Building strong side characters - Authors A.I.
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Alessandra Torre
April 1, 2021

Side characters are often written without development, created for a specific purpose, and then discarded without a second thought. On our most recent First Draft Friday, author Cindy Skaggs explored why side characters desire proper attention, and how they can improve your story. xxxx xxxx

They can help define your theme

Cindy pointed out that side characters can define the theme of your work, sometimes in very clear and obvious ways. “If you look at something like Harry Potter, every character, every dark arts teacher essentially tells you what the theme of that particular book or movie is going to be. And they do it in a very small way,” she said.

They should give your story conflict.

“The minor characters can add conflict just by being in the way. If you think about Malfoy in (Harry Potter); he is a hundred percent there to create conflict and make life difficult for the protagonist, and that’s what we want our minor characters to do.”

As Cindy said, “if things are going really well for the protagonist, we want to throw a wrench in there, through a minor character. And it can be as simple as, you know, an altercation or something that makes your character start to doubt their purpose.”

In the live chat (video replay is below), Cindy shares several examples of conflict and how and where to add it.

Minor characters can act as a catalyst.

As Cindy pointed out, humans are resistant to change, and our main character’s growth and change are often integral for our story. “We’re comfortable where we are. Even if aren’t happy, we’re comfortable in that unhappiness. And so, the minor characters can push you out of that comfort zone… (or) model for your character a life lived fully that makes that main character want that kind of life.”

Learn the rest of Cindy’s tips in the full half-hour event. It’s available on YouTube or on our First Draft Friday podcast. Cindy’s romantic suspense novels and events can be found at cskaggs.com.

Want to enhance your writing craft further? Catch other episodes of our First Draft Friday chats. They’re available as podcasts, too!

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Video transcript of our talk about side characters

Here’s the transcript of our First Draft Friday conversation:

Alessandra: It’s First Draft Friday, brought to you by Authors AI. I’m Alessandra Torre, and I’m here today with Cindy Skaggs and we are going to be talking all about creating side characters and what you need to know about your side or secondary characters. So, this is something I personally am really excited for it. And I know a lot of you have communicated in the Facebook group and on YouTube and are excited too. So without further ado, we are going to jump right in. Cindy, can you introduce yourself and share a little bit about you?

Cindy: Sure. So I am a total writing geek. I’ve always wanted to be a writer and I didn’t give myself permission. And I think a lot of people experienced that because creativity is not encouraged in our culture. So when I finally decided to get serious, I went and got two degrees in creative writing because I felt like it would make me so much better. I don’t know. And so a lot of my writing or a lot of my classes that I teach are based on what I learned there. I am published, I’ve got eight published novels, but I also write in literary fiction. I write in literary nonfiction and teaching is probably the favorite thing that I do. So I teach a lot of classes, both at the college level and then community level.

Alessandra: And are most of the books you’ve published literary fiction or is there a certain genre that they’re in?

Cindy: They’re romantic suspense. And it’s kind of funny because it’s so counter to what everything I learned in my education. I mean, writing is writing is writing, but they’re so kind of anti-genre fiction in academics that people are like, “Oh, you write genre fiction.”

Alessandra: I love that. I have a romance background, so yeah, so we’re in good company. My dogs are in the background also, it’s a family affair.

Cindy: Sorry about that. They get excited when people come to the door.

Alessandra: The beauty of a live show. And for those of you watching, feel free to ask questions as we go. As always, we’ll be taking your questions and working them in when we can. So please don’t be shy if you have a question for Cindy shout it out as we go. I think, yeah.

Cindy: No, that’s okay. I can talk over him. This happens all the time. So really what I want to talk about minor characters is we tend to misuse them in writing because we want to make things easy. We want to kind of grease the wheels for character to get into either more trouble or out of trouble. And so we make minor characters, these sorts of props instead of making them real people with real lives. And so, just using myself as an example, my first published book, the main character has a son, and he is a hundred percent a prop. He is just there to be endangered so she has a reason but he’s not a real person. And so one of the things I like to do is to play with the minor characters because they add so much depth to our stories. And they can do it in a really concise space, and that’s kind of what we’re here to learn about today.

