I don’t know about you, but one of my favorite parts of reading fiction is discovering the subplots: the minor characters, the subtle romances, the bromances, the minor histories of characters and places.
If you ask me my favorite character in almost any book, I’ll name a minor character. For example, in the Harry Potter series, I’ll list off Lupin, Ron, Luna, Neville, Hermione, Draco, Tonks, Hedwig…Harry won’t even show up on my mental radar.
Subplots and minor characters add depth, humor (Legolas and Gimli in LOTR, anybody?), and variety to your story. They’ll help make your world three-dimensional, enable the reader to understand your main character’s motivations and passions, and empathize and feel the conflicts in their own hearts as they read.
But subplots can be a tough cookie. They can easily get lost in the bigger points of your story. They’re figurative punch can be diminished by poor writing. And they can easily confuse your readers.
A strong subplot has three main traits:
They are consistent
They are straightforward
They influence the main character and plot in some way, big or small
It is important to remember that your subplot is just that: sub. It is not the big cheese or the main event. Your subplots add depth and dimension to your story and world but they don’t need to take off on their own.
Unless your story gets famous and gains a rich and deep fan fiction following…which is also totally possible.
There are five best practices for strong subplots. These will guarantee your minor characters and rabbit trails are fully fleshed out and will deliver the punch you want them to.
Subplots are influenced by the greater society of your story
One of my absolute favorite examples of this is the relationship between Lupin and Tonks in the Harry Potter books. Lupin is of course, a werewolf, which causes him several difficulties in living his daily life. It’s hard for him to find a job, make a living wage, and even though he found love in Tonks, their relationship still has it’s trouble.
Lupin’s lot in life is largely influenced by society views him, which gives us readers a better understanding of wizard in society as a whole. Harry’s relationship with Lupin also clues the reader into their personalities and values, allowing us to know both of them better.
Subplots are subtly noticed by the main character
Whether it’s a sibling in love, a best friend with money problems, or a teacher who perhaps isn’t as credible as they thought, strong subplots are noticed by the main character. Even if the main character gets it wrong, missuspects, or ignores what they see or hear about the subplot, allow your main character to notice it.
Subplots add background
Whether it’s childhood abuse, a past broken heart, a missing sibling, a long-lost best friend. The traumas and circumstances of minor characters add depth to their actions and connections with the main character.
Subplots can add interest to otherwise boring scenes
Your character has to be at home for a few months. There’s weeks spent in the library. Someone needs a bath. Whatever it is, those boring “filler” scenes can be just the place to clue your reader in on a hidden romance, a connection to a character’s parents, etc.
Subplots can be the explanation of another character’s importance
Going back to Harry Potter, Neville Longbottom is a great example of this. His history of tortured parents, growing up with his grandmother, his forgetfulness even, all are the tip of the iceberg that is the subplot of Neville Longbottom. His importance to Harry and Harry’s importance to him become clearer as you learn more of his story. And the more you learn of the story of Neville’s parents, the more you learn his importance to Harry.
If you’re balancing several subplots, it is helpful to create guidelines for yourself so you don’t lose track of important pieces.
The best sort of guideline is an outline. When you have several subplots and your main plot, drawing out an outline is a great way to keep track of important points. Draw a line for your main plot first and mark significant events along it. Then draw additional lines for your subplots, overlapping them with your main plot line as they need to.
This not only allows you to see the overlaps but it will help you know which loose ends need to be tied up, and if you’re writing a series, can determine which subplots last only one book or need a few more books to flesh out.
Once your story is finished, send it along to an editor who’s only job is to look for the subplots and ask the important questions about them, This will ensure you answer the questions you need to and engage your readers in the best way.
Have you incorporated subplots into your WIP? Tell me about them in the comments!