I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve read a story and hated everyone except the side kick. While the heroine makes predictable (and often very, very stupid) decisions that show how brave and self-sacrificing she is, her snarky side kick offers much better advice and far more entertaining dialogue as he or she usually accompanies our lackluster heroine into danger. The worst is when the author kills off this magnificent character because of all a sudden, I really don’t care about the story anymore.

Then again, I’ve run into the opposite problem as well. The main character is hilarious and interesting, finding ways to outsmart his enemies and meet his love interest in creative ways. His sidekick plods along behind him, offering necessary plot lines that move the story forward or, worse, info dumps like it’s going out of style.

I hate both scenarios. I really love the stories that have well-rounded characters throughout, who move the story forward through their actions and personality, not just because they need to act as a narrative voice for the author who has found no other way of telling the reader something.

So here are some things I’ve done to stop myself from falling into either trap:

1) Character sketch

To start off, it would be so easy to insert a new (nameless) character for one or two lines for the sake of plot cooking. I sometimes do this for first draft only because at that point, I’m playing and exploring the world. The “one-line wonders” are there to help me figure out the world I’m building. Once I get serious about the story, I look at all of my characters (main and otherwise) shrewdly. If I can cut them from the story, I do. If they say something important, I look at why they’re saying it (how do they even know?). Character sketching, for me, tends to be a freewrite. I go into who they know (that is a main character), what their role in the story is (it is never allowed to be “To tell the main character something important”), their family, job, hopes, fears, anything that seems relevant. I’ve also pretended my character was on a game show or dating show and drafted some fake questions to ask them. Just the way that they respond to the questions tells me about the characters.

This way, when my side character interacts with the main character, it isn’t a live person talking to a wall. It is two different people with concrete goals and motivations talking to each other. Each character is a world unto himself.

2) Restraint

This is going to sound like it contradicts the first one but it’s all part of editing. It would be easy to get lost in character sketches for every single person that shows up in your story, especially if you write epic-length stories that span multiple books and universes (like mine invariably do). The restraint comes in when you realize that the information you are creating for your side character isn’t THAT important for the story to move forward.

For example, if my side character decides to reveal a secret to the main character because the main character reminds him of his young daughter, who was killed by the evil King’s army, then it would make sense for me to know the details of that side character’s life (how much family does he have, how did his daughter die, what was his reaction to it, etc.). Now, if I go in depth enough to note that this particular side character loves a hearty meal and went to a nobleman’s banquet when he was 14 because he snuck in and that his father whipped him when he got home because he’d stained his clothes… see how that doesn’t help the scene or any part of the future story? Especially if this character never shows up again. Try for focused sketching – just like in art, draw what’s inside the canvas. Peripherally know what is outside but keep your focus in the story.

3) Love your characters

This seems silly, I know, but you’ve got to love everyone in your story. It is too easy to make the main character someone you love and the villain as someone you hate. That is first draft thinking. If you really want to make a story that speaks to the truth in people, create gray characters. Create a villain that you sympathize with (important if the reader doesn’t find out who the villain is right away, as it will be more difficult to pinpoint). Find something you love about all of your characters, even if it’s something as simple as a side character’s red hair or the weird accent another one has. Whatever it is, find a way to infuse that in your writing. Some details I love: hands, fingers, gestures, blushing, freckles, moles, ears, hair, unique features, posture, the way they walk, a funny laugh, the sound of a voice. For my main characters, I love the way they reason through a problem and make a decision. Even if it’s the wrong decision (maybe especially then), I find that I love them for trying. I love when they realize they’ve made a mistake, when something terrifies them (because I am terrified with them), and when they want something.