The birth of a unique side character is probably the most enjoyable aspect to creative storytelling, in Jessica Leigh’s opinion.
Many new writers are caught up – and rightly so – in the intricate development of the hero and heroine, including their pasts, their storylines, and the process of their relationship reaching its fruition. Authors will spend countless hours pondering their main character’s traits, hopping in and out of their heads, and creating temperaments that are both compelling and attractive to the reader.
What is the Purpose of a Side Character?
Generally speaking, we insert additional characters into situations that will help move the plot or storyline forward, and help the hero/heroine achieve whatever action the scene requires. In most cases (guilty), a lot of prior thought does not enter into the mix; side characters crop up as a matter of convenience.
For example: Main character Nicholas Belline is forced into servitude rowing canoes down the Saint Lawrence River into the wilds of the 1600’s New World. He is twelve years old – so, how do I show horror of his situation? I insert a wretched, giant, red-headed beast of a man that spits on the floor at the boy’s feet and grins at him – this is the man Nicholas must travel with.
My original idea was fleeting concept – but this beast-man continued to appear in my mind’s eye with greater clarity. He is built like an ox, he smells terrible, he eats salt pork and beans at the campfire, he is French-Canadian, and he must bunk down next to poor little Nicholas. Now, would this brawny troupe of wild men traveling together have nicknames for each other, perchance? Yes? Well then, what would a good nickname be?
I pulled out my online language dictionary – and the word ‘Pétant’ appeared before me. It means ‘farting’ in French. I do think that these men would give each other crude names whenever possible…. So, yes. Now, what does this man do next? Would he really have an evil intent? Would he beat Nicholas or bully the scrawny boy? Nope, I really don’t think so.
Pétant shares his beans – even giving an extra ration to the boy – and subsequently becomes his watchdog and teacher on the River. Now, I am really beginning to love this guy! I think about him more and more. His character blooms.
The Power of Vivid Side Plots
Once a side character is birthed, he or she can serve to strengthen plot depth and action, to fascinate the reader, and even to provide humorous relief whenever necessary. A great storyline is not merely linear. It is very prudent to allow these ‘extras’ to grow, and to have goals, needs, and challenges of their own. And guess what? Your main hero/heroine can help this side character with these tasks, increasing their own depth of personality and likability from the reader’s point of view. Now, you are interjecting additional action into your story and creating opportunities for more emotional connections to occur – a winning formula!
The Benefit of Humor Using Side Characters
An exceptionally positive aspect about side characters is this: they do not have to be perfect. They don’t have to be as pretty as your heroine, as dashing as your hero, exude sex appeal, say the right thing, or fulfill any stereotypes at all. You are after pure uniqueness, and the element of surprise.
For Example: Pétant is as ugly as a grizzled cinnamon bear – hell; he even admits it quite openly. He curses, and he is impatient. He is known for his flatulence. But his generous lion-heart of gold is irrevocably part of him and allows him to become attractive to a young – and pretty – side character. Suddenly, an additional side-storyline has evolved that is both humorous and endearing. Winning!
The Necessary Steps in Creating a Great Side Character
When you are about to place someone new into your plotline for the purpose of moving the story forward, I have compiled a list of things for you to contemplate:
1. Once you have placed the new character in the setting, identify two or three unique characteristics about him or her that would stand out in a crowd. Think of looks, mannerisms, or language traits. Is there anybody highly unique in your ‘real’ life that you could pull ideas from?
2. What is this character thinking about – right at his point of time? Is his mind in the moment or is he recalling other events that recently transpired? Is he comfortable, hungry, pissed, or amused? How would he show this emotion in a uniquely individual way? Can you infuse humor into the situation without distracting from the action?
For example: Pétant eventually comes to marry the pretty, young female side character – a Native American girl known as The Robin (who took on a life and back-story of her own during the process). It comes to light that she does not care for his extremely bushy red beard. She insists that her mother would hate it as well. Pétant’s reactions are comical, and fitting of his character, yet, he eventually submits to her wishes. This small idea has now expanded into a completely unplanned ‘shaving scene’ that utilizes comedy, detail, and quite marvelously allows for some delicious sexual tension to develop between my participating hero and heroine. Another win that I was not expecting!