Alessandra: Okay. So by concise space, you’re talking about giving them impact and giving them life and development, but without taking up a lot of page space.

Cindy: Exactly. So one of the things they can do is they can help to define your theme. And so, I use examples from movies instead of books, because it’s more likely that we’ve watched the same movies than read the same books. And so if you look at something like Harry Potter, every dark arts teacher essentially tells you what the theme of that particular book or movie is going to be. And they do it in a very small way. Like there’s a scene in the third movie, I’m a geek when it comes to Harry Potter. So we watched it over, we were snowed in for a weekend and we watched all the books again or all the movies again, and there’s a scene where Mr. Weasley comes up to Harry and he says, I want you to promise not to go after Sirius Black. And he said, why would I go after somebody who wants to kill me? And that’s the whole plot of the movie in one really, really short scene. And so that’s what we want to do with our minor characters is he’s a real living character with family. He’s there because he’s getting his kids their school supplies, but then he’s also there to help define the theme of the book and the movie. And so that’s kind of how you want to use them is to make sure that they’re living, breathing human beings with a real purpose other than making life easy for the protagonist.

Alessandra: Or life hard for the protagonists.

Cindy: Yeah, exactly. So they should also give you conflict. And so, you know, the minor characters can add conflict just by being in the way. If you think about Malfoy in those books and movies; he is a hundred percent there to create conflict and make life difficult for the protagonist, and that’s what we want our minor characters to do. And we hate Malfoy because he is this living, breathing embodiment of everything we hated about school. And so, that kind of life is what you want to do with all of your minor characters. Even if it’s just the police officer who wraps the victim in a blanket, he should feel as if he’s a realistic person. And one line from that character can then spur more conflict or deescalate the conflict.

Alessandra: So how do you do that? How do you give your side characters life? I mean, because a lot of times you only have maybe a couple of interactions with them and how much is too much life? Like, I mean, I’m assuming we don’t need to share that backstories.

Cindy: No, but you should probably, you know, you should probably know them. I have another movie that I use frequently is Moonstruck, and there’s a minor character in the very opening she’s at the airport, the main characters at the airport, and there’s this old woman that’s at the airport watching the plane, you know, in the olden days when we could actually go down the Concourse. And they’re watching the plaintiff part and the old woman says, I’ve put a curse on that plane. And she has like two or three lines. She says, I put a curse on that plane. She tells you why, you know, she has her sister on that plane and she hates her sister. And so she’s there for living, breathing purpose because her sister’s on that plane, but the idea of curses; it sort of foreshadows a lot of the events that are going to happen. And this character has less than 30 seconds in the movie.

And so, it’s just making sure that you write them very concisely and that you almost create like a flash fiction scene where you just have this one moment of intensity with that character and then let them go. In the same way that you randomly meet people, you know, the woman who’s throwing a fit at the bank. We don’t know why they do it, but they certainly changed our day. And so that’s why we want our characters to be there for a real reason, but they’re in and out very quickly in the course. And they’re just really ramping up the tension and the conflict for your protagonist. And so, what happens sometimes is we have a character it’s almost like they’re manipulating us or we’re puppets. And they’re saying to your character, you know, you should go here and figure this out. And that’s not how we want them to live.

We want the character to have to figure things out themselves. And so if things are going really well for the protagonist, we want to throw a wrench in there, through a minor character. And it can be as simple as, you know, an altercation or something that makes your character start to doubt their purpose. And it can be just in passing. You know, it’s like that friend who says, “Oh, that’s interesting what you’re wearing” and suddenly we’re like, do I need to go home. Is it that bad? So that’s the kind of interactions we want where they’re real. And so to give you another example, I have different roles that these characters can do in there too. So minor characters have, you know, minor roles or major, you know, sort of side roles. And what got me interested was as a series writer, some of my characters are minor characters in one book, but they’re the main character in the next book.

