An Author's Guide to Crafting Memorable Side Characters

Doug Landsborough
September 22, 2023

What’s the best part of a story? Is it the protagonist overcoming their greatest fear to save the world? The intricate world you’ve crafted for your readers to get lost in? Or your subversive, incredible plot and all its twists?

Honestly, the answer could be any of them. Ask 100 readers what the best part of a story is and you’ll get a ton of answers. But one consistent answer you’ll get is that side characters can absolutely make (or break) a book.

But when so much focus is placed on your main characters, it can be difficult to write side or secondary characters. It isn’t easy, I’m not going to lie to you, but the effort you put into these folks will pay off exponentially.

If you get it right.

That’s why we’re here, though. By the end of this article, you’ll have read all about:

  • The role of side characters
  • Developing these secondary characters
  • Characterization techniques
  • Balancing side character subplots with the main plot
  • Some bonus writing tips

One of the best feelings ever is hearing a reader say that one of your secondary characters is their favorite, so let’s walk through how you can make that happen.

What Do Side Characters Do?

Up first, we need to figure out what these fictional people even do for you. Side characters, also known as secondary or supporting characters, are mostly there to interact with your character in some fashion, and that interaction should affect the plot in some way.

If we break it down, a secondary character should either help or hinder your protagonist(s). This might look like:

Side characters can come in all shapes and sizes—coworkers, bosses, adversaries, rivals, lovers, spouses, children, acquaintances, strangers, journalists, students, etc., etc., etc.—but they all either assist the main character or make things harder for them.

Beyond that, there are some more specific roles a side character can play.

Niche Roles of Side Characters

In addition to affecting your protagonist (either directly or indirectly), here are some things your supporting characters can do.

Act as catalysts for change - Your main character isn’t going to be the only one that causes change in your story. Sure, they’ll probably be doing most of it or at least be reacting to the world around them. They may introduce conflict, provide essential information, or force the main characters to face their fears and evolve. Technically this falls under the “assist or hinder” header but is a little more specific.

Mirrors and contrasts - One particular type of side character is known as a foil. The entire purpose of this character is to either mirror specific traits of another character (usually the protagonist) or be a complete opposite in order to highlight something in that other character. The Joker, for example, is a foil to Batman and often highlights the cost of sticking to the Caped Crusader’s moral code.

Expand the world - Your fictional world, even if it’s based on our real one, will feel awful empty if we don’t get to know more people in it. Side characters can offer varied perspectives on the world's culture, politics, and history, making it more immersive and believable. It’s important to note that this isn’t an excuse to make them tertiary characters, who only exist to flesh out the world, but it is just one of the roles a complex supporting character can do.

Introduce and resolve subplots - While the main plot focuses on the central conflict and its resolution, side characters often drive subplots, offering additional challenges or resolutions. These subplots can buff your story up, providing moments of relief, tension, or character growth.

Add emotional depth - Just as the children yearn for the mines, readers yearn for an emotional connection to our stories. Side characters give us the opportunity to add more emotion to our world and give us a better chance to connect with a wider range of readers.

With all those possibilities, I also want to cover two things that secondary characters are not.

Two Common Side Character Mistakes

Yes, there are a lot more than two mistakes we can make when writing supporting characters, but these are two related to the roles we just discussed.

Mistake #1: Reducing them to plot devices - There’s nothing worse than slapping a side character into a story just to do a single task. You throw them in just so they can die and upset your protagonist, or you write them in a way that is intentionally flat just to make the main character look smart. Using a character as a plot device is often viewed as weak, lazy writing.

Mistake #2: Lack of development - In addition to that, your fictional people can’t fulfill any role if they aren’t well-developed. Side characters can be just as complex as your protagonist, so give them the love they deserve. Lucky for us, that’s exactly what we’re going to talk about next.

Developing Memorable Side Characters

Now that we know what secondary characters should and shouldn’t do, let’s figure out how to make them memorable. Before we get too deep into the weeds, though, I’m going to share the number one ultimate top secret to making side characters memorable…

You do the same thing you would to make your main characters memorable.

Side characters are just as important as your main characters to your storycraft and the overall quality of your book. Even if they aren’t taking center stage, being “secondary” doesn’t mean you can put in half the effort.

This is especially true for secondary characters who get a lot of “screen” time in your book. Your readers will be getting to know them quite a bit and be spending a heck of a lot of time with them. To make them memorable, there isn’t really a difference between them and the protagonist.

But then why did we write this article? Well, there are some extra things you can do to make them memorable, and some of those elements will fall under some of the other categories in this article. For now, though, I promised you the weeds, so let’s get deep in them and figure out how to develop memorable side characters.

Who Are They?

Every character needs traits and some sort of personality, that’s just a given. But you’re going to do yourself and your story a disservice if you bombard your readers with legions of characters who think, talk, and look the same.

I mean, that probably could work in an Invasion of the Body Snatchers sort of way, but it won’t in most cases.

This also doesn’t mean characters must be drastically different. Diversity in your cast of secondary characters will add excitement and the opportunity to insert conflicting ideas into your tale, but some side characters can have shared traits.

