I’ve been conducting polls on my website for over 5 years, and by far, this poll registered the highest number of votes. So I’d say regardless of the results, subsidiary characters in books are very important to readers.
Click below to understand the history of famous subsidiary characters and sidekicks:
The poll asked respondents to choose the top three things they want a novel’s subsidiary character(s) to do.
Registering only 2% or lower of total votes were:
1. …be related to the main character thereby introducing family dynamic. As a writer who uses family dynamics a fair bit in his writing, it surprised me that this received so few votes. I’m not sure if this means readers don’t care about a main character’s family, or if they believe the same can be achieved any number of ways that do not necessarily involve a subsidiary character. I hope it’s the latter.
2. …always be in trouble or needing the help of the main character. I totally agree with this one. I think the whole ‘needing-to-bail-out-the-best-friend-or-relative’ thing has been overdone and borders on formulaic.
3. …be a perfect partner like Sherlock Holmes’s Dr. Watson. This was another one that surprised me. I’d thought the dynamic due type of caper was very popular. But perhaps this too, has become a little overdone.
4. …show the opposite side of every coin.
5. …be a mentor to the main character. It would appear that readers prefer that their main character, the person they’ll potentially get to know the best and spend the most time with (if you’re talking series) be more the mentor-type rather than the student-type.
Fairing a little better and ranging from 3.0-6.5% of the votes were:
2. …be emotional support for the main character
3. …be professional support for the main character
4. …be a nemesis for the main character.
5. …reveal main character’s flaws, failings.
The TOP THREE responses from third to first are…
At 13.57% was the answer I least expected to be at the top. I think it speaks to people’s mindset and how, regardless of the genre, we just need a little….
Readers want their subsidiary characters to add that bit of funny, silliness, absurdity, perhaps like a pressure valve, especially in harder edged and serious material.
The second most popular answer, at 20.71% of votes was a catchall one. Even though voters were given the option to choose their top 3 responses where they could have been specific, it seems they…or at least a fifth of them…chose to go with the less specific: Subsidiary characters should…tell me something about the main character by how they interact.
This seems to indicate that when it comes to subsidiary characters or sidekicks, readers expect to learn something about the main character, but they don’t particularly care which of the aforementioned items – family dynamics, flaws, information needs – it is.
At a hefty 30.71% and the TOP vote getter…
Readers want subsidiary characters (wholly independent of main characters) to be recurring characters who we CARE about.
As a writer, this reinforces something I’ve always believed in, which is the need to spend as much time and brainpower on developing and nurturing and growing subsidiary characters as the mains. Certainly when I am doing public events, I get as many if not more questions about the subsidiary characters in the Russell Quant mysteries than about Russell Quant himself. After the most recent Quant book was released, the number of Kay Quant (Russell’s mother) fans who contacted me about her expanded role…even so far as to quote her…were legion. In the new Adam Saint series, the subsidiary characters of his rough-and-tough sister, Alexandra Saint, and nerd-boy nephew Anatole, are amongst the most popular. So, if you got ’em, use ’em.
Next up on my website poll, I ask the question ‘What is your biggest pet peeve when reading a book?’. And if you don’t find yours in the list provided, tell us what it is at:
Until next time, happy reading!