When I think about what sets my favorite books apart from the rest, it always comes back to the characters. You can give me a world with fabulous magic systems, an incredible plot, and gorgeous writing, but if you don’t have good characters then I am not interested.
So why isn’t one good main character enough? Why isn’t okay for their supporting case to be a little bland, a little flat, a little trope-y?
I see this mistake in new writers, seasoned ones, and everything in between. You get a fantastic main character and the rest of them are dull, or they only exist to move the main character forward. They’re only there to directly benefit the plot.
But that’s not how real life works. Every queen, president, and general is surrounded by people whose jobs are dedicated to supporting them but they still have their own lives, wants, and fears. That FBI agent protecting the president might have a baby on the way. Perhaps the general’s right-hand-man has a hidden passion for the piano because his late mother taught him to play.
Do you see what I did there? In just a few words, with only one detail, those side characters became so much fuller.
The best way to test this is to gather up all of your main characters in your palms, gently set them aside, and kick your main character out of the room. Don’t worry–they can come back later. But for now, kick them out! Lock the door, bar the windows, and don’t let them in.
Are they gone? Good.
Now look back at your side characters and ask yourself, who are all these funny little people without my main character? Unless you’re George R. R. Martin, most of your main characters will probably live beyond the story once your main character exits the scene. That means you need to know them as well as your know your main character.
Will all of this knowledge end up on the page? Heck no! And it shouldn’t. But understanding that your main character’s quirky sidekick is so leery of smoke because he lost his sister to a fire, that he eats so many desserts because he grew up in a family that couldn’t afford sweets, that he spends money hand over fist on the people he loves because he grew up without it–all of this will color your story. It will inform your writing.
Writing Exercise: Take one of your side characters and ask, “What do they want? What do they need? What’s stopping them from getting it? When have they failed? Succeeded? What do they love, and what are they afraid of?” Note: none of these answers can include the main character, even if they’re your MC’s love interest/enemy/etc! I mean it. I love my boyfriend to death, but I have wants, dreams, needs, fears, etc, outside of him. Your side character deserves that, too. (A really useful way to do this is to write a glimpse into what the side character’s life was before the main character entered the scene. It gives you a better footing in who they are, and for writers who are struggling to separate their side character’s goals from the main character’s, this is the fastest way to do it.)
Now address a sliver of one or more of those questions. Try to get to at least 500 words. Remember this is just an exercise, so don’t panic about having a plot (unless you really want one). Maybe it’s a scene of the badass mercenary character cooing and fussing over their prized cat. Maybe it’s a glimpse of the teacher figure reflecting on when they were younger.
If you do the exercise, paste it in the comments below! I’d love to see what you cook up. Let me know if you find this helpful. Maybe I’ll make more in the future.
Now get to writing, and remember: leave your main character out of it. Let your side character be the star. Let them grow and stretch and sing, until they leap up in their chairs crying, “I have a story, too!”
Your story and your readers will thank you for it.