What we want, however, is to focus on a few core elements that can make your characters stand apart. The easiest wins come from quirks, habits, appearances, political views, philosophies, and how they speak. Even simple things like a unique catchphrase can go a long way in making a side character memorable, though.

P.S. If you’re struggling to come up with traits to give your characters, check out our template with more than 100 trait categories to fill out.

What Motivates Them?

Your secondary characters won’t do things if they don’t have a good reason to. Want to take down a tyrannical government in a dystopian world? I barely want to cook dinner after a day of hard work.

Just like primary characters, side characters should have their own motivations and desires. These drives can intertwine with the main plot or exist independently.

Sometimes your secondary characters will have even more compelling motivations than your protagonist, which makes it easy for them to stand out (especially if that strong reasoning runs contrary to the main character’s goal).

Most importantly, this motivation can propel their own arcs.

Where Did They Come From?

A detailed backstory, even if not fully disclosed in the story, only strengthens and deepens your secondary characters. They did not just start existing whenever they first appeared in your novel.

A character’s backstory informs a lot about what they do and who they are. Motivation, personality, character traits, and goals all stem from who your character has been shaped into. These elements can change as the story progresses and things happen to them, but you need this foundation in place if you are going to understand your characters.

And, if you don’t understand your characters, how can you expect your reader to?

Can We Relate to Them?

Even an elven princess who has lived 300 years needs some traits that readers can relate and cling to.

Does she long for approval from her parents? Does she still regret not acting on her love from a century ago? Does she have aspirations beyond the borders of her kingdom?

Parental approval, regret, love, and dreams are all something we can relate to, even if we aren’t personally elf princesses.

How Do They Interact With the Main Character?

Remember that side characters mostly exist to interact with the protagonist in some way. So what do they do and how can you make that important?

A villain who thwarts the hero at almost every turn is thrilling to read about and we’ve all faced obstacles in our lives. A teacher who helps an exchange student find their potential and win the mathletics competition is inspiring and connects with the part of us that craves nurturing and support.

That doesn’t mean you want to rely on overused clichés (more on that later), but take some time to figure out what your side characters are bringing to your protagonist’s table.

How Do They Grow?

Most importantly, the best side characters have their own comprehensive character arcs. Don’t just save the growth (or descent) stories for your main characters.

Remember, secondary characters want something and they have motivation that drives them. The only other thing you need for an arc is a series of obstacles that forces them to grow, adapt, or fail.

This series of win-fail events will test the character you’ve created, sometimes surprising you with the results.

But don’t think that you can get away without giving them an arc, even if it’s a basic transformational arc. 

Characterization Techniques

Now that you have an idea of what you can sprinkle into your side characters to make them jump off the page, let’s talk about ways you can get those ideas across to your reader.

One of the struggles authors face is conveying the brilliance of their creations to the people reading their words. I mean, arguably, that’s the entire job; if it was just coming up with great ideas but not writing them, we probably wouldn’t call ourselves writers.

To that end, here are seven different characterization techniques to make your readers understand how incredible your secondary characters are.

1. Dialogue and voice - The way a character speaks can reveal a lot about them. Their word choices, accent, rhythm, and even the topics they choose can provide insights into their background, education, and personality.

2. Actions and choices - The golden rule of writing: show, don't tell. A side character's actions often speak louder than their words. Their decisions, big or small, can show their values, fears, and motivations more than any conversation and more effectively than any info dump.

3. Internal thoughts and reflections - That said, sometimes you need a good internal monologue. Giving readers a glimpse into the internal thoughts or reflections of side characters can add some more depth and allow for an intimate understanding of their motivations and conflicts.

4. Physical descriptions and mannerisms - How a character looks isn’t as shallow as it sounds. A character's appearance, clothing, or habitual gestures can offer clues about their status, history, or emotional state.

5. Relationships and interactions - How a side character interacts with others—whether they're confrontational, supportive, indifferent, or nurturing—can tell readers a lot about their role in your story and their personal dynamics.

6. Character arcs - This might be cheating by repeating something we talked about in the last section, but that’s how important arcs are. Our characters are nothing without the journeys they go through. If we can’t root for or against a character, why would we care about them?

7. Use and subvert archetypes - Character archetypes are collections of recognizable traits that make it easy for your reader to connect with a character (and we have a whole guide on them here). These aren’t cookie cutter characters by any means, but more like a framework to expand upon and, in some cases, subvert.

Any number of these techniques will result in a character your reader can understand and become obsessed with; start using most (or all) of them, and you’ll share that vision of your perfect side character with ease.

Balancing Side Character Subplots with the Main Plot

Let’s chat about one of the more intricate balancing acts in writing: balancing the journeys, goals, and actions of your supporting cast with the main plot most readers showed up for.

If you’ll indulge my culinary simile for a moment, your main plot is like the star of your dish—an expensive protein, fancy mushrooms, literally any kind of potato. The subplots pursued by your side characters are like salt or spices. 

If you don’t have any salt, the star of your dish is going to be bland and kinda gross. But if you’re too heavy handed with your spices and salt, it completely overpowers those delicious potatoes.

