All of these hit t.v. shows, movies, and books have one thing in common:

Is it an excellent storyline?

Perhaps great characters?

Maybe it’s the plot twists?

Or the uniqueness of the story idea itself?

While all of those things are strong factors, the one underlying key point that made these stories resonate with us may surprise you. They don’t focus on one character’s journey alone.

Jocelyn Hughes once said, “Treat all your secondary characters like they think the book’s about them.”And Jocelyn is right.

Each story depicted above focuses on more than one individual’s personal goals and problems. The author treats every character as if the overall story is about them. While there may be one character that plays the iconic role of hero or heroine, the story is incomplete without the supporting cast of characters.

Simply put: great writers understand that there is always more than one story being told.

Suzanne Collins did an excellent job of garnering our sympathies for characters like Peeta, Finnick, Johanna, Haymitch, Rue, Beetee, and more. She delved into back story, revealed personal struggles, and played on their personal strengths. This made us appreciate the depth of her unique stories.

The idea is this: you must give every character in your story purpose by giving them:

  • Personal goals/ambitions
  • Personal obstacles to challenge their character
  • A glimpse into their life, their origin story
  • Weaknesses or faults
  • And most importantly, an active role/job in your story

When you take the time to form a solid identity for each character, you’ll want to give them a chance to motivate the plot through their actions. When you then grant them the spotlight to take action based on their own unique circumstances, it will engage the reader. The reader will either connect personally with that character and root for him/her, or will at the very least be curious about his/her own personal journey and its outcome.

Each character should have a unique response to the overall issue of your story. Unique character response pushes the plot forward.

Think for a moment about The Lord of the Rings trilogy. There are nine main characters, but even outside that immediate fellowship, there are even more memorable faces!

Think for a moment about Aragorn. Aragorn had a unique destiny facing him. Being Isildur’s heir meant he was to become King of Men. But at first, Aragorn refused the role and stayed hidden in the shadows as a ranger known as “Strider”. It wasn’t until the people he cared for were threatened that he came into his own, fought off Sauron’s invading armies, and fulfilled his role as rightful King. His own unique actions motivated the overall plot multiple times, although the story wasn’t truly about him. Still, we cared for Aragorn greatly and wanted him to succeed in his own personal journey.

So take a moment and think about your own cast of characters. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do they have a strong personal identity?
  • Do they have a unique role in your story?
  • What personal goals they have?
  • What personal struggles do they face?
  • What dark, unsettling past still haunts them?
  • What could make or break them?

 

If you find some of your supporting characters are merely in your book to add a touch of dimension and flavor to your story, I will tell you right now: they will be a forgettable character your reader will be taught not to care about.
What do I mean by “taught” not to care about?
What you reveal in your story is typically what you want your reader to remember, to connect with. You guide your reader, through story-telling technique, on what to care about. So, if you give your reader very little insight about the supporting cast of your story, it’s like you are telling them, “eh, they don’t really matter, so just ignore them”. Their roles will therefore be seen as unimportant, story-baggage. (Yikes!)
Supporting characters are not flowery back drop to enhance the main character’s story. View each life as its own tale, and your reader will grow to respect your cast, invest in your characters, and truly engage with your story.
Don’t think solely about your main character’s journey. Take time to give your full, undivided attention to the supporting cast, and break apart their identity and their goals. Respect supporting characters enough to make them worth the reader’s time and attention. The stories we come to love are the stories which endanger the lives of friends. When we give our readers new friends to care about, they will be deeply invested in the problems that affect their lives.
And that’s the idea: all great stories focus on the lives of real people. Every character is given a purpose for existing, plus respect and dignity supporting their existence. Every character is given the spotlight at least once, motivating the plot in a major way. Your characters, if given a strong enough identity, will rip that pen right out of your hands and make their own decisions sure to influence your plot.
So, what do you think? Should stories involve characters’ lives and personal journeys? What characters are you building right now that you’re proud of? I want to hear from you! In the comments section below, let me know your process and what stories you think completely embody this idea. 

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