Strength of character: 8 side characters who make that novel so much more

Because Sherlock Holmes without Watson just ain’t Sherlock Holmes. Here are eight of my favorite side characters from six of my favorite books:

Eight side characters

♠ Dr. Watson, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes

There isn’t anything ostentatious about Dr. Watson. He’s modest and smart and so curious. He’s so unbelievably normal that his reactions to Holmes and to the cases they chase become our own reactions. I love that we read these stories from Watson’s point of view; they’re the few stories I enjoy that are told in the first person. You know how sad it was to read that chunk of stories where Watson wasn’t there? Yeah, hole in my heart.

 

♠ Andrei Bolkonsky and his father, Tolstoy’s War and Peace

Most of my classmates in one of the college literature classes I took didn’t like Andrei or his father (but then, they all loved Natasha, and I thought she was a fairly weak character and, to borrow a line from City of Thieves’ Kolya, quite often a “vapid twit” – so make of that what you will). The two Bolkonsky men were my favorite characters then and they still are. I think the scene of leave-taking between Andrei and his father is one of the most intimate in literature, past or present: you see just how overflowing the Old Prince’s heart is, and it made me view both him and Andrei differently than others maybe did throughout the rest of the novel.

 

♠ Pilar, Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls

Pilar is matriarch to the band of guerrillas holed up in the mountains and fighting the Fascists from the underside during the Spanish Civil War. Hemingway’s protagonist, Robert Jordan, an American who, because of Pilar (it is really her who is in charge of the mountain cadre, not the men with cartridges criss-crossing their chests in fatal X’s), finds himself attached to the partisan band and in its service, is much less interesting as a character. Pilar’s own stories – especially that of the massacre – and her strength of character, obeyed by the men around her, make her a woman feared and a woman respected. Hemingway’s novel would hardly move forward if it weren’t for Pilar; her words effect changes of character in the others, even the nasty ones, even the drunk ones, even the violent ones.

 

♠ Remus Lupin and Sirius Black, Rowling’s Harry Potter series

Maybe it’s because these two are such good father figures for Harry, or maybe it’s because they are such good men in spite of everything they endure (have endured, continue to endure), or maybe it’s because they have their own kind of magnetism: their private stories are so fully written, and they become the kind of people about whom you know just enough to have your interest piqued and find yourself desiring a little more time with them, just the two of you. I think I feel that attraction to them as characters because they slipped through in a way: Harry never had enough time with either of them.

 

♠ Padma, Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children

She’s the littlest of the little characters. She’s completely outside of the story, unneeded for furthering the plot or even for character development, but Rushdie wrote her into his book anyway and I love that! Padma cares for Saleem while he tells his story of the thousand midnight births. She chides him when he says naughty things about people or gets snarky. She begs him to continue with his story when he wants to put it off til the next day. Wallahi! She’s loud and obnoxious but so rarely present that she doesn’t annoy us, just Saleem. And she makes him his curries. She’s adorable.

 

♠ Ma Joad, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath

All these shouts for strong female characters and somehow Ma Joad and her jack handle get overlooked. That woman kept her family in one piece (best as anyone could) while they drove over the dustbowl of the Great Depression.

→ Who are YOUR favorite side characters?

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