Every story had a question lurking just beyond its boundaries… What If? That question shaped the characters, setting, and plot of the tale told.
What If a farmboy left his home planet to join a rebel alliance (Star Wars)? What If all of the fictional locations of literature existed on a real map (Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica)? What If a wizard lived in Chicago (The Dresden Files) and What If a two-thousand-year-old druid lived in Arizona (Iron Druid Chronicles)
Growing up, I found I enjoyed most the What Ifs with fantasy or science fiction answers. If the answer to a What If was “literary” or real world, I wasn’t interested.
And always, always, it was the characters of the story, how they answered the What If, who kept my attention. They were the reason I went back and bought another book by that author.
So when I started writing my own stories, answering my own What If questions, I started with a character. Later I learned to use the word “protagonist,” but in fifth grade, it was just the person I wanted to watch in the movie in my head.
Much later, like after college, I figured out most of my What If questions came to mind while listening to stories about other protagonists, and the answer was provided by a side character.
The short story that became my first sale required the opening line “In Pigwell, time is not measured by days or weeks but by the number of eighteen wheelers that drive by my house.”
My question became What If a yeti terrorized the town of Pigwell every winter and a ten-year-old boy couldn’t stop it? (See what I mean about fantasy and science fiction influences?) So while the “hero” called in by the boy fights the yeti, the story is from the point of view of the boy, a side character.
My first novel’s What If popped into my head when my boyfriend told me about an RPG he played which took place in a fantasy city. I have no desire to play an RPG (dice rolls make my eyes glaze over), but hearing about his character’s adventure as if it were a movie can be fun.
The side characters in that kind of game are often referred to as NPCs-non-player characters, like a centaur, who give out important quest information. In my mind, What If that centaur ran a bar in a city overseen by someone who hated non-standard (Human, Dwarf, Elf) races? In the world of the RPG, he was a side character. In my world, he had a larger role to play.
Characters define the point of view of the story. The reader sees through their eyes and through their actions, the reader understands the plot. Thinking of my protagonist as a side character is also a helpful way to start a bigger story, since other players with other motives are then waiting on the sidelines to make their presence known.
Some series do a great job of this, such as the Legend of Eli Monpress. The thief is the protagonist, and as the story develops over the five novels, the reader learns how small he is in the grand scheme of things… and also how vital.
Because side character protagonists are the center of their world. They have to be in order for the reader to care about what happens to them. And you want the reader to care, otherwise they won’t buy your next book.
Imagine looking at a tapestry that spanned the length of a museum wall-huge and detailed at the same time. By focusing on one part of the tapestry, deciding to write from the farmboy’s perspective instead of the emperor’s, you get a different What If to answer. And you still have lots of room to tell future stories that include the other people and places and plot threads in the tapestry.
While every story started with a What If in the author’s mind, whom they chose to be the protagonist defined the adventure that happened.
And side characters can have some awesome adventures.
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Heidi Berthiaume is a side character in an epic story who writes, develops children’s book iPad apps, edits fan music videos, and has almost figured out what her own adventure will be. You can find out more on her website and on Facebook.