Enough Fluff: Make Us Fall In Love With Characters

No fluff here — at least that’s what readers want. Read on for a discussion on the reader experience with character info that does nothing for us.

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Imagine this: You crack open your book. You start delving deeper and deeper, becoming more and more enthralled by the main protagonist. What will they do? Why are they doing it? Where is this going? Our main protagonist gets more and more intriguing. They have backstories, stakes, conflicts, fears, hopes, dreams, and misbeliefs about the world they live in. And then… a side character stops our main protagonist and asks about… the weather. 

You think to yourself. Hey, maybe it’s important? Maybe the weather is going to open our eyes to a new set of conflicts. But you read, and read, and read… and it’s simply about the weather. You then turn the page and never see that character again…

Fluff. You have just experienced filler that holds no weight to our story or the main protagonist. Fluff holds one purpose: to infuriate us. It’s stuffed inside our books because either the author got very carried away or they simply didn’t know what else to put on the page. 

The Pitfall of Fluff

The biggest mistake made by authors is writing a story where the subplots and side characters are made to go absolutely nowhere. They hold one purpose alone: to make the main plot work. But, what many authors seem to forget is that the plot is nothing without the characters. And by characters, I mean GOOD characters. 

Take G.R.R Martin’s books, for example, A Song of Ice and Fire Series (known as the TV adaptation: Game of Thrones). Martin is known for his ability to create a vast and detailed world with a multitude of characters, each with their own unique personalities, motivations, and story arcs. He treats each one of his characters with deep respect, making us feel emotionally invested in them. That is until he gives us a chapter dedicated to learning every part of a new character’s life, only for them to die at the end of the chapter, never to be spoken about again. The entire chapter was fluff and irrelevant to the progression of the plot.

Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire: Book One) by George R.R. Martin.

Our brains are wired to look for meaning. We are wired to think constantly; why does this matter? How does this impact us? Why should I care? If we connect with our main character, then anything that affects them affects us, the reader. They are the door to us. We see everything through their perspective. So, anything that truly matters to them will matter to the reader.

So, when writing side characters and subplots, we need to focus on making them matter. How? Internal conflict.

1. Give Them a Life 

Who are they? Where did they come from? Why do they believe what they believe? 

Simple answer: Backstory. 

Even if they are not as deep into their inner turmoil, they still need it. Make them a life. Not a life built around our main character, but a life apart from the main plot that still touches the theme of the main protagonist’s story. The backstory is what shapes them into who they are and the reasons for why they do what they do. We, as the reader, need just a glimpse of our side character. We need to see they aren’t these characters getting punched around by the main plot. We need to see they have their own decisions and goals, separate from the main protagonist.

The Hunger Games (Hunger Games: Book One) by Suzanne Collins.

This leads me to… Finnick Odair — the man who stole my heart in Catching Fire, the second book of The Hunger Games. While his background is briefly touched upon, it’s enough to make you empathize with him. He was chosen for the Hunger Games at just 14, trained by Mags Flanagan, and was constantly caught up in President Snow’s schemes. Finnick’s story gets even more interesting as he becomes a mentor to Annie Cresta. Love blooms, and he helps her win the 70th Hunger Games. Despite his personal motives and fears, Finnick is a key player in our main protagonist Katniss’ journey, playing a crucial role in shaping the “Mockingjay.”

2. Make Their Actions Affect The Main Protagonist

Why are they there? Why are they involved in the story? Them. Their own reasons. Because it is their story, too.

They are the main protagonist of their own story. However, when they do something, it should affect our story’s main protagonist or the plot in some fashion. The side characters should not be there simply to fill in the blanks but to drive our story forward. What they do and how they act plays a huge role in the narrative. It’s from the side characters’ own personal internal conflict (fear vs. desire) that must directly affect the main protagonist.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

A great example of this is Jane Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. Jane is our main protagonist’s (Elizabeth “Lizzy” Bennet) sister. Jane’s entire goal is to find a good match. She meets Mr. Bingley, and they hit it off. However, when Mr. Darcy separates the couple, feeling the Bennets are… messy, this causes a rift between him and Elizabeth. Because her sister is her whole world, this ruins all chances with Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth’s romance with Mr. Darcy is the main plot. But, the subplot, her sister’s heartbreak, greatly impacts Elizabeth, especially since Mr. Darcy is someone she is falling in love with.

That story… Chef’s kiss.

3. Form a Relationship

Think about all your relationships. Are they all the same? Most likely not. 

Each relationship is unique in its own way. This applies to stories as well. Our main protagonist has ties to the side characters in various ways. Having a side character connect with them differently from others adds an element to the bond they form. Are they enemies, lovers, or just humorous friends who add relief to our main protagonist? Either way, they need a connection, good or bad. 

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo.

Of course, I can’t go a day without talking about Six of Crows… But it’s the perfect example! Each relationship starts from the perspective of Kaz Brekker. However, as the plot unfolds, different perspectives emerge, revealing the intricate relationships that shape each character’s actions. We witness the honorable brotherhood forged by Kaz, Jesper, and Mathias, the sisterly bond of Nina and Inej, the diverse love stories, and our (not-so-subtle) “platonic” love between Inej and Kaz. Oh! And how can we forget to protect our precious cinnamon roll, Wylan!?

With every chapter, the story grows along with their bonds. Each member brings their unique purpose to the group, driven by personal motives. Still, their evolving emotions and connections with one another serve as a vital piece, propelling the story forward.

When crafting stories, sometimes authors focus on what will make them entertaining and longer. That is all fine and fun as long as it impacts the main protagonist we grow to love. Fluff will ultimately get in the way, forcing our hands to skim at all the parts that bore us. It takes away from our main story and distracts from what truly matters. It can even make or break a book that could have been great.

So, make it matter.

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