the story. Even one interesting thing, such as fashion sense, accent, tattoo, does the job.
How many are too many? Well, if Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was a standalone, there would be too many characters. Sometimes one is enough; sometimes a larger cast, as long as they’re necessary and unique enough to keep separated, is fine. In Picking Daisy, each main character basically had two sidekicks (though I put together an engaged couple as one sidekick, since they acted as a unit). One other sidekick character was essential to both of them.
I recommend getting out a book you like a lot that has a fairly large cast and pick it apart. Think Wonderful Wizard of Oz, or A Man Called Ove, or Gone With the Wind. These are the questions to ask for a good Side Character study. The questions may seem obvious, but think about it carefully and seriously. We authors tend to love our people, and the thought of them not be important to someone else is heart-breaking. I’ve been there. I understand. But I have learned to wield an ax.
ASK THESE QUESTIONS OF EACH CHARACTER
Why is (this person) in the book?
What role do they play?
Will the story still make sense if this person/setting/object/quest is not in the story? (What would happen if they/it weren’t in the book?
Alert readers noticed that a side character does not have to be a person. It can be a setting (think Tara or Oz), an object (think sorting hat in the Harry Potter books or A in Scarlet Letter), or a quest (think revenge in Moby Dick).
So, to show you an example of how to analyze characters and think about them in your own work in progress, I give you the following study from Picking Daisy. First, here’s the blurb about the book. You’ll note there is absolutely no information at all about side characters in this teaser. You’ll note in my analysis I considered this book might birth other stories with these characters, though along with being expendable and humorous, potential serial fodder is not reason enough for a character’s presence. You don’t need to read the book to get something out of my analysis, though the book is a pretty sweet read.
From the publisher about Picking Daisy:
Daisy Parker isn’t the woman that rock star Robby Grant would have imagined himself falling for. She’s soft-spoken, sweet, and lives by a strange code the struggling musician is recognizing as Biblical. And he’s helpless against it. Even if Daisy is hard-pressed to believe that a man like Robby would see her—a woman long forgotten by the rest of the world—as anything more than a step back to his career. But Robby challenges Daisy in ways she’d long avoided. With their mutual love of music, it seems nothing can separate them—not Daisy’s wheelchair or Robby’s ego. As Robby grows into the man he’s long dreamed of being, Daisy dares to trust again. But will this sweet melody last?
We learn that Daisy is in a wheel chair, and Robby is a rock star, that Daisy has trust issues and Robby a giant ego They both love music. What we learn provides ample excuse for side characters.
Uncle Nick – he was the catalyst to getting Robby and Daisy together. He’s an older man in his seventies, widower, romantically inclined toward Daisy mostly to give her security though he also wants her to meet up with Robby because of their mutual love of music. His accident brings Robby into the setting. If he wasn’t in the book, there would have to be some other set-up to bring the main characters together.
My reaction: I knew him, could picture him, he had a personality with a manner of speech and character that showed stubborn and big-hearted, quirky humor. He would marry Daisy just to help her out; slightly creeped out that Robby accused them of being intimate and then kissed her.
Sadie – Daisy’s single friend, café owner; was in the book to provide aid to Daisy and provide a place for her to perform; also to provide some toughness and dose of reality. She also served as the love interest for Jazz and later brought Robby and Daisy back together. If she wasn’t in the book, Jennifer, Daisy’s other friend, could act alone, or even Nick could take on the role of caregiver or hire someone; they could find a place for Daisy to perform.
My reaction: I probably read too fast and missed knowing she was the café owner who brought Daisy coffee regularly – by the end I knew she was the owner. She had a feisty personality who wanted to challenge Daisy more, but was softened by the quieter Jen. I loved that she and Jazz were working on a relationship and were role models for Robby.
Jennifer and Steve – Daisy’s engaged friends. Jennifer was a longtime friend who stuck by Daisy through the ups and downs, and Steve helped look after Daisy and Nick. They were good sounding boards, and Steve challenged Robby, the famous rock star, to be good to Daisy. Their wedding helped Sadie and Jazz grown closer. Jennifer seemed more quiet. I didn’t know her as well as Sadie, though they were good role models for Robby to watch and learn about relationships. Jen provided activities for Daisy to help her and keep her busy. She also loaned Daisy money. If they weren’t in the book, Daisy, to be realistic, would need some kind of aide on a regular basis due to her health status. She could talk more to Nick, but there should be someone to challenge her and listen to her woes.
My reaction: I thought they were necessary to show both Daisy and Robby hope for a good, solid, serious faith-based relationship. Steve was a mature contemporary for Robby to look up to, since the other men in his life (Nick, Warren) were relatives or hired men (Jazz).
Warren – the perfect big brother for Robby, stable, mature, yet needing to grow. The nicknames they used and actions toward each other were great natural examples of how they came to be the way they were, and needed each other. His role was to shame Robby into going to check in on Uncle Nick after his accident. If he wasn’t in the book, a lot of good example for background would be lost. He provided some hard-nosed touches in not letting Robby continue to be such a jerk, and was also a role model for Robby. He was unique in personality—tough military—and used clever nicknames that kept Robby grounded. Robby admired his physique and relied on his brother to get him out of messes. He was a man of faith. Was he necessary? If he wasn’t in the book, Nick could have called Robby to come, and they might have shared some of the background, but it would have been forced.
My reaction: I liked him; he had good personality and was one of those people who helped me see that Robby was redeemable. He and Jazz were somewhat alike in build and temperament; whereas Jazz was a hired employee and a friend who took a lot of guff from Robby, Warren didn’t have to take anything and kept challenging Robby.
Jazz (Jason) – Robby’s best friend and hired body guard. He was in the book to provide a little bit of “realism” in the life of an international celebrity, and to serve as a reality check. He also became a love interest for Sadie. It’s possible more “companion” books will come out with the stories of Jazz and Sadie, and perhaps Warren (who got engaged to an unseen woman, Daphne, who has a child), and Uncle Nick, who developed an interest in his nurse, an unseen woman, by the end of the book. In that case, these people perform necessary plants for future books while still being necessary in this book naturally. He had a definite personality by letting Robby know of his concern; he escaped being cliché by challenging his boss and talking to Daisy, and by falling for Sadie.
My reaction: If he wasn’t in the book, I would need some healthy realism from another source. The author already made too light of the female protagonist’s wheelchair-bound life in not sharing any intimate details of life as a paraplegic, so making some of the problems Robby faces as an international celeb are more focused. I wouldn’t believe in Robby as much without Jazz.
By Lisa Lickel
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