When Isaac Newton first came up with the theory of gravity, he presented what seemed like a simple problem. If you have three bodies orbiting around each another, how do you come up with an equation that describes how they move? Two hundred years or so later, mathematicians came up with the answer – you can’t. It’s easy enough to describe two bodies orbiting around one another – the Earth and the Sun, say – but once you throw in more bodies – the moon, for instance, or the other planets – then you can’t really predict what will happen. The extra bodies throw the system into chaos. This is why you’re always seeing news reports about celestial events that won’t happen again until some seemingly arbitrary time in the future.
When you’re writing a novel, you naturally center on your hero or heroine, tracking his or her fears and desires to your big climax. That’s where your story lies. With a mystery, you’ve also got to consider the perspective of a second character, the murderer. Romances, too, involve two characters whose lives circle around one another, as do thrillers that include a well-developed villain. All these stories tell how these two characters orbit one another and come together at the end.
But most stories have more than two characters, which means you’ve also got these other people with their own motives and desires circling around your main characters. How you handle these other characters – how much independence and individuality you give them – can change how much your fictional world feels like real life.
The obvious mistake — and it’s easier to make than you might imagine — is to simplify the other characters to the point where they become props. They don’t really have internal lives or backstories of their own, they’re just there to play a specific role in the story – feeding your readers critical information, or causing some complication at a critical point. Granted, you don’t have to delve deeply into the motives and history of the delivery guy or the cop who pulls the heroine over that one time. Their characters don’t have to amount to more than a couple of telling, idiosyncratic details.
But when your supporting actors – outside the orbit of your one or two main characters, but still players – are nothing more than props, your story is going to feel less authentic. After all, everyone but a complete narcissist knows that other people are living lives as unique and complicated as their own. So if your hero has a friend whose only purpose is to provide comic relief, or if your heroine has an old lover who is only there to play the rival, your readers simply aren’t going to believe in your world. [Read more…]