And so how do I make them real enough to be interesting for the reader to want to read the book about them, but not have them take over. And so, they can act as sort of a shadow for the main character, which just means they have their own agenda and they’re doing their own thing at any given time, or they can be a model. So, sort of like this is who I could be. I think Harry is given in the Harry Potter movies, he’s given a lot of characters that he can be. He could be… he’s never going to be a Weasley. Like he’s never going to be a kid without a mission, but he could turn out like Tom Riddle who becomes Baltimore, or he could be like Snake, which we don’t realize until the very end isn’t as bad as he seems. Or he could be like Neville Longbottom, and they’re definitely mirror characters throughout. And that whole in… especially in the earlier books, he’s hardly ever there. He just is there as that block, like when he tries to block the three characters from going out after dark because they’re going to get the house in trouble. You know, he’s very much a rule follower and that’s shown kind of throughout the book, but he’s never given a lot of screen time or page time. But we kind of know what Neville stands for that he’s a rule follower and he has certain expectations of the main characters.

Alessandra: That’s a great… so I love that. And I love that you brought up series because a new author just asked me this week, you know what do I do? I have these side characters and they’re going to have their own book. How much should they be in the book? How much, you know, should they be a part of it? And I was like, well, you don’t want the situation where they’re just continually present for no reason whatsoever. And it’s so obvious that this character is obviously going to have a spin-off because there’s no reason that they’re continually present with no purpose whatsoever. So that was the only thing I urged her is, yeah, like if they’re there, give them a purpose.

Cindy: Yeah. So, one of the things we can do with those side characters is… I write suspense so there’s always, you know, meetings or they need, you know, somebody that’s helped to steal a car or, you know, build a bomb, whatever it is. And so, I call on the characters who have that expertise. So if they need to break in just the computer, they call one character. If they need somebody, who’s a sniper, they call a different character. So by giving them specialties, you give them a reason to be part of the action. If you’re into, particularly with series, if you look at movies like Ocean’s 11 where it’s an ensemble cast, but obviously, at least in the first ones, George Clooney is the main character, but they all have their specialties. And so if you’re not writing suspense, they still have specialties. They have connections or friends, or they behave a certain way. Like certain of our friends have barbecues or parties or, you know, they’re the ones who introduce you to your next future boss. Like, everybody has their specialties. And that’s what you want to do is incorporate them when they’re necessary. And let them just kind of be in the background for the rest of the time.

Alessandra: I think the Avengers does a really good job of that because like with each of the movies, the characters are so distinct. And even if they’re only in that scene for one argument or whatever, you can still remember them. So when their movie comes out, you’re like, Oh, that’s, you know, captain America, you know, or that’s, you know, Thor or whatever. And I remembered that one thing, but they all have very different personalities and very different specialties, like you said, and backstories.

Cindy: And then give them, you know, give them quirks. Like I have a computer guy who’s, for three books, all he was there was to be a computer genius, which is handy to have. But he always was playing with things. He would have a fidget spinner, you know, it could be a Rubik’s cube or a computer device or something he’s trying to fix. And so, he always has this sort of nervous tick that he does. And then when he becomes the main character, then you can explore why he has that tick and it becomes even more full-bodied. And then in future series, when characters see that they’re like, “Oh yeah, I forgot about that.” And so you’re giving them quirks that aren’t annoying because I’ve read some where, you know, if the character drinks orange juice every morning, that’s probably not enough to embody that character. It really should be something inherent in who that person is.

Alessandra: Yeah. I love that tip. That’s a great one.

Cindy: And then another thing that minor characters can do is act as a catalyst. In the Harry Potter movies, for instance, every… well, first Hagrid is definitely a catalyst. Like he’s just there to change Harry’s life and bring him into the Wizarding world. But every dark arts teacher is sort of a catalyst for a new direction that the movies and the character are going to go. And so they’re acting as a way to change. Human beings don’t want to change, and in books, you know, changes the purpose. And so, these minor characters can be the catalyst for change. There’s a reason the character isn’t doing certain things, and they’re resistant. We’re comfortable where we are. Even if weren’t happy, we’re comfortable in that unhappiness. And so, the minor characters push you out of that comfort zone. And so one of the things we say is if the character is unhappy where they are, then your minor characters should be extremely happy where they are and they should model for your character a life lived fully that makes that main character want that kind of life. So they’re kind of modeling what they could be and they’re foreshadowing, no, you can stay where you are. And then there’s a character that you demonstrate that that is in, you know, status that isn’t changing and it becomes a warning. You could become this, you could get stuck here.

