This post, by Susan J. Morris, originally appeared on Omnivoracious on 12/24/12.
Main characters, as we all know, are golden gods of absolute awesomeness, with sharp intellects, shiny biceps, and sparkling personalities that make fair folk of all genders faint out of sheer want—both in and outside of the novel. Okay, that’s not really true (we all know biceps can’t really shine: they glisten). But even so, it can feel like it when we think about the huge amount of pressure that rests on the glistening deltoids of any main character: the direction of the action, the flavor of the narration, and most importantly, addiction of the readership. (No pressure.)
So, given all that (and how very much time you can spend on your main character as a result), it’s amazing how some random, throwaway character, who was only supposed to have maybe ten seconds of fame–max–can suddenly steal all the spotlight and demand your readership’s full attention (not to mention the author’s). Somehow, what your imagination coughed up in a moment of thoughtless need ends up being more gripping than the most carefully crafted character, in whom you’ve invested every hope and expectation!
But what makes these seemingly accidents of ink, these minor–yet somehow spectacular–characters so enthralling? It has, I think, something to do with those very pressures and expectations that make a main character so important to begin with. Here are a few different reasons that side characters can outshine main characters, along with a few suggestions as to how your main character can get her sparkle back.
Mary Sues Always Lose
Remember all that pressure we talked about? It weighs a character down, and forces them into a tiny little box where their every personality trait is measured for its heroic quotient before being allowed out to play. And there’s a good reason that! I mean think about it: generally speaking, no one wants a hero who is unlikable, foolish, incapable, or, worst of all, boring (unless, of course, it’s a “thing”). So it follows that heroes tend to be likable, smart, and capable of extraordinary things–as well as anything else the author believes befitting of a hero.* For example, if an author admires those who can operate coolly and logically under pressure, then his main character will likely do the same.
Of course, all this pressure, constraining your character in all those ways, is almost a surefire way to make your main character dead boring. I mean, if your hero isn’t going to get herself into trouble, then you’re by definition leaving all of the most interesting parts to the side characters and villains (and getting into trouble is ever so much more fun–and more engaging–than getting out of trouble)!
Side characters, now–there isn’t half as much pressure on them. And this leaves them remarkably free to be awesome. Which is perhaps why many of the most interesting (conceptually anyway) characters start out as side characters. So here’s a trick: instead of treating your main character like the . . . well, main character, try treating them like a side character. And instead of trying to create a main character who can serve as a touchstone for ordinary in a sea of extraordinary, try to think of who the most interesting character would be, given the themes and scenes in your novel—someone who would react in original and entertaining ways. You may be surprised how much more interesting a main character can be, when they don’t have the weight of an entire novel (or more!) on their shoulders.
*Which, by and large, tend to fit in a fairly narrow box that you could set on your windowsill, and which the neighbor ladies and gents could pass by and murmur approvingly of what a well-mannered, appropriately heroic box it is.
That’s Not a Character: That’s a Camera!