All secondary characters think the story is about them
Do you want to be the hero of your story, your life?
I would expect that most people would say yes. That, to them, their life is about them, and not about playing a supporting role to someone else’s story. We experience life in first person. Every one of us. Even when we are just a footnote in someone else’s story. Because, face it, the bagger at the grocery store is as much a footnote in your story as you are in his.
Do you have that perspective in mind? Now think of the last novel you read, or the one you are writing right now, and picture all the characters in it. They all think the novel is about them. It is their story.
Before your brain self destructs or you suddenly think you will be writing this novel until you are 104, take a deep breath. This is a post about motivations, not one to make you think you need backstory for every character that makes an appearance.
Characters should not appear in a novel as a device to move the plot forward. Maybe they help the main character because they are a good person doing a good deed, or maybe they have tremendous guilt and need to do something good. Their backstory can end there. It may exist only in the writer’s mind. But it should exist.
The point is secondary characters do not simply exist to help the hero. They each have their own story too. Do you really think the farm girl’s best friend is going to go through hell and never, ever think “Well, I did just find out she is destined to rule the kingdom, so this might benefit me just a tad…”
I am only one reader, but when I read about a newly introduced character that will risk their life or go out of their way to help the hero, I think ‘huh?’ As with any character motivation that doesn’t fit the story, I stumble on selfless acts where what is at stake is a life, but no explanation or previous associations explains the willing risk. I fall out of the story. I’m not going to be the only reader to do so.
Even with good friends, blindly and selflessly helping someone, especially if it involves risking one’s life, only lasts for a short time before doubts or personal goals come into play. Don’t believe me? If your best friend asked you to drop everything going on in your life right now to go on a quest of unspecified length while risking your life to capture a dragon, oh and they are going to get all the reward and glory, would you go? How long until you think, WTF? Cause, you didn’t have any holiday plans or dates or birthdays that you’d miss, right? And you certainly don’t want any recognition or accolades for your good deeds.
And that is for a good friend. What would you do for the stranger on the street if this were their story? Creating plausible reasons why a stranger would help the hero tightens the plot of the novel and adds another layer – possibly tension, momentary romance, or redemption. It can all be explained in a paragraph or a page and forgotten, or not. Transient events can have lasting impact on a main character, altering future behavior, as well as reveal deeper personalities that will impress, or disgust, the reader.
As you are writing, take a minute to think about the secondary characters. Why would they help the hero? Why would they not? Remembering that every character has a story will add depth to the one you are writing. And who knows where else it might lead… 😉