Have you ever read a book and had a favorite character who wasn’t the main character? Even though they’re just a sidekick or a love interest or a barely-there subplot, you love them. You wait eagerly for the next time they’re going to wander onto the page. Maybe you don’t even like the rest of the book, but you keep reading, just for the possibility of seeing them again.
Would it surprise you to learn that this happens to authors sometimes too?
Probably not. It happens a lot. Things like favorite characters are usually emotional decisions, not logical ones, and we’re all human. Our emotions don’t always follow the most obvious path and that means we don’t always love the main character best.
(By the way, if an author tells you they don’t have any favorite characters, you don’t necessarily need to believe them. At the same time, you probably shouldn’t be asking if they have a favorite. It’s like asking a parent if they have a favorite child. They may well have one, but they probably don’t want to admit it.)
Anyway, we’ve all read books where that one side character just electrifies every scene he or she is in and you can tell the author was having so much damn fun during the writing. Sometimes, that kind of thing can be what takes a book from meh, it was okay to OMG that was awesome!
Sometime, though, it can go awry. Sometimes, the author gets too wrapped up in the side character and the rest of the story ends up falling flat. It’s a chore, just a vehicle to get us to that next scene with their favorite character in it.
Now, you might be wondering why the author in question doesn’t just change the story and write a book about the favorite character instead. That sounds like the most obvious solution to me and I have actually done that before.
But sometimes that doesn’t work. The side character becomes our favorite because the story isn’t about them. Maybe we like them because they’re mysterious. Mystery is always a nice draw, but if the story was about them, the mystery would likely end up getting dispelled.
For example, I watch the television show Doctor Who and there is a certain special guest whom I absolutely loved when she first turned up on the show. She was all mysterious and exciting and the little hints we got of her backstory captured my imagination. I won’t say more; that would involve SPOILERS. But in the years since that first episode, we’ve seen a lot more of her and, while I still like the character and respect the hell out of the actress, I’m just not as intrigued anymore. The more we see her, the less mystery there is, and now I don’t get as excited when I hear she’s going to be on the show again.
Sometimes the side character becomes our favorite because they’re loyal and strong and dependable and we want to see more of them because they make us, and the main character, happy. This usually happens, in my experience, with the best friend, and their relationship with the main character is what draws us in. Best friends are great and necessary, but they can’t be main characters most of the time. Being strong and loyal and dependable are lovely qualities, but they’re not very dramatic.
I read a book recently where the author tried to make the best friend the main character. (No, I’m not going to name it.) I liked the best friend and identified with her. But she couldn’t do anything half of the time. The author whipped the whole story up into a frenzy and kicked off this epic cosmic battle. And the character I was stuck with wasn’t a warrior. She couldn’t even watch the battle. She just sat around worrying and feeling sorry for herself and waiting for everyone to come home. And this happened over and over again in the book. It was obnoxious. By the end of the book, the character wasn’t my favorite anymore. I barely even liked her.
There are other reasons the idea of making the favorite character the main character might not always work, but this post is already getting long so I won’t get into them here. Enough to say, sometime we have favorite characters and they can’t be the main characters. The challenge then, is to balance that great energy we get when writing our favorite with the rest of the story.
I’m having this problem with my current WIP. My favorite character in Familiar is not the main character. He’s major character and he’s important to the plot, but he’s not my narrator. The story is happening around him, but it’s not happening to him. I could write his story instead, but on its own, his story is pretty… average. I just don’t think there’s enough there.
So I have to work on my balance. I have to watch every scene he’s in to make sure he’s not taking over the page. And I have to work on building up my main character. Tweaking her personality here and there to make her more fun for me to write. Because even if I don’t have that same irrational draw toward her, I need her to be just as interesting. After all, even if she never becomes my favorite, I want her to be other people’s favorite. And that’s not going to happen if I’m bored while I’m writing her.
Have any of you had this problem? How did you deal with it?