Alessandra: So when you’re writing a book, how many main characters would you, I mean, side characters or is there such thing as too many? Or can you overkill it? Is it better to have like two or three consistent side characters throughout that book? Or is it better to have different people coming in and out of this characters life and each one is giving them a different perspective or, you know, stimulating or motivating them in different ways or it depends the book?

Cindy: It depends on the book and I think it comes very organically. And one of the things about studying us is that, you know, we learn these different techniques and why we use them and maybe we go back and we revise an existing work to add or use this more intentionally, but then over time, hopefully we start to internalize it and we bring these characters in naturally. And so in my last book, I accidentally had these two female characters. They just sort of popped in this one was a neighbor and she just walked out into the hall and my character was coming home, and I thought, who is this woman? And I realized after I finished the book that she was the warning. So she would sort of pop out of her room; she’s the nosy neighbor that pops out of her apartment. And she was the warning. Like, if you’re going to stay where you are, this is your future. You’re going to be this lonely old woman with cats bugging the neighbors. And then there’s another character who is a very strong, independent working woman that can be a model and this is where you can be.

And so both of these represent two sides of what the character can become depending on what her choices are. And then I have other minor characters that exist. Some of them as red herrings, and some of them are spies that we don’t necessarily know about. So it kind of depends on the book. I’ve read dozens or more romantic suspense where it’s really just, you know, the hero, the heroine and the antagonist. But I think adding those side characters gives depth to the story that you miss if you’re not there because they can… they can do things that your protagonist can’t do. They can be weird and random and kind of creepy, and your main characters can’t really be those things. So I would say there’s no too many, too many is what you have a hard time juggling. And the place where it becomes really obvious is a chasing or fight scene, particularly in novels, because it’s hard for the reader to track who is who. So you don’t want to get outside of your skillset and you don’t want to make it so hard for the reader to remember who that character is, and that just grows as your skillset grows.

Alessandra: Yeah. My early novels, all of my main characters in early novels were all romance… we’re all like orphans. Like, none of them had parents because I was too lazy to write and deal with parents and with engagements and stuff like that. It was like, Oh, they’re going to have to meet the parents, and I just didn’t want to create more characters. So all of my characters like had no parents or they were as strained or from their parents or whatever. But I think that was me being lazy and not wanting to make my world too big because like you said, dealing with your skillset, like I was aware of my limitations, so I stayed inside of them.

Cindy: And that’s a very Disney as trope. Like, you almost every Disney movie ever until probably the last 10 or 15 years, they’re orphans, because it’s just easier. They’re more susceptible to bad things happening I think when they don’t have parents. In the same way, Bambi was endangered because his mother was dead, so are all our characters, when they have no family, you know, they don’t have that.

Alessandra: Lion King. Like, a lot of orphans, yeah. And then over time, you know, it’s fun to play with these minor characters and have them show up in weird and random ways to get our characters, thinking about their own limitations, you know we do that within our lives. We have people who I did this a lot to my kids, my poor kids are, you know, being a child of a writer is challenging. And I would use examples, you know, like if one of their friends did something really stupid; they would become my example. And that’s what minor characters are, is they’re that example for for your main protagonist, but they’re also, they can be a model. Like if you have… my son’s best friend is just realistically one of the nicest kids I’ve ever met, and so he becomes the model to a certain extent. And then if my son is the character, there’s probably resentment against that model for having that sort of perfect character. And so if we think about our own personal interrelationships and interconnectedness, we can start to pull out characters that represent both that teaching moment and also sort of that resentment that we have for people who are held to the light a little bit above us,