3. What does this character feel about the hero or heroine? Is there an opportunity to develop a deep friendship? A pissing match? Jealousy? Conflict resolution? Anything that can further deepen your plot and be used farther on in the story to your convenience? Think hard.
For example: Pétant’s good nature and steadfast guidance have developed my main character Nicholas’s personality from frightened young boy straight through to his current, competent manhood. The gentle, yet fierce, giant has been the only family this unwanted and abandoned boy knew in the wilds. This kind of bond is now unbreakable. Nicholas would do anything for this man Pétant, at any place, at any time. The depth of my hero’s personality and his capacity to love is enhanced. Am I going to use it later? You bet! Another score!
4. What is the side character’s past history? Yes, you definitely need to go there. If you want a strong and lasting sense of personality to develop, you need to venture all the way back to childhood. Give him a full life so that he can give back to you as your story progresses. It becomes much easier to jump into a side character’s mind and create a unique depth if you know him both inside and out. Don’t focus solely on the depth of the hero and heroine.
For example: ‘The Robin’ was stolen from her Native tribe when she was only 13 years of age. She was used cruelly by White trappers and moved far from her homeland, basically as a slave. Technically, she should be mentally scarred as well as distrustful of Pétant and my hero Nicholas. However, she is undaunted by her circumstance, and has an innate capacity for seeing through to the soul of a man. In fact, when speaking of her growing love for Pétant, the now fifteen year old very wisely says, “Native women see with their hearts, and not with their eyes.” Those simply uttered words define her character even more.
5. Is there a potential for this individual to move on to additional books? If you are planning on a sequel or a series, the development of great side characters is paramount. Readers grow bored with a completely linear plot, and they love to see the return of beloved characters. Always look toward the future when developing your sidekicks.
6. Where can you interject small bits of the side character’s history appropriately into the storyline? I certainly do not mean that you should focus an entire chapter on their childhood experiences! But several well placed lines that include memories or incidences can work magic.
For example: I wished to demonstrate the loyalty of my heroine’s twin brother. I devised events that happened in the past to showcase this trait:
“When Katari had positioned herself between a cranky skunk and its kits on a dare, Grey Wolf had scooped her up, only to be sprayed for his efforts. He had smelled for five full days.
When she had been stranded on a rock ledge for six hours, her ankle twisted hard and stuck in between boulders, Grey Wolf had found her, and carried limp and sobbing form her for many miles, back to their village. When a mean boy had once dared to call her a wild and disobedient brat, that same boy had later appeared with a blackened eye and a quiver full of broken arrows.”
That shows you quite a bit about his character and his feelings for his twin sister, right? And it leaves a vivid – and humorous – picture in your mind. Yay!
It’s Not over Till the Side-Kick Sings
If you are going to develop superior side characters and nurse them along through the storyline, do not forget to tie up their stories in the ending! Readers want to experience a feeling of completion for more than just the hero and heroine. In the past, I have received specifically addressed reviews that said – “the ending was great, but what the heck happened to ____? I want to know! Don’t leave me hanging!” This spoke volumes to me.
Your side characters become very important to your readers as the story progresses. This is a true indication of just how critical they are to the quality of your novel! Never skimp, and give all of your characters the ultimate creative license. If you simply yourself up to ANY possibility – even the oddball – these characters will bring a life of their own.
For me, it is a fun and fascinating process, and offers more freedom than the crafting of the hero and heroine. With side characters, it does not matter if they are strange, ugly, or even offensive at times. Let them be eccentric outburst of your subconscious mind. It can be pure creative magic that sets you apart from other authors.
About the Author:
Jessica Leigh is an emerging author in the romance field, and still holds her “day job” as a free-lance writer/PR specialist for a social media marketing firm. She is also an Environmental Scientist and researcher with a degree from Penn State University. Her first historical romance release, Savage Forest, delves deep into the Native American cultural heritage of the eastern seaboard, and chronicles the life and death struggle of a feisty young Swedish immigrant thrust into a native way of life unknown to her. The sequel, Savage Journey, will follow in spring, 2014. Jessica’s 2014 contemporary romance release, Waiting for Eden, is also available on Kindle.
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