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Level Up Your Side Characters, With Sacha Black — Self-Publishing Conference Highlight

Level Up Your Side Characters, With Sacha Black — Self-Publishing Conference Highlight

In this Self-Publishing Conference Highlight, Sacha Black discusses how to level up your side characters. All too often, side characters are afterthoughts for an author. Most writers spend their time focused on the hero and the plot, so their side characters are slapped on without much thought. But they shouldn’t be. Side characters are the pillars upon which your heroes and villains stand.

By the end of this session, you will learn:

  • The principles of creating captivating side characters
  • The most common mistakes writers make with side characters…
  • And how to fix them
  • How to make your side characters represent your book’s theme

If you want to level up your characters, story and craft, this session is for you.

This is a post from SelfPubCon (The Self-Publishing Advice Conference), an online author event, run free twice-yearly, in association with the Alliance of Independent Authors.

Find more author advice, tips and tools at our Self-publishing Author Advice Center, with a huge archive of nearly 2,000 blog posts, and a handy search box to find key info on the topic you need.

And, if you haven’t already, we invite you to join our organization and become a self-publishing ally. You can do that at http://allianceindependentauthors.org.

Listen to Sacha Black: Level Up Your Side Characters

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Read the Transcript For Sacha Black: Level Up Your Side Characters

Sacha Black: Hello, and welcome to the side characters session. It is time to craft the supporting roles your story needs.

So, welcome to the Self-Publishing Advice Conference. My name is Sacha Black, and I am going to be talking to you all about how to improve your side characters.

But first a little bit about me, who am I?

Well, I am an author of both fiction and non-fiction. My non-fiction is all about writing craft, which is why I'm talking to you today about side characters. I'm a professional speaker, a podcaster, and I also work with the Alliance of Independent Authors as their blog manager. If you would like to find out a little bit more about me, I recommend starting with my podcast, The Rebel Author podcast.

But let's get into the session and learn all about how to improve our side characters.

All right. So, what are we going to cover in this session?

Well, the first thing we're going to look at are some of the common mistakes that writers make with their side characters, and just an overview on how to fix it. Because we've only got a short amount of time today, I'm going to go through the core building blocks for your side characters and some of that relates to the mistakes that writers make with their side characters.

And then once we've looked at that, we're going to look at how you can embed theme more deeply, more effectively, in your side characters, because those are some of the things that I think make for the best kind of side characters.

Okay. So, let's get into it. The thing that writers get wrong with side characters. Okay. Well, there are lots of possibilities and options and ways that people might get things wrong with side characters, but three of the most common things that occur are thinking about archetypes, side character archetypes, instead of side character importance.

So, what do I mean by that? Well, I mean thinking about things like, you may have heard the term, a mentor archetype, or the arch-nemesis, or the joker, or perhaps, the ally. There are quite a few different archetypes, and although they're useful in terms of thinking about story or if you're looking at quite a shallow level at, let's say you're looking at the film Lord of the Rings, or the book Lord of the Rings, and you know that Gandalf is a mentor type. Well, that kind of tells you some of what the character does in the story, but it doesn't really help you create side characters. It wouldn't really help you create another Gandalf-type character.

So, I, in my book, Eight Steps to Side Characters, like to look at the importance of side characters instead, and I have created a structure to help you understand how to better, and more effectively, and more efficiently create side characters, and we're going to cover that in today's session.

So, what other common mistakes are there? Well, writers when they don't represent a theme in their side characters, they just slap on some side characters on the side, don't really think about anything deeper than whatever functionality they need to have in the story; well, you need somebody to bring a message, okay, I'm going to create a side character.

That doesn't really make for stories that have that comprehensive, holistic feel. It doesn't really help you create stories that give your readers book hangovers. So, when you have side characters, and each and every one of them, or I should say the major side characters, which I'll explain shortly, when your major side characters all represent the theme, it creates this web of connectivity and your whole story feels like it's connected. Every character, every piece, every subplot, every little piece of conflict feels like it's meant to be there, and that goes a long way to helping create a book hangover for your reader.

Last then, or last of the most common mistakes is killing-off side characters in the wrong way, so killing-off side characters and there being no consequences.

So, if you have a major side character and that character dies, there needs to be a consequence. What are those consequences? Well, they could be a plot consequence. It could be a conflict generating consequence, or it could be an emotional consequence. Now, of course, you need to, what's the word, you need to be proportionate with these consequences.

