By Joshua Roots, author of SUMMONED CHAOS
I’ve always been a huge fan of Side Characters, the men and women of fiction who help the Hero/Heroine along the way. Playing a supporting role, they’re the ones who often get to say the things the Main Character can’t or won’t. Other times, they’re the ones who find an important clue that helps solidify the MC’s theory of whodunit.
The thing is, Side Characters sometimes get the short end of the stick since they are, on occasion, catalysts for motivation. Life is probably a little safer if you’re Hammer McThunder*, but what about Charlie Von Labcoat**, his fast-talking scientist buddy? The guy decides to work late in the lab only to be gunned down by international criminals bent on stealing the latest time-travel technology he’s been working on. Next thing he knows, he’s dying in McThunder’s arms. Sure, the MC gets to utter some awful catch phrase like, “It’s time to drop The Hammer” and then spends the next 200 pages hunting down bad guys, but that’s no solace to Charlie.
Poor, poor Charlie.
But not all Side Characters are under the Sword of Damocles. Sometimes they’re there to break up the tension. Add some spice to an otherwise dark situation. One of my absolute favorites has to be Zathras from Babylon 5. Stuck on a planet tending The Great Machine and with nothing but insects for conversation/food, the guy didn’t have a lot going for him. And yet, the few episodes where he appeared made a huge impression on me because he wasn’t 2-demnsional. The character had depth and humor, something that separates an outstanding Side Character from the ones that are Just Okay.
It didn’t hurt that he had some of the best lines in the series.
Side Characters can also serve as a point of reference for the reader by contrasting with the Main Character. Watson, no intellectual lightweight in his own right, is there so that we see the true extent of Holmes’ intellect. The fact that Watson is a deeply fleshed out person with motivations and desires, rather than simply being a story-prop, makes Holmes all the greater.
No matter what role the Side Character plays, the critical component for me is the connection. During the opening scene of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom when Indy’s partner, David, is killed, I remember thinking, “That stinks. Oh, hey Shorty!***.” There was no development and, as such, no sense of loss.
But Obi Wan? Oh man. Talk about a huge disturbance in the Force when Vader turned him into an empty robe.
In the end, Side Characters can make or break a story/series for me. Doomed from the start, used as a humor-tool, or serving as a reference point, I’ll struggle through a book if the supporting cast is lack-luster. But give me me a handful of well-defined, strong characters that I can connect with and I’ll gladly stay up till 4AM to gobble down every iota of awesome.
So what about you? What are some of your favorite side-characters and why?
Oh look, books!
Joshua Roots is a former Marine, car collector, and beekeeper. He enjoys singing with his a cappella chorus, playing video games, and reading comic books. He is still waiting for his acceptance letter to Hogwarts and Rogue Squadron. He and his wife will talk your ear off about their bees if you let them.
** Alas, poor Charlie. I knew him, Horatio! Also, another made up name.