Alessandra: You know, a really great example that I think fits this. And you can tell me if I’m off base, but I used the film Pretty Woman a lot when I’m using examples and Richard Gere’s best friend, or I don’t know if their best friend is Jason Alexander. I don’t know what their characters names are, but he’s a bald man if you’ve watched the movie. And thinking through this, like he’s a great side character and he really helps both the hero and the heroine look at things in different ways. But I think now that I’m listening to you, I think he kind of gives Julia Roberts character, a glimpse into kind of the dark ugly side that Edward could possibly become, which is, you know, focused on money and, you know, taking her for granted or treating her like a prostitute, you know? So now that I’m looking at it through that lens, I can kind of see, I already thought he did a bunch in that movie as a side character, but I can also see where he could cause her to look at Edward in a different manner. And I was really always only thinking about him challenging Edward’s relationship with her and why do you like this girl? And why are you with her and that sort of thing.

Cindy: Yeah. And then using that same movie, the friend of Julia Roberts, she’s the warning. This is what could happen if you stay in this lifestyle.

Alessandra: Yeah. I love that. Someone in the audience says Casablanca is an excellent example of fully-fledged side character, some for comic release, some for poignancy. And I love comic relief side characters, especially if you have kind of a darker more gritty book, I’m sorry. I almost said movie. It can help to yeah, give some comic relief.

Cindy: Yeah. And we forget that. If you’re writing very intense situations, the reader needs that; that comic relief to take a breath and handle whatever event or situations happening. You see, they’re usually the most beloved characters, the comic relief characters.

Alessandra: I love that. And Jerry McGuire, like, there’s that one athlete where he’s like, “Show me the money, Jerry.” And he really challenges Jerry Maguire, and he is just funny. Like every time he comes on the stage, you kind of perk up or every time he comes on screen, you kind of perk up to see what happens next. Someone from Facebook said, how deep do you go when you develop a side character like detailed personality, backstory looks… Looks is a great thing. Do you describe what they look like?

Cindy: If it’s pertinent. I say the writers should always know more than the audience does. For my characters that I know are going to show up repeatedly in the series, I have to know what, you know, what all of those things about them. If they’re just transiting through, like, I have a character who starts a book, she’s followed by sort of this creepy grad student. And he’s really there as a catalyst because she’s been pretty comfortable and she’s hiding. And so his physical details are very minimal. He’s kind of greasy, he’s wearing dirty clothes. He’s kind of sketchy looking, but I don’t go into a lot of detail. But then the two ladies who act as the warning and you know, the example, I go into more detail because it matters more. So that’s really where you ask yourself, is this transit, is this somebody who’s transiting through, or is this somebody who’s going to be here that we need to know more about it?

Alessandra: I really liked what you just said. Like, does it matter? Does their backstory matter? If it matters, I agree, you should know more that you can share with the audience. Does it matter? And if their backstory matters, then you need to share it or mix. Tom, sorry, go ahead.

Cindy: Well, I was going to say, so the character that I have, who’s shadowing her, he’s there for a legitimate purpose. He’s trying to get sponsored into the PhD program, and so, he’s doing a favor for somebody else. And so he has a story reason for being there. He’s not just somebody that I make up, you know, to force her to change. He has a real reason, and that’s really the key is that that’s clear to the reader, so they don’t feel gypped.

Alessandra: So when you say, feel gypped, what would be something an author would do that would be wrong? Like, if we were saying do’s and don’ts; what’s something that is that would cause the reader to feel cheated? Is he a red herring this character?

Cindy: No. And I don’t mind using minor characters as a red herring necessarily; where readers feel gypped is if there’s no way that they could know. So in other words every Agatha Christie book, the reader has no real chance of figuring it out because all the clues are on the page. And that worked in that particular era, but now, if you don’t give the information so that when the denominate happens and the reader goes, “Oh,” of course, then you’re gypping the reader. The other thing is if you make that minor character rely you know, readers are not friendly to being manipulated. And so if they feel like you lied to them in some way for a cheap joke or cheap trick, then it becomes a problem because then they feel like almost like you’re the unreliable narrator

Alessandra: Tom said, does this all apply to short stories too in terms of…

Cindy: Very much. And in short stories, you have even less space. And if you’re writing short stories, I would encourage you to practice flash fiction because it teaches you how to be concise. There’s a new website I just found; it’s probably been around forever, but I just found it it’s called The Hundred Word Stories, and it really helps you figure out how to condense the information for maximum tension and then also for creating a character really, really quickly. And so if you’re involved in short story writing, try to write a flash piece about a minor character and see how concisely you can explain that character in his purpose, in the story,

Alessandra: Carol said would it be correct to say a mentor could be a secondary character?

