Most people are at least vaguely familiar with Anna Karenina if they know anything about Russian literature. Perhaps they have seen one of the movies made from this famous novel. I even discussed this book with a student who had grown up under the Russian school system and learned that students read a simplified version of this classic in their elementary years. However, neither the stunning Anna Karenina nor her lover Alexei Vronsky is the major character in this novel. Rather the shy and unconventional aristocrat Konstantin Levin is the protagonist. I am fond of classic Russian novels because they contain multiple interesting characters in conflict. Just one intriguing character is usually not enough for me.
Often authors are reluctant to create side characters with unusual qualities for fear that these will outshine their major character. However, it is often the nature of the protagonists’ struggles rather than their traits that draws the reader to these main characters. One high fantasy novella I read had major characters which fit that genre, an aging but still powerful wizard, a beautiful fairy with spunk and charm, and a human child with an enchanted singing voice. Unfortunately, this trio had the perfect combination of skills and power to help them defeat their enemy, a villainous wizard robbing the people of their voices. However, I was more intrigued with a side plot in this novella; a wind nymph had fallen in love with a warrior elf, who knew she existed but paid no attention to her. This story of unrequited love was never resolved. So, I found those two characters more intriguing than strong “one note” main characters.
It is not necessary to make side characters a bland vanilla flavor, but rather let them start weaving their own story into that of the main character. Even a protagonist that is not as flamboyant will not be overshadowed if the relationship is handled correctly. The protagonist can observe the lives of flashier side characters, such as Levin does in Anna Karenina. He provides an insight into the quandaries faced by people around him, quandaries similar to his own, and observes how they fail to overcome these conflicts. This is an important step in his own growth.
You may find that the side characters present a story that is richer and poses a problem more unsolvable than the one faced by the main character. Don’t worry about this. Major characters can still learn from minor characters who have more dramatic conflicts if you allow the reader to have insight into their own intimate struggles.
Even as the most evil villain will not necessarily make the hero shine, the most interesting side characters may not make the main character seem boring.