Paula Margulies over at The Writer’s Edge has an interesting blog entry entitled, “When Writers Let Lesser Characters Rule.” In it, she discusses why some writers create minor characters that are more colorful and interesting than their protagonists. Her theory is that writers do this on purpose because they fear quirkiness will render their main characters unsympathetic.
As someone who has repeatedly encountered this problem with her own writing, I was relieved to hear that others have the same challenge. I’d also like to add a few thoughts on the subject.
First off, I’m not convinced that keeping a protagonist dull is a conscious act. Often, a main character is the moral center of the story—he’s the “straight man”, if you will. The voice of reason will always need a counterpoint to keep things interesting, and that’s where the minor characters come in. Those characters have much more freedom because their actions do not affect the moral backbone of the story in the same way that the protagonist’s does.
I also think developing minor characters at the expense of the lead is a form of procrastination. It’s much more fun to focus on subplots and incidental characters than to confront the terrifying meat of your story. When there’s less at stake, it’s easier to be open and experimental, to let the characters be themselves, even if we don’t agree with their decisions. But those poor protagonists—they are our firstborns. We hold them to a higher, stricter standard. The whole story hinges on their success or failure. Oh! The pressure!
So what’s the remedy? Kick ‘em out of the house.
When a minor character starts sparkling so much she threatens to outsparkle the protagonist, it might mean that the story really belongs to her. When this happens, you have to toss the main character out and change your focus. I know, it’s painful, but I’ve had to do this repeatedly—in fact, it’s something I actually count on happening whenever I start a story. Once you get over disowning your protagonist, you’ll be secretly happy you did because you’ll realize that he wasn’t so much fun anyway, and that you really enjoyed writing about the minor character more. Run with it.
And if tossing out a character is more than you can bear, save him for your next story. Better yet, turn him into a minor character—maybe that’ll give him a little personality.