Likeable Side Characters?

Marie, here.

I was recently having a conversation with an author friend about characters that are considered allies to the protagonist, good guys so to speak, and how they don’t have to be friends with the male or female lead. All good guys can’t be good, right? We all love a morally gray character here and there. Or someone who is a straight up asshole for no other reason than because they choose to be. However, we usually see that with a main character. Usually, in most fiction, friends and allies are seen as nice characters who support the protagonists.

But does that have to be true?

I have a bad habit of making my side characters too kind. Too friendly. Too understanding. Always there to offer an ear to listen and give advice to the main character. Which works fine in a lot of fiction genres like contemporary romance. What I need are more diverse personality flaws with my characters. (Again, this is a character that is considered good, not one who will later betray the character or be revealed as the protagonist.) 

My friend has a character that hates the female lead and isn’t afraid to be a complete jerk to her. He is friends with the male lead and on their side during a war. My friend thought that she had made him too unlikeable and was looking for ways to make him more relatable. My response: Why? The story is told from the female lead’s POV and they don’t like each other. The character feels no need to show her any kindness or redeem himself in her eyes. So, why would we see a different side to him that the female lead wouldn’t? They can be allies without being friends.

Remember Wreck-It Ralph? The quote I love the most is when Zangief said “You are bad guy, but you are not bad guy.” The same can be said for good guys. They can be on the side of good but not be friends with the protagonist. Or get along with every other member on the team of good guys. Or even really want to be there at all. Side characters can also question the motives and choices of the protagonist and argue points in the antagonist’s favor.

Yes, we can make our side characters somewhat mean or give them questionable morals without them having to betray the hero in the end. They might be okay with torturing the enemy. They might constantly poke fun of the main character’s clothing choices or ‘hero complex’ as they try to save the world together. They might argue every plan of action anyone presents. Maybe they are a bit stabby or bitey. However they may act or think, they don’t have to be a ray of sunshine all the time. And they don’t have to ‘grow out of’ their attitude problem or dislike of the main character. Reconciliation is not necessary. 

This is one way to make side characters more interesting. A character that merely nods their head and agrees with everything said and done is forgettable. A character that takes on the mother role of taking care of the others of the group, but has no other personality, is boring. Give us characters that make problems for no real reason other than they can. That start fist fights because they are bored. That destroy the precious maps the group needs because they hold a grudge. That get the female lead drunk so they can shave her head when she passes out. Make them mean. Make them angry. Make them petty. Make them jokesters that take it too far. And then make them the one that works the hardest for the cause, because as uncaring as they are for the protagonist is nowhere near as much as they despise the villain. Or perhaps they are only begrudgingly helping the main character so they half-ass their attempts at outwitting or outfighting the enemy.

Whatever you may choose, have fun making complex characters that don’t always play nice, even with their own allies. You can’t be friends with everyone, even if you are the hero of the story.

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