Tuesday Tip: Everyone Has a Right to a Story

This week’s tip is:

Everyone deserves a story.

When it’s the end of the day and we’re walking and driving home from work, and we’re tired and feeling cross and just wanting to eat or sit down, we tend to forget that all the people surrounding us are the prime actors in their own private stories. When we’re annoyed and just want to get somewhere, people become annoyances or obstacles; we can’t understand why someone would walk or drive too slowly or cut us off, or why that person is in the way. Similarly, in stories we’re trying to get our character where he’s going — and the side characters can become annoyances or obstacles, just cardboard cutouts that must be irritatingly shuffled around.

The problem with this view is that everyone has a story, just because he or she is human, and every person has a right to a story, even if that story can only be suggested at in your particular story. So instead of throwing in cliched or two-dimensional side characters, you’ve got to think about what those characters’ stories might be. Maybe that honking, pushy driver is rushing to the hospital to meet his wife in labor; maybe that slow walker has just injured her knee in a skiing accident and is really hurting; maybe that rude person on the street has had a really bad day. When creating side characters in your stories, remember two governing principles that can help you be more generous in your daily life as well:

1. People don’t act randomly. They generally have motives for their actions.

You might not like the motives; after all, the motive of the thief might be to get rich and not have to work. But if you stop to think that people have a motive for their behavior, and usually that motive isn’t malicious, then it’s easier to write them believably.

2. People do not exist purely in relation to you or your hero; they are acting in their own stories.

The other important thing to remember is that we each are the stars of our own little solar systems. If a person does something irritating, it may not be a direct insult to you, or designed just to get in your way. A healthy dose of humility can help both you and your novel. The other characters in your story haven’t just been set there to act in relation to the hero; they have other things to do.