One of the core tenets of writing advice is that everything flows from a protagonist’s motivation. It’s what inspires journeys to Mordor, jaunts through strange chocolate factories, and maniacal voyages to exact revenge on a white whale. Characters need to want something.
What’s often neglected: this applies to minor characters too! Every single character, all the way down to the most minor and seemingly inconsequential, should want something.
Every character should want something
Too often writers think of secondary characters as mere foils to the protagonist. The minor characters exist because the protagonist needs to receive a key bit of information, or they need to get to Point A or Point B, or they need to “bring something out” of the protagonist.
This ends up feeling hollow and transparent and it can quickly feel like the protagonist is surrounded by a series of cardboard cutouts.
A minor character who exists in service of the protagonist invariably feels flat and dull. Their banter will be hollow, and the reader will easily forget them.
Utilize differences in motivations
This is especially problematic when the protagonist is allied with the minor character, whether that’s a friend, family member, love interest, or comrade on a quest. When two characters march in total lockstep it doesn’t always feel believable, and, maybe worse, it’s not particularly interesting.
Even if two characters are aligned on the whole, there could be differences in methods, what they think success looks like, the rewards they hope to reap, and the world they want to bring about.
Differences in motivation result in conflict, which is a novel’s lifeblood. Conflict turns up the screws on the protagonist, it forces them to dig deeper, and it’s far more engaging than watching characters agree about everything.
Motivation is a powerful weapon in storytelling. Make sure every character has it.
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Art: Geflügel im Stallinterieur by Carl Jutz