In addition to the areas I shared in the last two letters on character development, a third way to strengthen your protagonist is to consider the other characters in their story. First, let’s focus on the antagonist.
Depending on your story, the antagonist might be a person, an explicit challenge or contest, or a more subtle and difficult set of circumstances. Regardless of the specifics, having a weak antagonist is kind of like playing checkers by yourself: you can win easily, but it’s pretty boring, doesn’t allow you to grow, and definitely isn’t as satisfying as facing a true opponent.
Take a moment to return to your protagonist’s desires, obstacles, and actions. How can the antagonist make it even harder for your protagonist to reach their goals or address their needs? Does the antagonist make your protagonist question their goals and actions; cause your protagonist physical or emotional hardship; or force your protagonist to choose between two equally bad options?
If your antagonist is a character, consider developing them in the same way that you’ve developed your protagonist. Think about their goals and needs; how the protagonist is standing in their way; and what actions they can take to achieve their goals. Taking the time to develop your antagonist will ensure that they read as a complex, believable character, rather than as a plot device that only exists to oppose the protagonist. Ultimately, the antagonist’s goals and actions should be good for them—not just bad for the protagonist. (This is one of the reasons I have a hard time watching movies in which the villain’s goal is the equivalent of blowing up the city/planet/etc. where they, along with everyone else, live; sure, it’s not great for the heroes, but what’s in it for the villain? What’s step two of this evil plan?)
The more developed your antagonist, the easier it will be for readers to emotionally connect with them—whether readers love to hate them or hate to love them. Together, the protagonist and antagonist work against each other to create a dynamic story, raising the stakes and giving the protagonist’s actions more urgency and meaning.
Beyond the antagonist, sometimes even books with great main characters can have secondary characters who read like extras. These characters might fall into clichéd roles, like the popular mean girl or the dumb jock. Or they might pop in to give the protagonist a key piece of information at exactly the right time, before returning to the sidelines.
When it comes to secondary characters, think about what role you want them to play in the story. Are they there to provide tension or humor? Do they have strengths that showcase your protagonist’s weaknesses or vice versa? Is the antagonist threatening them or working with them in a way that raises the stakes for your protagonist? Do multiple characters serve similar roles? If so, you might consider combining a few secondary characters into one more substantial role.
Just as with every other element in writing, secondary characters are ultimately about balance. They can help to make a story more dynamic and authentic, but they shouldn’t overshadow or distract from the central characters and core plot.
Your Editor Friend,
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