Why Side Characters Steal the Spotlight (and How to Steal Some Back)


Hero_bigMain characters, as we all know, are golden gods of absolute awesomeness, with sharp intellects, shiny biceps, and sparkling personalities that make fair folk of all genders faint out of sheer want—both in and outside of the novel. Okay, that’s not really true (we all know biceps can’t really shine: they glisten). But even so, it can feel like it when we think about the huge amount of pressure that rests on the glistening deltoids of any main character: the direction of the action, the flavor of the narration, and most importantly, addiction of the readership. (No pressure.)

So, given all that (and how very much time you can spend on your main character as a result), it’s amazing how some random, throwaway character, who was only supposed to have maybe ten seconds of fame--max--can suddenly steal all the spotlight and demand your readership’s full attention (not to mention the author’s). Somehow, what your imagination coughed up in a moment of thoughtless need ends up being more gripping than the most carefully crafted character, in whom you’ve invested every hope and expectation!

But what makes these seemingly accidents of ink, these minor--yet somehow spectacular--characters so enthralling? It has, I think, something to do with those very pressures and expectations that make a main character so important to begin with. Here are a few different reasons that side characters can outshine main characters, along with a few suggestions as to how your main character can get her sparkle back.

Mary Sues Always Lose

Remember all that pressure we talked about? It weighs a character down, and forces them into a tiny little box where their every personality trait is measured for its heroic quotient before being allowed out to play. And there’s a good reason that! I mean think about it: generally speaking, no one wants a hero who is unlikable, foolish, incapable, or, worst of all, boring (unless, of course, it’s a “thing”). So it follows that heroes tend to be likable, smart, and capable of extraordinary things--as well as anything else the author believes befitting of a hero.* For example, if an author admires those who can operate coolly and logically under pressure, then his main character will likely do the same.

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Comments (2)

Epheros: Good point! I think side characters who are relegated to that role due to short arcs or reactivity can make fantastic short story candidates.

Posted by: Susan J. Morris | Monday December 24, 2012 at 6:18 PM

Makes me wonder whether you can come up with a couple side characters you would have loved to have gotten a short story about them if you could. I can't think of any immediately, but one that came to mind but got a big part in a series was Jarlaxle. I'm not surprised he got far more spotlight later on.

Posted by: Epheros | Monday December 24, 2012 at 2:49 PM

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