Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
Sometimes it’s easy to get swindled by our protagonists. They are the chosen heroes of our story – it is their challenges, their accomplishments, their growth that gets spotlighted, and for this reason, they’re prone to getting a fat head. The plot revolves around them, therefore they’re the most important being in this universe and every other character is merely a tool whose entire existence revolves around the protagonist.
Don’t believe their lies.
Your protagonist may strut around like a peacock, drowning out every supporting character with the massive egos, but as the writer, you need to be smarter than that. If a supporting cast does nothing but offer themselves up to the protagonists’ story, then they’re no longer characters but props – toys to be played with by a spoiled child. If everyone around the protagonist sacrifices their agency to the protagonist’s needs, then they no longer feel real, and the world around the protagonist collapses.
I’ve recently encountered this issue in my second novel. The most important non-protagonist character in my book was spending some time with the main character and I started to find that everything she did or said was specifically geared for the MC’s story. Everything she said boiled down to prompts for the protagonist to reveal his feelings and motivations. Everything she did seemed to have followed what the protagonist was doing. It was a perfect recipe for not only having a weak character, but also for establishing an unhealthy gender dynamic between the characters. When I found myself writing another dialogue where the opening line was the other character asking the MC a question about his life, I knew that I was on the wrong path.
I hadn’t exactly uncovered a new problem – strong realistic support characters are a hallmark of good writing – it’s just that I recognized the flaw in my current WIP. But knowing that something is a problem is a far cry from fixing it. So here’s my proposed solution to resolving this particular shortcoming – imagine your supporting characters as protagonists of their own work.
We are all the heroes of our own story. Realizing this and reminding ourselves of it regularly is how we practice empathy, and so too it should go for fictional characters. Everything in your book revolves around your protagonist, they are the sun of your story. But planets that orbit the sun are centres of their own systems – they have their own moons revolving around them. What you need to do is flesh those moons out, and don’t forget about them when writing interactions between your characters.
So the approach I took is taking a moment to imagine if I was writing a book about the protagonist’s friend instead – what is her current main conflict, what are her goals, how are those goals being met or not, how do the actions and words of the protagonist impact her story?
It’s not like I haven’t thought of a backstory for her before, so she didn’t exist in a vacuum. A backstory, though, places too much emphasis on the “back” – focusing on what led her to the events of the book, but then losing sight of their continued existence as the story progresses. For this reason, I want to think of it more as a concurrent-story – the life the supporting cast is leading while occasionally intertwining with the main plot. It’s almost like a subplot that never makes it into the main work.
Having gone through this exercise, I found that the dialogue now flowed more naturally and smoothly. The opening of the conversation was no longer protagonist-driven, but rather led by the thoughts and feelings of the supporting character. I maintained the depth I’d developed for her without subsuming it to the main character’s story. Next time I’ll make sure to keep my eye on this for the entirety of writing process.
So the next time you’re writing, might I recommend keeping track of these “supporting character as protagonist” stories in parallel to your main plot, and you’ll find yourself a much stronger cast of characters.
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.