It may sound incredibly self-centred, but I am the hero of my personal journey through life, and by that, I don’t mean a literal Hercules or Aeneas so much as the protagonist. Everything in my life is interpreted through my eyes in how it impacts me.
Sure, if I try, I can step outside of my ego and try to consider life and specific events through others’ eyes, but even here, if I am to be completely honest, I am still tempering those reflections through my own life experiences and biases.
And now to the controversial aspect of this vignette.
When creating characters for a story—a novel, screenplay, poem, excuse for lateness—each character in that story is the hero of the story, if only in their own eyes. The events you record as a writer are witnessed by the characters in your story from their own perspectives and their responses and reactions to events and other characters will be based on their individual experiences and biases.
Sure, the story you are trying to tell may only have a main protagonist, perhaps a secondary protagonist and an antagonist. Everyone else is just there for colour or to help your main characters rationalize their worlds and world views. But you have to be honest to those other characters if we, as readers, listeners and viewers, are to believe them.
When I read screenplays, I often get quite attached to the main characters, whether positively or negatively. More often, unfortunately, I end up watching minor characters for whom I have no opinion if for no other reason than I cannot believe they exist.
They are placeholders to keep me from watching 95 minutes of nothing other than antagonist and protagonist in earnest conflict. To call them two-dimensional would be a slight to some finely crafted animated characters I’ve watched in well written cartoons.
Even if a character has one line or is silent, I want to know in my gut, if not my head, that the character has a reason to exist, not for the sake of your plot, but for the sake of his or her universe.
I’m not asking for 37 stories for 37 characters. I’m asking for one story for 37 characters that matter.
A lot of people tell me that this over-complicates things—you may be thinking this right now. I obviously disagree, believing that a Who is a Who, no matter how small.
That character’s reality doesn’t have to be on the page, but it better be in your head, because the reader will know if it’s not. The character won’t pop, if it isn’t.
If it helps, think of this as another way of telling a story that’s been told a thousand times before. Rather than tell the story from the perspective of the protagonist everyone knows, tell it from the perspective of the character few people ever remember. The 100 bajillion Christmas stories are perfect examples of this.
The Little Drummer Boy was the story of the birth of Christ and yet it wasn’t.
What if you retold the story from Pretty Woman but from the perspective of the hotel manager?
Make every character in your story believe he or she is the hero of his or her universe, and they will live on beyond their few lines of dialogue.