Cindy: Oh, very much so like Dumbledore is very much a minor character or a secondary character. And he’s almost always a catalyst for things. He doesn’t explain things. He’s a trickster by a lot. And I think the reason we put up with him being a trickster is that underneath it all, he does have a genuine affection for Harry. If we got to the end of the movie in the series and we figured out why he kept Harry alive so long, and he didn’t have genuine affection for Harry, I think we would be really offended by that series. But because he has cared for Harry for, you know, this, the seven books or the six books before he dies; we kind of let that trickster nature of his past.

Alessandra: Is there any danger in a side character stealing the show, and really winning the readers’ hearts and taking attention off of the main character and then caring more about the side character? Even if the side character is only in half of the number of scenes or, you know, 30 or 40% of the scenes, is that bad or is that something an author should be concerned about, or is it a good problem to have?

Cindy: A little bit of both. And again, it depends on the intention in the book. I had a character that I was going to kill off and readers fell in love with him and I couldn’t kill him off. And that was a problem for me; story-wise, it created all kinds of conflicts for me. If they like the side character more than your main character, you’re probably in trouble. So it’s just a matter of… and in that case, maybe write a side story for that character so they can have the spotlight, but it’s like anything else in life. If you are running a show and somebody comes in and doesn’t let you speak at all, it’s a problem for your show. And so our books are the same way. If somebody is doing most of the emotional work in a story, and they’re not the main character, you might consider if they should be the main care.

Alessandra: Yeah, that’s great. I love that. And we are we’re already out of time. Do you have any last tips or something you didn’t get a chance to share that you want to share before we sign off? And if anyone has any final questions speak now, or else your opportunity is lost forever.

Cindy: So one of the things I would say is to think about a story in progress, where you have a character that isn’t moving forward, and they’re what we call status. And then, try to write the scene in which a secondary character gives that character a glimpse of a possible future. And start to think about how your characters are moving or not moving on the page. My mother used to quote Sir Isaac Newton all the time. And one of them is “An object at rest will stay at rest until acted on by an outside source.” And your minor character is that outside source and they are pushing your character towards something. And so, you want them to help with the growth of your character.

Alessandra: I love that I’ve never thought of minor characters in that way. I’ve always thought of them as adding comedic relief or increasing or decreasing pacing or yeah. Helping you to see the main character in different way, but I’ve never thought of them as showing grass is greener or, you know, an eventual demise. I love everything you’ve taught. So thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with us today. Thank you for everyone who joined First Draft Friday live. If you enjoy the show, come back in two weeks. And if you’re watching or listening on a podcast on YouTube, please subscribe to our channel. Authors, AI host First Draft Friday, and it’s all about craft. So our talks are always a hundred percent focused on the craft of writing great fiction. So thank you so much, Cindy. If you’re interested, if someone wants to read one of your books, is there a book that you would suggest that they start with? You can visit her website, it’s here, cskaggs.com.

Cindy: So I’m probably the first in series is Live by the Team. Realistically, the one I just came out with Die by the Team is a much stronger book and it uses minor characters in the way we talked about today.

Alessandra: So the second one you mentioned was Die by the Team, is that we said?

Cindy: Yeah.

Alessandra: And they can read it out of order; they can read that one first?

Cindy: Yeah, because I had my editor for this particular book has not read the rest of the series. And so, I made sure that it was something you could jump into and follow up on.

Alessandra: I love that. All right, guys, thank you so much. It’s been so great to have you and we’ll see you guys in two weeks. Okay. Bye-bye.

Cindy: Thank you.

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