Your protagonist doesn’t populate the story alone. They are surrounded by a group of characters who exist to serve the hero and their story.  The main character “creates the rest of the cast.  All other characters are in a story first and foremost because of the relationship they strike to the protagonist and the way each helps to delineate the dimensions of the protagonist’s complex nature” (McKee 379). 

Without them to actively move the story forward, there’s no reason for the other characters to appear and either help or oppose the main character. This interdependence of characters adds depth and complexity to the story, making it more engaging for the audience.  

They Are Not Alone

John Truby discusses his ‘Character Web’ concept in his book, The Anatomy of Story.  

He writes: “The single biggest mistake writers make when creating characters is that they think the hero and all the other characters are separate individuals.  Their hero is alone, in a vacuum, unconnected to others.  The result is not only a weak hero but also cardboard opponents and minor characters who are even weaker” (Truby 57).

Think of your favorite movie and its protagonist.  Now think of all the ways the other characters are linked to the main character, either directly or through the other characters.  Whether they are the antagonist, mentor, love interest, sidekick, or other secondary or tertiary characters, they inhabit the story to benefit the hero and their journey.

As Truby states, “To create great characters, think of all your characters as part of a web in which each helps define the others” (Truby 57).  Shrek does this masterfully, allowing the main trio – Shrek, Donkey, and Fiona – to play off each other in ways that help the audience learn more about each of them as the story unfolds.  

Shrek needs Donkey to confide in, and Donkey needs Shrek for companionship.  Once Fiona is rescued, her connection with Shrek adds another layer of intrigue to the story and her character.  Once Donkey learns her secret, it also adds more dimension to the story and provides more depth of character to all of them. 

All three have been negatively impacted by Lord Farquaad and his actions before and throughout the story.  If Donkey and his fairytale friends weren’t banished and moved to Shrek’s swamp, Shrek wouldn’t have met Donkey, he wouldn’t have gone to Duloc and been given the mission to save Princess Fiona, wouldn’t have rescued her, fallen in love, and become a better ogre by the end of the story.

As you can see, it’s important that each “character has a specially designed role, or function, to play to help the story fulfill [its] purpose” (Truby 58).  If all the characters seem to be doing their own thing with no positive or negative interaction and there’s no trajectory to the story, then what you’re writing has a lot of problems.

All About Them

Yes, it’s true.  If you are writing a story with a single protagonist, they are always the primary focus.  Everything happening must feed off of them and the story they inhabit. 

Look over your story notes or outline.  Do you have the right character in the protagonist role?  It should be the character who will go through the most change, be the most active, is out to achieve the story’s main goal, and is facing the greatest opposition.

Once you’ve focused in and chosen this special individual, “start arranging other characters in your story around that individual to provide conflict and subplots” (Edson 55).  Subplots should also connect directly to the main plot and whatever the hero is dealing with.

A sprawling multi-universe story like Avengers: Infinity War has a lot going on, but everyone in the huge cast does interact with the film’s protagonist, Thanos, at some point in the movie.  All of them have a link or are in proximity to one of the Infinity Stones, which Thanos needs to obtain to achieve his goal.

While this movie has a large cast of characters, they ultimately all serve a purpose in the story and all connect back to Thanos in one way or another.  Even small interactions or team-ups help to serve the greater story of Thanos’s quest since the Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy are determined to stop him at all costs (yes, our usual heroes are the opposition of the film, with the main antagonist being Thor).

Watch the movie again, and you’ll see that Thanos “is the character who takes the chances and carries the burdens of forwarding [the] entire story action-line” (Edson 55).  Without him going around in search of the Infinity Stones, there’s no reason for any of the other events in the story or the interactions among superheroes, to happen.

It truly is all about the protagonist!

Final Thoughts

As you work on your main character, their goal, and their arc over the course of the story, make sure you take some time to connect the other characters to them in significant ways.  It will help elevate not just the characters but the story as well.

See you next time! 

Sources:

Edson, Eric. The Story Solution. Michael Wiese Productions, 2011.

McKee, Robert. Story. Harper Collins, 1997.

Truby, John. The Anatomy of Story. Faber and Faber, 2007.

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