If it's just a minor character, then you're not going to halt the plot for a massive eulogy and sort of funeral for that side character. But if you are killing a character that is quite a momentous occasion, and therefore if they are a large character, you need a large consequence. If there are minor character, then a minor consequence is fine. But not giving any nod to, or not allowing that death to have any effect or impact on your story, you are missing a trick.

Okay. Right. Let's now get into the importance of side characters. I'm just going to have a quick drink here. Okay. So, I breakdown side characters in three ways, three classes of side character. So, the first one is a cameo. If you don't know what a cameo is, then think of a film and TV show where there are people milling around in the background, sort of doing their own shopping or walking down the street, you don't really hear anything from them, you don't know their name, you forget them, they blur into the background. Those are the kinds of characters in books that are cameos, they're like faceless extras, and it really is the same in literature and books too.

Now, one of the, in fact, I'm going to give you some examples in the next slide of what each one of these is like in practice. But what do you need to know about cameos?

Well, cameos are flashes in the pan. They're only going to appear in your novel once, twice, maybe a couple of times, couple more times. They may or may not even have dialogue. You could describe their appearance, but what usually will happen is that somebody will use a blanket label. So, for example, the guard held the door open, or the receptionist gave me the ticket or the key, for example. So, rather than having a named character with a detailed description, you're going to have some blanket label, the girl with the Teddy, for example.

And that means that they don't need a subplot, they don't need a character arc, and they don't need much detail and they can just be a caricature girl with the Teddy, for example. Okay. So, a couple of examples, which I'll go into in a bit more detail in the next slide; Stan Lee, the Marvel comic writer is a great example of cameos. He used to star in all of the Marvel, or most of the Marvel movie films, for about 10 seconds he would appear; he was a foreman in a courtroom, he drove a truck, all kinds of things. Yeah, there's a couple of examples.

Moving on up then are minor characters. So, they are a little bit of a step up from cameos, which means they will appear slightly more frequently than a cameo, but they're still not going to have an awful lot of depth, and I really want to impress this because I think a lot of writers hear that, you know, all your characters need to be full of depth and they can't be caricatures and all this stuff, and it's all nonsense. That's just not true. It depends on the importance of your side character.

So, with your minor characters, the key point here, just like a cameo, is that they're not really going to leave a mark on your story. They're not going to have a significant impact on your protagonist. So, they might be around, they might hang around a little while, but they're not actually going to leave a mark on the story. They can still be forgettable.

So, what do you need to know about these minor side characters? Well, they might appear more than once, perhaps a few times, maybe even up to a dozen times. But as I said, they don't really affect the story and they don't really affect the protagonist. They may have transactional exchanges, so they might exchange information or money. They may appear and have conversations together, but there won't be any lasting deep connection between the protagonist and this minor side character.

They're also unlikely to generate a deep and meaningful conflict. Now, I will caveat that slightly. Sometimes you can have a minor character who may come and steal something, perhaps a tool that the protagonists needed, or perhaps they come and deliver information, and that information can lead to conflict. The point though, is that the minor side character isn't generating the conflict. They might be bringing or delivering something that will lead to conflict, but they are not the cause or source necessarily of that conflict.

These minor characters, because they are going to be seen more frequently are going to need some level of description, and you can almost be a little bit over the top here. Because they're not a major side character and they're not going to be in the story very often, you can be a little bit more extreme with your descriptions, just to make them a tiny bit memorable, or at least to help them stand out a bit. That helping them to stand out is kind of key, so you may want something a little bit unique that helps them with that je ne sais quoi. But again, I suppose it's on a sliding scale. If they're a really minor, tiny character, then you're probably not going to need that. If they're, sort of, minor, but almost major, then you are going to need more depth, and I've got an example of that shortly.

So, in fact actually, Wheezy from Toy Story, he's the little penguin with the voice box problem, is a good example. Madge, not Madge, is it Madge, I think it's Madge, from The Hunger Games, and Mr. Filch from, the Harry Potter series.

Now, I know J.K. Rowling has her issues. I don't necessarily support J.K. Rowling, I certainly don't support her views. However, lots of people understand Harry Potter and have watched it and seen it, and so therefore it's very easy to draw examples from that, so that's why I'm using Harry Potter here, as an example.

