I’ve been wrestling with a new novel, and I do mean wrestling. I’ve completed two chapters, and it’s feeling more like I went two rounds with Rhonda Rousey or Mike Tyson. And then I began chapter three, which switches perspective to a side character. And it’s been fun! The words have been flowing!
And that’s bad.
This is not the character I want to tell the story through. This is not a character the reader is supposed to like. But clearly my protagonist is about as exciting as tracking glacier movement in real time. And even if he’s not that boring, he’s in danger of being overshadowed by the side character.
So, what do I do about it? Well, for starters, I could probably go listen to Writing Excuses: Side Characters for a quick refresher. But here are a few other ideas, too:
Start the main character in a more interesting place. Perhaps the reason why he’s so dull is because he’s not given anything interesting to do. He’s not being shown as competent. So far he simply exists as someone to follow while I expose the world. I can either go back and rewrite those chapters to make them more interesting, or I can toss them and start that character’s part of the story in a more interesting spot where my main character is actually doing something.
Give the main character a more interesting voice. My side character is not entirely a nice person, and so his thoughts are more interesting. His reaction to the surroundings and events in his life are colored by his perceptions, which give us more insight into him. I might need to put my main character in situations that allow his voice and perspective to come out.
Define the main character better. Why isn’t the main character more interesting? Do I not know enough about them? Did I not include sufficient depth? Have I not created internal conflicts or weaknesses to play off? Is my opening situation not engaging those internal conflicts ?
Do I need to bring the two characters into contact more quickly? Many times main characters are made more interesting by their interactions/conflicts with the other characters. “The Dark Knight” is arguably such a good movie because The Joker was such a dynamic character that made Batman more interesting by association. Luke Skywalker was just a whiney kid, but his ability to stand up to Darth Vader made him cool.
Does your side character need to become the main character? It seems a bit extreme, but if your side character is in a better conflict, a better position to be proactive, or more close to the main plot line–and there’s no plans to change that–perhaps they really should become the main character.
These are just some thoughts. There are more options for resolving this dilemma. Feel free to leave your own thoughts in the comments. But the bottom line is that it’s probably not your side character’s fault if your main character isn’t interesting enough. You may need to work harder on your main character rather than punish your more interesting side character. Find ways to raise your main character to the standard set by the side character.