In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,
It’s important to remember that no one is “the bad guy” or “the best friend” or “the whore with a heart of gold” in real life; in real life we each of us regard ourselves as the main character, the protagonist, the big cheese; the camera is on us, baby. If you can bring this attitude into your fiction, you may not find it easier to create brilliant characters, but it will be harder for you to create the sort of one-dimensional dopes that populate so much pop fiction.
Stephen King: So Wise Once Again!
I’ve shared a lot of advice from Stephen King on this site. Tons and tons of advice going all the way back to last summer. So many of his quotes resonate with me. So many I use in my daily fiction practices.
And the one I’m sharing with you today is by far one of the most important.
It’s something I never used to think about when it came to writing my characters. Yes, I tried to always give my characters specific qualities and traits. Yes, I even tried to make my supporting characters who only appear in a few scenes or two pop off the page for the reader.
But it wasn’t until I thought critically about this advice that my writing started to take shape in ways it never had before.
When you think of each of your characters, not only the protagonist, as in a way having a camera pointed at him or her, as being the center of his or her universe, you begin to understand as a writer the necessity to not just put all the hard work into developing your main character and merely sketching the side characters.
Once you put hard work into developing all of your characters in ways where you understand their viewpoints, their motivations, their desires, in one scene after another, your fiction truly does become richer. The dialogue becomes stronger. The conflicts become more dynamic.
And your characters slowly begin to take on lives of their own.
Each of Us is the Protagonist of Our Own Life
It’s such a weird way to think, isn’t it? Yes, we care about other people. Yes, we do things throughout our days for others.
But essentially from the time we wake up to the time we go to bed, we are the star of the show. Yes, the camera is pointed at us. We are living our own story, and don’t have the kind of access to other lives as we do to our own.
This is why fiction is so important. And it’s why you have to give all your characters, not just some of your characters, their time to shine. That includes your supporting characters. That includes your villain.
That includes the character who has one scene and three lines of dialogue in chapter twenty-four.
It might not be easy for you to develop your characters perfectly in the first draft — trust me, none of us gets it right in the first draft — but when you revise, pay attention to how your characters act and behave, not just how the protagonist acts and behaves.
My literary agent gave me an exercise recently to go through my latest work-in-progress and look at each scene from the prospective of every character that plays an important role in that scene. It was difficult and time-consuming, but I believe going through this process has made my new book all the better.
Basically the truth of the matter is simply this: it’s not enough to just see the world of your story through your protagonist.
Start looking at the world through the other characters, too, and there’s no telling how much your fiction will improve!