Our Characters’ Other Lives

Today was Parent Visitation Day at my daughter’s school. We got a peek into this world she inhabits—a world we know very little about. The older my daughter gets, the more of her life happens out of our view, out of our sight. It’s her “other life.”

So she has this other life, this “offstage” life as it were, and what happens there impacts how she acts when I pick her up—when she is back “onstage.” If she had a good day, she will be happy and cheerful. If something is bothering her about school, she will be upset or pensive.

The same holds true for the characters in our stories. While our POV characters are rarely offstage, many of the secondary characters are. And of course any “walk-on” or “cameo” characters also enter our story having come from their own offstage life.

What happens to them while they are offstage is important. It will impact how they interact with the main character. A secondary character who was up all night with a screaming baby will react to a situation differently than one who had a good night’s sleep. And if you have a secondary character who is secretly working against the protagonist, what they do while offstage is vitally important.

Yet I find that I often do not consider my secondary character’s other lives when I write. They flit in and out of the story with just the right attitude, the needed info, fulfilling whatever need I have to fulfill. They are often too perfect in that way. And yet I find myself being lazy because it takes too long to visualize what they’re doing when they’re offstage. I mean, I’m juggling enough just trying to deal with the main character and the villain, right?

Wrong. I need to consider my other characters’ offstage lives more. Why? For a few of reasons. First, because it deepens their characters. I get to know them better, and so can write them with more nuance. Second, because it’s more realistic—life happens to people even when you’re not there to witness it. And third, because it can add tension to your story, especially in scenes where there is not much external tension or conflict.

After all, your secondary character could be having coffee withdrawal, and therefore be unlikely to follow the protagonist on a half-baked adventure. Or they could be coffee-stoked, and therefore they will follow the protagonist on that very same half-baked adventure simply because they can’t sit still. A variable as small as that can make a big difference in how a scene goes.

My friend Keith Strunk once said that even if your character is only borrowing a cup of sugar, there needs to be a motivation behind it (he’s an actor, can you tell?). What happened to that character before he showed up asking for the cup of sugar will determine how he reacts when you tell him that you have no sugar. If he had a bad day, he will react poorly. If he had a good day, he will react indifferently.

As a writer, which sugar-borrower would you want in your story? The one that bursts into tears or becomes irate when you have no sugar, or the one that shrugs and goes home to quietly eat the chocolate chips straight out of the bag? I know which one I’d want.

Do you consider your characters’ other lives when you write? How do you keep track of them all?

When the Hero is not the Protagonist

Disney's Peter Pan

Disney’s Peter Pan

My preschooler has moved back to watching Disney’s Peter Pan this week. Seeing it again (and again and again…) reminded me of something I had noticed during her last obsession with it. Specifically, I noted that Peter Pan was the hero, but was not the protagonist.

Wendy is the protagonist.

Sure, Peter Pan is who the show is about—and he certainly has many heroic adventures! But Wendy is the character who changes through the course of the story, and it is through her lens that we view the story.

In my understanding, the hero of any story is who the story is about, while the protagonist is the character who changes and whose POV we use to understand the story. In the vast majority of stories, this is the same person. But in some, as in Peter Pan, they are two distinct people.

What are the benefits of splitting these functions?

  1. Emotional anchor

When your hero doesn’t change, or is so different from the reader that the reader cannot relate to them, a separate protagonist can serve as an emotional anchor. Wendy is a typical young girl, and the viewers can latch on to her during this wild ride with a boy who never grows up and whose emotional reactions are either lacking or not what most people would feel.

  1. Point of View

A separate protagonist provides a lens through which to see the hero. Peter does not have the emotional maturity to view life as anything but an adventure. Had we been locked into his view of life, the view would have been much sound and fury signifying nothing. Wendy’s viewpoint provides us with a different angle, where we can see the often frightening events in Neverland, and also see the value of friendship and family—things Peter does not value.

  1. Acceptance of over-the-top heroes and actions

Finally, a separate protagonist gives us distance. We come to an unbelievable world and character with Wendy, who is a stranger in a strange land as well. Through her acceptance of Peter Pan and Neverland as real, we are able to suspend our disbelief and immerse ourselves in the adventure.

A careful watching of Peter Pan shows clearly that Wendy is our anchor. The story begins and ends with her, it follows her change, and the Disney version even hints that perhaps all the unbelievable adventure was simply a dream (the stage play does not leave this ambiguous, as the Lost Boys come home with the Darling children). Wendy is the emotional and moral compass of the show, while Peter Pan provides the swashbuckles and pixie dust.

What other stories use this split function device? Can you think of any more benefits when the hero is not the protagonist? Have you ever used it?

Aggravating our Protagonist’s Weaknesses

Our house has been The House of Plague since the end of January. My preschooler has had 2 colds and a double ear infection. She shared both the colds with me and one with her father as well. So it’s been a bad month all around, health-wise.

My daughter’s double ear infection severely impacted her hearing. She has profound hearing loss in one ear anyway, and the infection in the normal ear (then another in the bad ear) really hit her hearing hard. Lots of “what?” and simply not reacting to what we’re saying because she doesn’t hear us.

Additionally, I lost my voice, and once I regained it I couldn’t talk loudly without coughing violently. So communication became difficult (thankfully we know some sign language!). I couldn’t talk and she couldn’t hear. It was like some sort of comedy of errors.

Which made me wonder about my characters. Of course, when we create friends and allies for our protagonist, we usually concentrate on providing our protagonist with people who “fill in the gaps”—people who strengthen him by having the skills or knowledge he lacks. Thus, with their help, he can grow into who he needs to be to finish his character arc.

But wouldn’t it be interesting to have a friend or ally who enhances our protagonist’s weaknesses instead? A protagonist who doesn’t hear well can be hampered by a friend who cannot speak, for instance. Or someone who is lazy can be enabled by a friend who is afraid of confrontation. Not every friend or ally could do this, of course, or the protagonist would probably fail the “quest”. But having one or two who hinder even as they try to help can add some tension and conflict to what might otherwise be “chummy” scenes with the protagonist and allies.

So next time I think about the allies I have surrounding my protagonist, I’ll think about having some that bring out the worst in him, as well as the best. Someone who complicates rather than facilitates. It should bring more depth and realism to the story and the relationships.

It will be fun to try.

How about you? Do you add people who aggravate a weakness to your protagonist’s circle of friends?

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