How Complex Should Side Characters Be?

I used to think that every book needed a few side characters that were flat, i.e. mostly one-dimensional, without a lot of backstory, existing just to bolster certain scenes.

But recently I have read a lot of books with complex, nuanced side characters. Characters that have their own identities and their own stories, even though they aren’t the protagonist. These books have made me rethink my belief that stories benefit from flat characters.

To be clear, this post is talking about side characters. Not the protagonist, not the love interest. The best friend, the side kick, the quest buddy, the girl you sass in the hallway at school. Some authors leave them simply described, embodying just a few key characteristics, while others spend time ensuring that every character in their story has deeper motivations and backstory that explains them. So…which is better?

side characters flat 2

Comic relief.

Flat characters make wonderful jokes. They are free to exist simply as the Idiot, the Class Clown, the Drama Queen, or whatever other role they fill in the story. They will not win any awards for creativity, but they can help inject some humor into a story without weighing it down with extra details.

A little bit of realism.

We do not know the deep desires and secrets of everyone we interact with, even if they are important in our lives. Sometimes—at least for me—I see a person largely as one characteristic, mainly because they play one distinct role in my life. They are important in that role, but to try to shove an extra subplot into my story surrounding them wouldn’t really make sense.

Sometimes, I don’t care about your backstory.

I think the reason that I initially preferred flat side characters over round ones is that I read a lot of books that weren’t done well. Backstory and subplots can really strengthen a book (more on that later), but when they are done badly, they can make a story feel choppy and overdone. If there isn’t a reason for me to care about the protagonist’s sister’s darkest secret, don’t waste time telling me about it.

side characters round 2

They kill stereotypes.

Flat characters often exist only to embody stereotypes. That can add humor to a story (see #1 above), but it can also hold a story back. When authors take the opportunity to flesh out side characters—pushing past their original defining characteristic—their stories stop relying on stereotypes and really come to life.

They are opportunities for more diversity.

I want books with racially and sexually diverse protagonists, but I also want stories with white/cis protagonists to have diverse side characters. But to add in side characters that are diverse on paper but that are never explored in the story does absolutely nothing. In this case, rounder side characters are a must.

More bang for your buck—you get multiple stories in one book.

This one is pretty obvious. Why would you want to read one person’s story when you can read three or four people’s stories? It’s the reason readers enjoy stories with more than one POV, and it is the reason stories with round characters are often more interesting than ones with flat characters.

Complex stories are more captivating them simple stories (often).

Assuming that the story is written well, I like stories that have more than one layer, that talk about more than one thing, that explore lots of different sides of human nature. When side characters are left flat, this is less likely to happen, and I find myself less entranced by stories.

Right now, I am siding with round side characters. Who knows what I’ll think in another year.

What do you think? What are your favorite books with flat/round side characters?

11 thoughts on “How Complex Should Side Characters Be?

  1. Loved this! I think that’s such an interesting topic to mull over. I think I do like my round sidekicks or something similar to Puck in the Iron Fey series, which I hope you’ve read *slides imaginary glasses down nose*. I’m quite the sucker for multiple perspectives though so I wonder if I have a penchant for liking more more more and a bunch of hugely complex characters that gives me a headache, *grins maniacally*. So if I can get that in sidekicks too, I’m a happy Chappy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • *hides in corner* I haven’t read the Iron Fey series…YET. (but I just added it on goodreads)
      I have a hit-or-miss relationship with multiple POV books. Sometimes, they are the BEST, but sometimes I end up only caring about one POV and wanting to skip the rest.
      Thanks for liking the post 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post! I’m okay with flat side characters as long as they really don’t do much to the plot, and like you said are just kind of there for comic relief or something or another. If a side character plays a bigger part in the story, then I prefer for them to be more round and flawed, and not just there to be a stereotype. Sometimes too many complex characters that are expanded on a lot, can be confusing though, so yes, I would like for characters that are more involved with the plot to be round and two-dimensional, but if not, I’m fine with them being much flatter.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow, you made my point in WAAY less words. Jealous 😉
      It really bothers me when major side characters are left one dimensional. It feels like such a wasted opportunity! But I have also had the experience of completely losing track of side characters’ different backstories and having no clue what was going on. So I guess you need a balance.


      • Take the case of Treyvon Martin, and take a second look at the ‘side character’ of the young black female friend who had been on the phone with him as he noticed and then try to flee from G. Zimmerman. She said she was originally from Haiti, right, and English was her second language, and it really showed in her confrontational attitude when Zimmerman’s attorney attacked her testimony. Why was she not given an interpreter as the Asian man, and Spanish woman were? The prosecutor hung his whole case on her testimony as witness against Zimmerman, and then didn’t notice that she needed an interpreter?!! I presented a better case of murder against Zimmerman from my armchair! They need to retry the case!


  3. As you’ve said in one of your replies to a comment, I think balance is good! I’ll always love to see more round characters, as opposed to filler side characters that are, more often than not, based on stereotypes. Sometimes I get caught up in side characters, especially if they are interesting but not developed, then the idea of them enamors me.

    One that springs to mind that has many, many side characters but didn’t feel ‘flat’ to me was the Red Rising trilogy. (Have you read it? :D) All the side characters had a purpose and they had their own agendas, even if they didn’t get much development. 🙂 Their existence in the story didn’t feel meaningless or forced either, but actually made the story more interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve always liked well rounded side characters because when they’re flat I fell like there’s something missing. And I don’t need their darkest, deepest secrets nor their full backgrounds, I just need to know enough for me to be able to imagine them as real people. Idk ! Maybe I’m weird hahaha.
    Anyway, you make great points on both sides of the argument ! 😀


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