unforgettable side characters

7 Proven Tips to Develop Unforgettable Side Characters in Your Fiction

Thanks to one of my readers for suggesting the following topic:

“I’d be interested in learning more about fleshing out/developing side characters.”

Tips for Developing Unforgettable Side Characters

Side characters are almost as important as main characters in that they help move your story along and provide sources of conflict. Unforgettable side characters like Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings are so important and pivotal, the story wouldn’t work without them.

If well-written, side characters remain in the memory long after the story is over. Today, we will focus on how to develop side characters worth remembering. Be sure to download the Characterization Worksheet in the Resources below.

hobbit house
Photo by Thandy Yung on Unsplash

Here are seven tips for developing and fleshing out unforgettable side characters:

1 – Determine the role for each side character.

What purpose is the character meant to fill?

As you draft your story, sometimes new characters show up unannounced. That’s fine, but take a moment to think about what role the new character will fill. Does he or she function as a catalyst for further plot points? Do they fulfill expectations for certain tropes? Will they create conflict? Comic relief? Angst? Will they be more of a non-player character (NPC) than a three-dimensional, thinking, breathing character?

2 – Make each character essential.

Be careful not to create too many secondary characters because this leads to reader confusion and burnout.

Each character needs to fuel the story, so if you have two similar characters, see if their roles can be combined into one character. Even movies with casts of thousands keep the camera centered on a small number of characters.

It’s fine to have tertiary characters like the nameless cashier, the dog walker, the government employee, etc., but don’t spend precious words on characterizing NPCs. Think of it as sketching a character; the reader will fill in the details.

Envision a target diagram: the bullseye would be the main character or characters, and the most important secondary characters would be in the next ring. The outer ring would be the NPCs. Spend most of your efforts characterizing the bullseye characters.

3 – Introduce secondary side characters in a meaningful way.

Use a deft touch at first and drop in details as time goes on. If possible, introduce each character when they are essential to a scene, bringing them onstage when the reader needs to meet them and not all at once.

4 – Repeat names and avoid too many nicknames.

Help your readers learn the characters by repeating their names a few times early on, and for the love of Pete, don’t make readers memorize nicknames and proper names for everyone right away.

5 – Pay attention to characterization, especially memorable details.

Use a symbol or quirk or mannerism as a first impression.

quiver of arrow -
Photo by Paul Alnet on Unsplash

A good example of this is Effie Trinket from Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Games:

“Bright and bubbly as ever, Effie Trinket trots to the podium and gives her signature, ‘Happy Hunger Games! And may the odds be ever in your favor!’ Her pink hair must be a wig because her curls have shifted slightly off-center since her encounter with Haymitch.”

Collins, Suzanne. 2012. The Hunger Games. United States of America: Large Print Press.

My first thought was bubble gum. Effie goes on to provide bits of comic relief throughout the grim dystopian tale that follows. Eventually, she proves to be a sympathetic character, a pawn in a larger game.

6 – Give side characters unique, identifiable voices.

How folks communicate is their most personal trait. Every person has their own language (if you will), preferred expressions, and a unique manner of speaking.

The words and idioms people choose or favor make them memorable and interesting. Make each character’s voice distinguishable. As a test, try reading only the lines from each scene without the tags and beats to see if you can tell who is speaking by the way they talk.

Mr. Collins from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, is instantly recognizable from his stuffy manner of speech.

7 – Be sensitive to diversity and avoid harmful stereotypes.

I shouldn’t have to mention this aspect of characterization, but authors get this wrong far too often by misrepresentation and factual errors. If you have a deaf character, you better know your facts. Same goes for any sort of disability or minority group or faith. Yes, write diverse characters, but please, avoid harmful stereotypes and factual errors.

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Characterization Options

In a related post, “Kill Your Zombies: Seven Characterization Secrets,” I included a list, reproduced below. To create unforgettable side characters, go beyond appearance. Characterization takes practice, so work through the following list. Use the Characterization Worksheet in the Resources below.

Characterization comes through:

  • speech, especially vocabulary and
  • grammar,
  • attention,
  • setting,
  • body language,
  • actions,
  • attitudes,
  • beliefs,
  • choices,
  • conflicts, and lastly,
  • appearance.

Question: Who are your favorite side characters, and why do you love them so much? Please share in the comments below.

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If you have a topic or issue or question, please share it in the Suggestion Box.


Download this handy Characterization Worksheet.

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