Side Characters: The Unsung Hero

Raise your hand if Harry Potter isn’t your favorite Harry Potter character. No shade to Harry here, but let’s face it, just because the series is named after him doesn’t mean you have to like him best. And it’s not hard to find a favorite character other than Harry when so many of the side characters are lovable. (I’m looking at you Ron Weasley.)

In all seriousness, while we often love side characters, we rarely talk about how integral they are to the overarching story. Nor do we discuss how hard it can be to strike the perfect balance with side characters. All that changes today. In this article, we’ve broken down four of the most effective ways side characters are used in fiction and our tips for breathing life into yours. 

Relationships

In romance, side characters are often used to give the hero/heroine tethers outside of the love story. Side characters help to establish the primary character’s ability to have relationships with other people, ultimately showing us that the hero/heroine can be a good partner to the other. Side characters in romance are generally family members or friends who have seen the hero/heroine at their best and their worst and want what is best for them. Some great examples of effective use of side characters in romance include Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series, Lisa Kleypas’ Wallflower series, and Helen Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient

In the Bridgerton series, Quinn brings us a hilarious (and oftentimes rambunctious) set of siblings that provide love and support to one another as each sibling finds romance. Similarly, Lisa Kleypas’ Wallflower series follows four unlikely friends as they navigate London society and help each other find true love. In both of these historical series, the side characters encourage the protagonist while also providing comic relief and ultimately furthering the overarching storyline of the interwoven books. 

In fantasy, side characters are often friends with the protagonist. These friendships give the protagonist meaning or purpose aside from their quest. The hero’s friends typically support them and provide aid during the course of the journey. Think of Hermione Granger and all the times she helped Harry throughout the series. One particular moment that stands out for me is at the end of the first book. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Hermione figures out which potion Harry should drink to get into the chamber and reach the resurrection stone. Because of Hermione’s cleverness, Harry is able to face Quirrell/Voldemort and fulfill his quest to prevent them from apprehending the stone. 

How can you develop the relationships between your protagonist and side characters? Here are a few things to consider:

  1. How do they know each other? Friends/relatives/other
  2. How long have they known each other? Try and come up with the backstory for this. Flesh it out. Even if it never comes up in your book, it’s still good to understand the depth of the relationship.
  3. What lengths would the protagonist go to in order to help the side character and vice versa?

Insight

Side characters are not just there to be the friend or the sidekick. Sure that might be the role they play in the protagonist’s life, but often they act as a goodwill ambassador for the reader, providing insight into characters that we otherwise wouldn’t have. Especially when a story is told from a first person perspective. Think about Rue in The Hunger Games. She’s only in the first book for the blink of an eye, but we learn so much from her in that time. She teaches Katniss about the leaves that heal tracker jacker stings and explains to her that her “sunglasses” are actually night vision glasses. Her death greatly impacts Katniss who carries the loss of Rue with her throughout the rest of the series.

Another great example of a character providing insight is Jude from Mary H.K. Choi’s novel Emergency Contact. Jude is the heroine Penny’s college roommate and the ex-step-niece of hero Sam. Throughout the book, Jude shares info bombs about Sam with Penny. However, it never comes across as expository or overdone. Choi writes deft conversations between her characters that reveal important information in a natural, casual way. 

How can you use your side character as an audience avatar and provide both the protagonist and readers with necessary information? Here are a few things to consider:

  1. What information needs to be conveyed?
  2. Is this information essential for both the reader and the protagonist to know? 
  3. Can this information be conveyed in a manner that isn’t too expository? Try to make it more conversational. This is where understanding the relationship between the characters is key. If you can weave really important information into a conversation between friends, it flows better on the page than an information dump.

Comic Relief

Books that are dark and tormented all the way through are a mood and can be difficult to read. Introducing funny side characters can give your readers a break from the protagonist’s struggles for a moment. Some of my favorite side characters are the ones who provide comedy. However, finding the right balance for comic relief characters can be tough. 

Consider Fred and George Weasley and their repertoire of pranks and tricks throughout the Harry Potter series. Comic relief is something that we frequently need in books, but it can be so hard to achieve. The Weasley twins are my favorite example of comedic relief because almost every time they’re on the page they make the readers laugh and feel as if they’re in on the joke. 

Side characters providing comic relief and witty quips also play an integral part in romance. One of my favorite comic side characters in recent years is Leon from the Hidden Legacy series by Ilona Andrews. Leon is the sarcastic, trigger happy younger cousin of the heroine Nevada. He’s full of one liners and teenage angst and Andrews does a great job of not under or overutilizing him. 

How can you use your side character as comic relief? Here are a few things to consider:

  1. What is the big conflict in your plot and how will humor alleviate some of the darker moments?
  2. How will this character’s jokes/humor come across to the protagonist? To other side characters? To the reader?
  3. What type of humor best suits the character and the plot? Slapstick? Sarcastic? Witty? Self-Deprecating? Practical joker? The possibilities are endless.

Series Potential

Another thing to keep in mind when developing your side characters is the potential for sequels or spin-off series. Strong side characters can later be turned into protagonists of their own stories. Honing in on your side characters and developing their backstories in advance is not only a great way to make them key players in your current project, but also helps to lay the groundwork for any future book featuring them as the main character. 

Many authors successfully take side characters and transition them to main characters worthy of their own plotline. Kresley Cole, author of the Immortals After Dark series is a master at introducing side characters in one or more of her books and later giving them their own story. For example, she introduces Regin the Radiant, a Valkyrie, in the first book in the series The Warlord Wants Forever. However, Regin’s turn as protagonist doesn’t come until the eleventh book, Dreams of a Dark Warrior. Talk about playing the long game. 

Not only are side characters great fodder for later books in a series, they’re also fantastic for spin-off series. A great example are the Bloodlines books by Richelle Mead, a spin-off of her Vampire Academy series. In Vampire Academy book four, Blood Promise, protagonist Rose Hathaway is aided by Sydney Sage who later becomes the protagonist of Bloodlines. By introducing readers to Sydney in Blood Promise, Mead sets the stage for her expanded universe. Bloodlines can be read without first reading Vampire Academy, but the way Mead weaves both series together is marvelous and worth the read. This initial introduction to Sydney, her profession, and her community all pay off in the end. Additionally, the time Sydney spends with Rose in Vampire Academy will later influence the choices she makes in her own series. 

How can you sketch out your side characters and develop them for future projects? Here are a few things to consider:

  1. What is this character’s backstory and how does it play into the world in which my protagonist lives?
  2. Does this character have a story worth exploring in greater detail down the line?
  3. How can I create a backdoor situation in my current book to lay the groundwork for a future project featuring this character that doesn’t distract from the current plotline?

Now that we’ve analyzed the most effective ways to use side characters, you may be asking yourself “where should I start?” I recommend that you start by looking at your protagonist(s) first. What do you, the writer, most want to convey about your protagonist? 

Next, take a look at the players surrounding the protagonist. What are their motivations? What is their role? Can they help provide the insight your readers will need? Because authors spend so much time with their characters they often take for granted the knowledge they have about their characters and the world they inhabit. Think about the questions that your readers may have and go from there. There really are no set parameters that define a great side character. You just need to know your story and what works for you.