A couple of years back I blogged here about how, contrary to standard advice, fictional antagonists do not have to see themselves as the hero. The protagonist of their story, yes, but not necessarily a hero (lots of protagonists aren’t heroes). When I mentioned this elsewhere online last month, someone informed me I was wrong (the impertinence!) and that what I’d said was meaningless — obviously they were the protagonists of their own story, what else could they be?
I didn’t have the chance to respond before comments closed, but the answer to that question is, characters don’t have to be protagonists of anyone’s story. I see lots of fiction where the characters are simply supporting characters in someone else’s story. They shouldn’t be, but they are.
As I wrote when my cousin Peter wrote The Lie That Settles about our family, I’d always envisioned my aunts and uncles as supporting players in my life. The book made me realize they had their own lives, feelings and goals, many of which had nothing to do with me. And so it should be with fictional characters. Whether they’re an antagonist or a supporting character they should usually have an existence separate from the protagonist even if it’s not part of the story.
That’s not always how it works. I’ve read stories where the high school Mean Girl’s life revolves around persecuting the protagonist. Or supporting characters who don’t have lives of their own, they just exist to admire the protagonist. Or everyone who meets the protagonist realizes she is just the most amazing person they’ve ever encountered, as in Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs and its sequels. Romance writer Jude Devereaux had an article in Writer’s Digest in the early 1980s making the same point: some romance novelists write female leads who are so cosmically charming that everyone is happy to help them, except the villain who wants to rape them and the romantic rival who hates them. But they’re all fixated on her.
It’s particularly acute with female love interests, who often have no other role in the story. Tim Hanley’s Betty and Veronica makes this point about how the girls of Riverdale were often written with no reason to exist besides Archie. It’s far from the only example. By contrast, one of the things I love about the 1980s TV series Square Pegs is that the in crowd barely cares the protagonists exist. They have their own lives to live; if Patty and Lauren weren’t constantly trying to be friends with the cool kids, both groups would go their own way.
I don’t think every supporting character has to be written this way. Minor characters can be walk-ons who serve the protagonist their meals or trim their hair. Or they can have some quirky trait that makes them stand out while still being clearly supporting characters, like Moriarty’s constant bullying of his butler in Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. But a lot of times giving them a life of their own can add to the story, like mystery story-obsessed Hume Cronyn in Shadow of a Doubt or the occasional comic-book spotlights on super-villain henchmen.
I make a conscious effort to do this in my own writing, at least at novel length (with shorter stories sometimes everything does need to revolve around the protagonist to save space). KC’s best friend Sarah in Impossible Takes a Little Longer is getting married in a couple of weeks as the story opens. That gives her something to focus on besides KC’s problems. In Questionable Minds Scotland Yard’s Mentalist Investigation Department has multiple cases to work on besides the central one. Hopefully this creates the feeling the characters have some existence outside the central story.
So I think I was right and my critic was wrong. But of course.
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