Strong and Powerful... TogetherTantz_Aerine at Sept. 9, 2023, midnight
The sheer power of a good team is so defining that it's a trope. Some of the most iconic characters and beloved personalities have emerged from stories featuring teams of main characters.
Each of them are vital to the story, each of them contribute both in terms of the plot but also in terms of pacing, narrative flow, ethos and pathos. They help bring out the full version of each other, they are each other's foils, and together, they help the audience get to know each one intimately.
It works the same for protagonists as well as antagonists:
The problem often arises when the setup of the character constellations and plot don't directly and immediately call for a "team": there is supposed to be a single main character, that the writers want to have outshine everyone else, like a bright sun to the other stars.
What they forget is that if the sun shines too brightly, everyone ends up blind.
What I mean by this is that in their effort to make a main character shine, everyone else is reduced to caricatures and cardboard characters whose only function is to prop up the main character, but without carrying any agency, substance, or personality of their own. This ends up making the cast …well, anything from annoying to boring. The audience immediately keys into the subtext of a main character being flawless or a main character having plot armor or plot infallibility (i.e. they can never EVER be wrong, and even when they're wrong, they're actually right).
As it's basically a common tennet now, a character that is already perfect is a character that doesn't evolve. It also tends to be a character that can't build suspence, since it's a given they'll be able to easily and immediately resolve anything and everything. Often, the strife or the conflict is so fabricated and non-existent that every character (including the main one) come across as idiots. Not inherent idiots but artificially dumbed down by the plot (i.e. everyone is mad at everyone else over a misunderstanding that could be resolved if they talked to each other or if they looked for evidence, or whatnot).
This can be completely avoided if the "character team" approach is applied to every character constellation. Even if your story is about a single main character that should shine, surrounding them by strong complementary characters that will interact with them and be their foil, their challenge, or their nemesis, can only do wonders for your story.
Having strong characters surround your main character means that when they shine, their light will come across as genuine to the audience. Also, it will come across as earned. Let's take a cliche "mary sue" recipe that has often been castigated by audiences, and see how it can yield a strong narrative, solid engagement, and full immersion in the story:
The main character is a woman. This woman is constantly put down and undermined by men for being a woman (I did say the standard recipe), even though she has a ton of potential and a ton of talent in some element. Let's say she's great at fixing cars and bikes, but she's banned from the garage. In the "mary sue" take, the woman will be immediately and aggressively combative, an immediate expert in the garage, and will outshine even the most experienced (male) mechanic. She will try to keep the peace by toning down her brilliance, until something convinces her to unleash her full talent in making the ultimate bike or car. She will never make a single error in judgment, definitely not a single error in mechanics, and will generally be flawless and quiet until she just decides to wow the world.
This is boring. She doesn't really do anything but wait to be convinced to be awesome. But how about this:
The woman buys that as a woman she's supposed to be in the kitchen and not in the garage. She tries to conform, eagerly wanting to please her parents/significant others that hammer this tennet into her. But she's miserable and she hates it. She tries to give herself a letout by fixing the plumbing in the kitchen and experiment that way. She does an ok job, using youtube tutorials. Encouraged by this self-teaching, she starts experimenting with engines (fixing the mixer maybe?), but always when nobody is around. She feels terrible for hiding this, like she's hiding a dirty secret. When she does successfully fix the mixer, and being encouraged by some dude's channel on youtube, she decides to sneak into the garage and get to know the tools and machinery there. Something, however, goes wrong because she tries to keep quiet and because she has little experience. She causes some big damage in the garage equipment, and gets chewed out big time for it.
She recoils from mechanics and the garage. She lashes out at the dude's channel's comments telling him that he shouldn't be offering such tutorials without a disclaimer that women just aren't fit to follow them. Two days later, she gets a DM by the dude, asking her why the hell she thinks that. And thus begins a mentoring where she receives instruction and boosting of her confidence. The dude tells her that women are just as capable of fixing cars as anyone else, and that he has learned a lot from ladies as well as gents himself. The woman finds some excuse to travel to meet this guy- they're not romantically attracted to each other, if you want to subvert that trope- and he is the first to tell her that she has talent. In fact, she's so good she should tutor under his mom, who taught him everything.
Now, the woman has to decide if she wants to follow her heart and work on being a great mechanic, or please her family and settle down in a conservative style, fully domestic set of roles, because her dual life just isn't going to be sustainable for long.
In this really casual setup I pulled out of thin air, you have strong characters all around. The family isn't evil- they are simply taught a certain way and come from a background where women are isolated if they break gender norms or gain independence. In a very toxic way, they do want for the woman's happiness. They will need to slowly come to terms that their way isn't everyone's way (or shouldn't be anyone's way, depending on your stance). The guy that mentors the woman, is a strong character, a feminist if you like, who calls things as he sees them. His mom is a strong character, a no-nonsense tough old lady who can probably murder you and get away with it.
Each character can be memorable and relatable. When the woman succeeds and becomes a kick ass mechanic, and accepted by those who will be able to accept her, her happiness will be earned and thus it will resonate with the audience. Those who won't be able to accept her, will be the ones stuck with the losses, and that too will be relatable.
This long-winded example is simply to illustrate that there's no such thing as a bad recipe or a bad plot. You can have a macho plot or a feminist plot that's terrible, with a terrible lead and annoying support characters. Or you can have a macho plot or a feminist plot (or any other type of plot) with an awesome lead and memorable, powerful support characters that get their own fanbase alongside the main character.
If you have strong characters, they will all shine. If you don't, chances are nobody will shine at all.
How do you do your character constellations?
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