Thursday, June 27, 2019

Using Side Characters to Support a Story

Hello, Alley Pals! Laurie here, and I'm fresh off of my first significant vacation from work in a long time. What do you do when you have a three-week window until summer school? You read ALL. THE. THINGS. But alas, even during an intentional brain break, the writerly way of thinking never shuts off. So here is some fresh perspective from a (somewhat) rested, book-binged brain.

If you're like me and have fleshed out all your plot points, hit all the right arcs, and still find your story missing a little somethin-somethin, I encourage you to ask yourself this question:

How can the side characters make this story better?

Enough said.
It was the "supporting cast" that amped up the books I read during my hiatus. Like buying a gray Explorer and suddenly seeing that 60% of all the people on your side of town drive gray Explorers. Once I realized how much the side characters in a series I loved MADE the series, I couldn't unsee it in the next books I read. And here's my theory why they're important:
  • The qualities of side characters bring out the good or bad qualities of the protagonist, either by comparison or because their opposite traits make it more obvious (like a literary foil you learned about in senior English class).
  • The way a protagonist interacts with side characters shows his/her true colors. That jaded brute's soft side can come out in the care with which he treats his grandmother. The mean girl everyone believes is super sweet's true colors show when her private snippy conversation with her best friend is accidentally overheard. 
  • The side characters can also amplify a story's setting. Two words: Stars Hollow. The Gilmore Girls series and any other set in a small town (Hello, Melissa Tagg's Maple Valley) wouldn't be the same without the token town grump or that eccentric busybody. 
  • In addition to bringing dimension and entertainment to a plot, supporting characters often deliver important truth to help a protagonist grow and move the story along.  

Some questions to ask when plumping up your supporting cast: 
  • What are my characters' history together and is their dialogue informed by that? Do they have inside jokes or fight like brothers or finish each other's sentences?
  • What traits/flaws/weaknesses/strengths in the protagonist can the side characters amplify to strengthen the plot? Does this conflict foreshadow future changes or events? Do their interactions build reader sympathy for the protagonist and/or her mission in this story?
  • Have I built the camaraderie between these characters enough throughout the story to support this important heart-to-heart conversation?
  • Are my side characters organically developed or have I essentially info dumped about their backstory to the point that it bogs down this scene? Related: do I *show* through dialogue and intentional beats not *tell* through superfluous exposition? 
Who are your favorite ensemble casts or supporting characters? What do you enjoy about their interactions?


Laurie Tomlinson is the award-winning contemporary romance author of That’s When I KnewWith No Reservations, and The Long Game, currently featured in the Once Upon a Laugh novella collection. She believes that God’s love is unfailing, anything can be accomplished with a good to-do list, and that life should be celebrated with cupcakes and extra sprinkles.
You can connect with her on her WebsiteFacebook, and Instagram.


Melissa Henderson said...

There are times when I have been more interested in a side character than the main character. :-) I agree with your examples about Gilmore Girls. The show would not be the same without Miss Patty, Babette or some of the other unique characters. :-)

Laurie Tomlinson said...

@Melissa - Love them so much! It would have been way more boring without them. And I also fall in love with side characters and sometimes wish the story would go back to them :) That's why I love it when authors write series with next books about side characters in the first. Swoon!