I’m in the midst of finishing/starting a big project, and I realized what’s drawn me so deeply into this story (or set of stories) is my characters. That’s because it never feels like any character in the story is a prop piece; no one is hanging out in this story just to help or further another character’s arc. The plot requires all the characters, and none of them want to feel useless; they come and go when they have a part to play, which has made this story difficult at times, but also a thrill ride to write. All the characters have their own agendas, and whenever I’ve been stuck, focusing on what each character wants helps crack the story open again.
Think about your favorite stories (books, movies, TV, comics, wev). Each major character has their own reason(s) for being there, don’t they? Even the villain (and especially the villain) should have unique motives for being involved in the action. That’s because no one lives their lives, hoping to be the set piece in someone else’s life. Who wants to do that? We all want are own story; we think what happens is about us. Every side character and villain thinks it’s their story, not the heroes.
That’s why fridging a character is such a pernicious thing to do, too. It’s traditionally been done with women, but there might be examples of it being done with men, too. (A father or brother dying could qualify.) That character is essentially boiled down to a prop, a piece of set decoration for someone else’s pain and growth. If you’re going to off a character, sure, their death is going to impact the rest of the story (as it sometimes should), but maybe they’ve contributed their own little part to the story or went out fulfilling (or failing to fulfill) their own wants and needs. GRRM may have oodles of characters, but each character feels like they’ve come into the story for their own reasons. It’s a bit easier to show that each character is unique in multi-POV stories, me thinks, but it can definitely be done in single POV stories as well. Two of my favorite stories/series growing up were Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series and Harry Potter. One of the things that subconsciously drew me to these stories was that all the characters felt real to me. When I went back and read them as an adult, I was struck by how the supporting cast has so much of their own agenda; sure, the many story is about Harry or Sabriel, and other characters take that journey with them.
But the main point is that it’s a with not a because.
People aren’t prizes (hint: people owned by other people are slaves), and reducing characters to objects is the fastest way (for me personally) to lose interest in a story. It’s the princess in a castle syndrome; the hero needs to rescue the person in the highest tower or at the center of the maze, but it’s difficult to understand why or empathize with the hero’s quest because we don’t even know who this person is! They’re an abstraction to us, an ideal. Sure, me might care because we like the hero and want them to succeed, but if they’ve never met the person they’re trying to save, it’s hard to see why they’d want to. At least own up to the fact that you’re chasing an ideal, hero, and not a person. Jeez.
Of all the stories that got the ‘princess in a tower’ thing right, it was Shrek. Fiona starts out as an ideal, a princess to be won, but she’s not the end game of the story. When she’s saved, we find she has her own wants, her own desires and needs. It’s a twist, and a good one, in the traditional story of rescuing a damsel in distress. She wants to break her curse, and we’re rooting for her to do it (of course, not in the way she’d like it to be done, but that’s dramatic irony for you). This is because Fiona has agency: she’s in the story for her own reasons. Everything else about a character can change, but the act of checking to see if the character is joining the quest (or sabotaging the quest) for their own goals helps more than all the complex world-building or 3D chess level plot machinations ever will into making a story feel full and alive. Good story tellers do this because they’re in love with their characters (or love/hate with some of them), and they don’t want to leave any of them without a good reason to be participating in the plot. You, dear reader, are welcome to think the reasons given are stupid or contrived, but that’s another post for another day.