“Yes, Chef!” I hear you and every character from The Bear shout.

Let’s leave the culinary references behind and chat about finding that perfect, delicious balance.

Why Bother with Side Character Subplots?

Before we dive in, let's tackle the big “why”. People are picking up your story for just that, the story. Right? 

Kind of. Main plot lines are the main driver of your book, there’s no arguing that. But too much of anything is monotonous and exhausting.

Not only does your reader start to check out after a while, but a world with only one plot isn’t realistic.

That’s where side character subplots come in. They offer a break, inject depth, and can even provide a fresh perspective on the central narrative.

Enhance, Don't Eclipse

The key is balance. A side character's story shouldn't overshadow the main plot, but rather complement it.

This is a delicate balance, and you’ll probably find yourself revising your first draft if you lean too heavily in any one direction. It’s hard to be so objective with your own work, so lean on others!

If you find your beta readers are more invested in a side character's love life than the protagonist's quest to save the world, it might be time to recalibrate.

Interweave with Purpose

Now, not all subplots need to tie directly into the main story, but it's pretty magical when they do. By making side stories relevant to the central plot, you create a cohesive story and world. 

For instance, if your main story revolves around a rebellion against a tyrant, a side character's struggle with their loyalty can highlight your broader theme of sacrifice or allegiance.

But if your side plot is about a farming family in another country that never ties into the other characters or plots, what’s the point?

Pace Yourself

It's essential to be mindful of pacing. Introducing a subplot right at a climactic moment in the main narrative can be jarring. 

Instead, weave in side plots during the narrative’s quieter moments. These breathers (or sequel scenes) give readers a chance to connect more deeply with side characters without feeling yanked away from the primary action.

Use Subplots for Emotional Depth

Subplots offer a golden opportunity to explore a range of emotions. Maybe the main plot is action-packed and tense—introduce a heartwarming or even comedic subplot to balance the mood. 

Love it or hate it, this is done very well in George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones (or the TV series, if that's more your jam). With a sprawling cast of characters, the series could easily have felt disjointed. 

However, each subplot, whether it's Arya's quest for identity or Brienne's vow of honor, not only stands on its own but also contributes to the grander narrative. These subplots enhance our understanding of the world and the overarching themes of power, loyalty, and destiny.

Know When to Let Go

As much as we might adore our side characters (and trust me, I've been there), not every subplot is destined for greatness. If a side story starts feeling forced or doesn't serve the broader narrative, it might be time for some tough love. 

Editing is as much about trimming the fat as it is about enhancing what's there. That’s the last cooking reference, I promise.

Some Final Tips for Writing Great Secondary Characters

To round things off, I want to leave you with a handful of tips you can incorporate into your writing. These nuggets of wisdom aren’t guaranteed to make your side characters memorable, but they’ll put in a lot of leg work.

1. Give them their own moments - Every character, no matter how minor, is the protagonist of their own story. It’s worthwhile giving side characters a moment where they shine, whether it's showcasing their expertise or a pivotal emotional decision. This makes them feel more integral to the story and not just props in the protagonist's journey.

2. Don’t just go for extremes - Yes, it pays to have a comic relief character, but it’s not memorable to have someone who is all jokes all the time. Make them more complex and give your side characters more than just their most extreme quality.

3. Avoid stereotypes and clichés - The only thing worse than a done-to-death cliché is using an inaccurate, potentially offensive stereotype to create your character. Focus on authenticity and putting in the work to write your fictional folks. Otherwise, why are you doing it?

4. Diversity matters - And not just in a “checking boxes for Twitter cred” kind of way. Diverse characters can offer fresh perspectives and experiences, making your world feel more authentic and inclusive. This doesn't just mean ethnicity, but also gender, sexuality, abilities, age, and more. 

5. Let them influence the plot - A side character doesn't just have to react to events; they can be agents of change in their own right. Maybe their advice changes the course of the protagonist's actions, or a mistake they make sets off a chain of events. By letting side characters have a tangible impact on the plot, you cement their importance to your story and your reader.

Bonus Tip: Making Memorable Side Characters Isn’t a Solo Journey

As a last tip, know that you aren’t alone in your quest to write awesome supporting characters that linger in your readers’ minds. That’s because Dabble’s here to help.

Find some writing friends or critique partners over at the Story Craft Café, an online community for Dabblers and non-Dabblers alike.

Subscribe to our email newsletter that provides all the value and none of the spam, because you have a book to write.

And try Dabble’s 14-day free trial so you can get access to powerful tools like the Plot Grid to manage your subplots, Story Notes to keep all your character profiles organized, daily goals, grammar and style checker powered by ProWritingAid, and so much more.

Plus, you don’t even need to enter your credit card information. So click that link and write some freakin’ amazing side characters.

Doug Landsborough

Doug Landsborough can’t get enough of writing. Whether freelancing as an editor, blog writer, or ghostwriter, Doug is a big fan of the power of words. In his spare time, he writes about monsters, angels, and demons under the name D. William Landsborough. When not obsessing about sympathetic villains and wondrous magic, Doug enjoys board games, horror movies, and spending time with his wife, Sarah.