Yes. So Mr. Filch is a good example there, and Mr. Filch has that unique sort of bedraggled, almost homeless, exterior appearance, and that helps to make him memorable alongside his nuisance cat, who is very cute, but a complete pain for Harry and the other characters.

Another thing to point out here is that it's very unlikely that these minor characters will have subplots or character arcs. Now the subplot, they may be involved in subplot. So, Mr. Filch, for example, he doesn't really have his own story in Harry Potter, but he and his cat do tend to make trouble for Harry every so often, and so arguably that's a thread of a sub plot for Mr. Filch.

Okay, onto a major side character. These are the big leagues of side characters. They are the characters who do leave a mark on your story. They are the characters who leave a mark or have some kind of impact on your protagonist as well. They take up significant page time and are usually close to, or at least interacting with the protagonist on a regular basis.

So, obvious examples, Ron Weasley, Hermione Granger. Trinity and Morpheus from the Matrix. Grandpa Joe from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Four from the Divergent series, or what about the three ghosts of Christmas in A Christmas Carol. These are all major side characters. They all influence and sway the protagonists in their stories. They leave a mark in the story. If you removed those characters, the story would not be the same. You would have to find somebody to replace that character, and that's really the dividing line between what is a minor character and what is a major character. Nine times out of 10, you could probably remove a minor character and it's not really going to affect the story.

For example, if you remove Mr. Filch, it's not going to change Harry Potter, maybe it's not a janitor, maybe it's the secretary instead, but if you removed Ron or Hermione, the story isn't going to be the same.

So, what do you need to know about major side characters? Well, they will probably need to have some kind of subplot of their own.

So, Hermione, for example, has the Time Turner device in one of the middle books and she uses it to go and learn and study more sessions, so that's her own subplot. And these major characters are also likely to have their own character arcs as well.

Okay. So, moving on. These guys, these major side characters should also represent the theme in some way, and we will go into a little bit more detail about how they can do that and how you can do that.

What else? Well, because they're going to be deep characters, they're going to need some kind of backstory. They'll need to be memorable, so you'll have to really think about the description and what you can add in to show their personality.

The other thing to know is that you probably don't need many of these major side characters. Because they're going to take up a lot of page time, you only need a handful of them.

All right. So, let's just briefly look at some of the examples. So, if you haven't seen The Matrix film, I highly recommend it. In the movie, there is a scene where Neo goes inside the matrix, Neo is the protagonist, and he's training, and the point of the training session is to show Neo that anybody can become a villain. So, he's in downtown New York, everybody's wearing black and gray and white, and they're all carrying briefcases, all very busy, nobody's paying attention to him. And then all of a sudden, this woman in the red dress comes past, and she's very distracting because she's clearly very attractive, and Neo understandably gets distracted. When he looks back after Morpheus says, were you paying attention, and he says, yes, and he was like, no you weren't, look back, the woman in the red dress has turned into a bad guy.

But the point is that she doesn't speak. She doesn't have any lines. She doesn't have a subplot. She doesn't have any influence, but this is a transactional exchange that happens here. She literally is there to do one job and then she's gone, and we don't see her again. Actually, that's not true, you see a picture of her later on, but anyway, the point is she is what she is and she's there for 10 seconds. So, this is a really good example of what a cameo is.

Now, as I mentioned, Wheezy is in Toy Story, and he's there a little bit, has a tiny, teeny tiny, subplot around his voice box. So, there are lots of transactional exchanges, but actually he's not involved in the main threads of the story, and he's pretty forgettable. I think up until I was searching for examples of side characters, I'd even forgot about Wheezy. So, you sort of remember Buzz Lightyear, and Woody, and Bo Sheep, or whatever her name is, with the thing.

Anyway, moving on, maybe just character example. Okay. So, I mentioned Hermione, I mentioned that she has her own subplot. She's in all of the books, she's in all of the movies. She has her own character arc. She goes from a kind of, arrogant know it all to quite a modest, helpful, loyal friend, and she does leave a mark on the story.

Okay. Next in. Three whys. So, this is a bit of a, I think, kind of a mistake that people make, but this is also a core building block. So, your side characters need to have three whys at all times.

So, even though you want your side characters to look like they're full and comprehensive, ultimately, it's a bit of an illusion, because the only person that's really going to get enough page time to be full and comprehensive is the protagonist, ultimately. So, we have to create this illusion of depth.

And the other thing to note is that each side character, even though some of the ones who get very bolshy and like to have their diva moments, realistically, they are there for the protagonist in your story, that the story is about your protagonist.

