In every great piece of literature and film there’s a story with characters that we connect to. Characters that we emphasize with, want to be friends with, and want to see win in the end. The core of a story that keeps the audience reading or watching is of course the protagonist and their inner or outer struggle. Sure dramatic car chases, witty banter, and a well-built fantasy world keep us entertained, but it’s the protagonist that drives the story forward. But what we can also identify with in every story is that the protagonist is rarely solely fighting their antagonist or chasing their goal alone. With every Carrie Bradshaw, Sally Albright, and Tracy Turnblad comes amazing supporting characters by their side to bring out their personalities letting the audience learn more about the protagonist. Essentially a side character’s purpose is to help the protagonist achieve their goal and be there when they reach an obstacle. Now, to some a side or secondary character is just someone who tells an occasional joke and provides a scintilla of encouragement, but really it takes more than a quirky personality and strong friendship to make a strong and impactful side character.
First, a side character should be treated just like the main character in the sense that they have a goal in the story. Without a goal like the protagonist the side character is pointless and just a voice in the background. A great example of this is in the 2004 movie Mean Girls and the rebellious character Janice who has a clear goal to take down the plastics in the high school. Janice’s goal in the film thus impacts the protagonist Cady who becomes a mean girl herself. Another interesting component about Janet is she is a foil of the antagonist Regina George giving her and Cady’s goals more meaning throughout the film. A side character should have a life of their own and their goal shouldn’t be solely to improve the protagonist’s life or act as a mentor. Characters like these, who are particularly female and in the romantic comedy genre, are often labeled as manic pixie dream girls. This term created by critic Nathan Robin describes the female character who is always happy and helps pursue someone else’s happiness. Robin coined the term in 2005 and since then has recanted this idea, but it still lingers in the literary world and film industry. What we learned from his idea is that, sure a side character can care about the protagonist and want them to succeed, but they should have their own agenda also known as a subplot that contributes to the story’s plot and purpose. Their agenda, which although does have a negative connotation, is just another word for goal. The agenda should intertwine with the plot and the main character’s agenda. By intertwine, I mean their journey to reach their goal – big or small – should teach the main character something about themselves and the theme of the story.
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Next, to make a side character last and become a multidimensional character, they should embody a theme or represent a certain idea. Some of the great characters we have known and grown to love are actually walking symbols or motifs that express something about human nature. A character can do this by being a foil to the main character’s ideas thus leading them to teaching the main character something. When all side characters have a theme that contributes to the story’s purpose that creates a more interesting plot and a better connection with the audience. A novel that does this extremely well and that you have probably heard of is the classic, The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The novel that is centered around the theme and consequences of wealth and the lost generation has 5 main characters: Nick, Gatsby, Daisy, Tom, and Jordan. While Fitzgerald uses places as symbols, the characters each bring out a part of the theme. Daisy and Tom represent the terrible values of the upper society in New York while Jordan Baker represents the new type of women in the 1920s. If you further analyze the characters you will notice each of their characteristics add to what they represent. Jordan’s unisex name, carefree personality, and selfish tendencies all make her an embodiment of the modern day woman. When each character expresses a theme this can lead to the learning of the protagonist and create a greater ending of self-realization.
Lastly, what makes a great side character memorable is that they contribute to the beginning, middle, and end of the story. The worst side characters are the ones who are passive, they don’t act but instead just let things happen. Active characters are what create greater connections with the audience, as their reactions are engaging.
In the beginning of some classic romantic comedies it’s the best friend who convinces the main character to get out of their shell and go to that party where they meet their love interest. In the middle of the story it’s the mentor to the character who consoles them when things go bad and lead them to the next step towards their goal. In the end, it’s the best friend again who lets the main character know they have made a change and are different from the beginning of the story. Now these actions are small, but impactful. They contribute to the plot, but don’t distract from the main character. That’s another key point about the side character – they need to contribute something to the story, but not too much to the point they’re taking away the shine from the main character. To conclude, when creating side characters treat them like main characters and don’t skim on details especially the ones regarding goals, theme and action.