So, your side characters, they need a protagonist why. You need to stop and think about what are they there doing for the protagonist? Are they there to make the protagonist think? Are they there to cause trouble, and are they negative for your protagonist? Are they there as a support? Are they an ally, there to do good and help your protagonist? Or are they there to teach him, perhaps they're a mentor character. Or maybe they are there to help the protagonist think and reflect and grow or help them remove barriers and obstacles? It doesn't really matter what the reason for them being there, but they should have a reason for existing in relation to the protagonist. And so, this is really for your major side characters, and a little bit for your minor side characters as well.

Next in then, we have the life why. Now this is really the thing that helps to create the illusion of a full and comprehensive character, full of depth, when really, they aren't, because we just don't have the page time to explore the side character. So, they need some reason for existing, some desire, some want that is outside the protagonist. So, this again is for your major side characters, not so much for your minor side characters, because you just don't have the page time to explore that. So, what is it that they want outside the protagonist?

Do they need to come out to their family, perhaps? Are they trying to get a big, important job? Do they want to win an award? Do they want to get a big, important qualification, perhaps? I don't know. And it doesn't really matter what the thing is, it just matters that they have it, because that can intersect the plot lines of the protagonist.

And if you can, sort of, make this work twice for you by allowing their life why to interrupt the protagonist. So, maybe your protagonist needs help, but your side character has an interview. Well, that's going to cause conflict and tension. So, that's how they intersect and cause problems or tension for the protagonist.

So, for example, in the Harry Potter series, Hermione's life why is to do well academically, and that interferes in her friendships, both in a positive and a negative way; sometimes she's helping them, and other times she's stropping off to go to the library and being unhelpful and evasive with her Time Turner.

And then the last why is a scene why. So, if you're bringing side characters into a scene, there should be a reason why they're there. I don't know if you've ever read or written a scene where you've got half a dozen characters who enter and two or three of them all discuss and have a discussion and a conversation, but then the last couple, who were the hangers on, all leave all at the same time, but they were nowhere, so they've just come out as the blue when the characters all leave the scene again. That's a problem. You don't want that. And I can't tell you the number of manuscripts I've read, when I was editing, where that would happen.

As a reader, you forget that these guys exist, unless they're doing something, saying something, bringing something, causing a problem, fixing a problem, un-earthing information, delivering information; and that's really the point here, your side characters' scene why should be one of those things.

They should be doing something, saying something, bringing something, causing a problem, or fixing a problem, and if they're not doing those things, then get rid of them.

Okay, moving on to theme; side characters and theme.

So, hopefully you all know that theme is that inner core of what your story is about. It's not the plot, it's not what the character is doing, it's the message that you are delivering, and you can either explain the theme in terms of a sentence, a message, or you can use one word.

So, for example, a good example is, if you were to use a one-word theme for The Hunger Games, it would be sacrifice. Katniss constantly sacrifices herself to help save the other characters, and the Panem country, world.

Okay. So, one thing that I want to make clear is that character, and plot, and theme are not separate. Your characters should represent the theme, and I want to make it clear that characters, plot, and theme are not separate, they are all intermingled, or they should be all intermingled with each other, and that includes side characters.

So, if your book were an equation, for example, then your protagonist would represent the theme, of course your protagonist represents the theme, your protagonist would be the answer to the equation, your antagonist would be the incorrect answer, or the wrong solution to your equation, which leaves your side characters, who are all the workings out along the way of your theme.

So, that's what I mean when I say they should be variations of your book's theme. But what does that really look like in practice?

Well, you've got a few different ways you can embody that. They could represent the theme in a positive way. They could represent it in a negative way, or they could move from a positive to a negative relationship with the theme, or negative to positive.

So, if we use love is enough, for example, as a theme, then a positive representation would be a character who, perhaps they're married, they have a family, and maybe the conflict that they experience during the story is a wobble. Perhaps they want bigger things, and they're struggling to get them and they're better and resentful of their family, but then maybe their family has a close, near-death experience and it makes them realize that love definitely is enough, and they love their family, and they don't want anything else. That would be a positive representation of the theme.

A negative representation of a theme would be, let's say we've got two characters, Claire and Charles, and Claire tries her best to please Charles, but Charles is never, ever pleased. And he's kind of manipulative, a bit of a meanie and not very nice person, and perhaps he's manipulating her to try and change her, to make her what he wants, but we all know, as readers, he's never going to get that because those types of people don't ever. And so, in the end, Claire leaves Charles and leaves him alone, because love is never going to be enough for Charles, and therefore love's not enough for her. It doesn't matter how much she tries to love him; she's going to leave. So, that would be a negative representation of the theme.

If we have a positive to negative representation, perhaps Julie, and let's just call this character Julie, and her husband, they were happily married, but her husband cheats on her. And maybe they try to make things work, they had a very positive marriage, the love was enough for them for many, many years, but this unfortunate affair happens, and Julie finds that no matter how much trying, she cannot forgive her husband and therefore love is no longer enough, and she wants more from her life, so she trots off into the sunset traveling or going and doing women's empowerment, I don't know. But that would be a positive to negative move on the theme.

And then last but by no means least, negative to positive. So, if we're talking about love is not enough, sorry, love is enough, classic example, billionaire romance type stories where you've got a playboy who wants to be a bachelor and single and never wants to settle, love will never be enough for him, he always wants something more. But perhaps he falls in love, maybe he's lonely, maybe it's a pandemic and he gets isolated alone and is unhappy and wants to find somebody to love, or maybe he gets betrayed or loses a best friend, or I don't know, he learns it during the course of the story that love, and relationships and connections can make him happy, and love is enough. So, by the end of the story, he has people around him, and maybe a girlfriend or a wife or family, and love is enough.

So, they are examples of how you can twist that love is enough theme and represent it differently. And of course, I just gave you random examples, but you would want all of those characters to interact with each other, they would all need to be in the same story, and at some point, their subplots would need to connect with each other.

Let's move on. Another way you can represent this is by looking at a theme lie, a theme truth, or moving from truth to lie, or lie to truth.

So, that last one, the bachelor, is a good example of believing a lie about the theme to moving to the truth about the theme. So, the bachelor believed that love wasn't enough, and had to learn during the course of the story that love is enough. That would be an example of moving from lie to truth about the theme.

So, a theme lie. So, if the theme is love is enough, then the theme lie is that love is not enough, and so that would be the character, in fact, it could be either Claire or Julie, the two women that I mentioned, one with a manipulative husband and one with the cheating husband, lots of naughty husbands today. Of course, it could be a naughty wife, I'm not discriminating here. But yes, so they believe theme lies. So, they believe that love is not enough, and of course, the first character who was better and wanted more from her life, and then her family had a near death experience, and then she realized that actually love is enough, she loves her family. That would be an example of believing the theme truth.

So, hopefully this has given you some ideas around how you can connect characters, your side characters, with theme. Hopefully this has shown you some examples of how you can twist and manipulate a theme to give different representation.

And of course, like I mentioned in the last slide, in an ideal world these subplots are all going to interconnect, and perhaps the two women, Claire and Julie, meet and have conversations and they enable each other to leave their husbands, and if these subplots can connect and influence each other, like I just mentioned then, even better, because that creates that holistic feeling with your side characters, and with your story as a whole.

Okay, thank you for joining me today. It was a bit of a whistle-stop tour of side characters. Of course, we've only got a short while. So, I would love to have gone into more detail, but if you would like more detail on this very topic, then you can get that from my book, Eight Steps to Side Characters: How to Craft Supporting Roles with Intention, Purpose, and Power.

I do have a workbook that goes along with that so that you can put some of those lessons into practice, building your own side characters.

If perhaps you want some specific help with your antagonist or your villain, then I have a book called, 13 Steps to Evil.

Again, if you would like help with your protagonist or your hero, then I've got a book called, 10 steps to Hero.

Or, if you would like to improve your prose in general, then I've got a book called, The Anatomy of Prose, and also a course based on using the senses in your writing, creating more sensory writing. You can find out more about that on my website, sachablack.co.uk.

If you would just like to hear more of my dulcet tones, then you can on my two podcasts, The Rebel Author podcast, or Next Level Authors podcast.

Thank you so much for joining me today. I hope you found that interesting and helpful. Enjoy the rest of the conference.

Howard Lovy

Howard Lovy has been a journalist for more than 30 years, and now amplifies the voices of independent author-publishers and works with authors as a developmental editor. Howard is also a freelance writer specializing in Jewish issues whose work appears regularly in Publishers Weekly, the Jewish Daily Forward, and Longreads.

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