Have you ever read a novel that, when it ended, you could remember more about the best friend than you could the main character?
There’s a reason for that.
To explain, let me pull back the curtain. Most stories are about ordinary people going through extraordinary situations. In the end, though, they’re still ordinary people. In fact, that’s their appeal. Protagonists tend to be simple vessels for our empathy, and not very much more. This is especially true on the big screen. Matt Damon once said that main characters in movies should be “ciphers”, or zeroes. If you’ve seen or read the Jason Bourne series, then you know it doesn’t get more cipher-y than that. The guy literally has amnesia.
The friends, on the other hand … well, that’s where the spiky human spirit leaps up and shines. A sharp sidekick stands out in a sea of ciphers like a bright fork in a tray of pudding. Because of this, fictional friends often live longer and more intensely in our collective imagination than heroes do.
You can find hundreds of examples of this dynamic in every branch of storytelling. Prince Hal is just a prince, but Falstaff is so vivid that his name has become an adjective. Forget Frodo, he’s a snooze—we remember Samwise’s stolid and servile dedication to his friend. Tom Sawyer is remembered as a generally nice kid, but it’s his friend Huck Finn, that mischievous homeless trashy scamp, who stands out more brightly in our psyche.
All of this means that, very often, friends are more important than the protagonist.
Therefore, if you’re a writer, you’ve got to spend some time in the friend zone.
Some of these friends come prepackaged as archetypes. Say what you want about them, but archetypes exist for many reasons. One, they’re universally recognized. Two, they pop off the page in a way that protagonists don’t, because friends can be their own crazy selves when they’re at the margins of the story. Three, they don’t have to undergo change. A protagonist’s allies often end the journey the same way they began—maybe crude, maybe honest, or funny, or repressed. In fact, you can usually describe their personalities in adjective-noun pairs, such as the narcissistic salesperson.
Here’s an example from television. I dislike Sex and the City for a lot of different reasons, but the series does perfectly illustrate this principle. Carrie Bradshaw, the series’ protagonist, is a cipher. All we really know is that she loves spending money on shoes. Around her is an orbit of three stalwart friends: the intelligent libertine (Samantha), the traditional naif (Charlotte), and the cynical careerist (Miranda). (Note the adjective-noun for each.) Those characters are more memorable than Carrie because they’re defined. Carrie spends every episode trying to find her own identity, but her friends have already discovered theirs.
(As a side note, did you ever notice that the exact same four characters are found in The Golden Girls? The two casts parallel each other almost perfectly. Carrie is Dorothy, Samantha is Blanche, Charlotte is Rose, and Miranda is Sophia. This probably wasn’t an accident.)
One of the bibles of storytelling is The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler. It’s one of those books that humbles you. When you read it, you realize that other people, smarter people, walked the path of storytelling long before you ever did. In fact, I’d say this guy Vogler figured out the craft of story better than anybody else I’ve ever read, including the famous Joseph Campbell. His book is a reference point for all writers, in every genre, in every format.
Here’s what Vogler has to say about friends: “Allies do many mundane tasks but also serve the important function of humanizing the heroes, adding extra dimensions to their personalities, or challenging them to be more open and balanced. Allies in fiction suggest alternate paths for problem-solving and help round out the personalities of heroes, allowing expression of fear, humor, or ignorance that might not be appropriate for the hero.”
Ainsley, the Half-Cipher
Books, however, have different strengths than films do.
It’s harder for a main character in a book to be a total cipher, thanks to interior monologue. The nature of the medium—words, on a page or in pixels—brings us easily into a person’s innermost world. We can hear the protagonist narrating all of her thoughts. Movies and television can’t do that, at least not easily. They have to use awkward devices, such as voiceover. Or the producer hopes and prays that a brilliant actor will sign on to the project.
In the Ainsley Walker Gemstone Travel Mystery series, the protagonist is more than a cipher. If you’ve read any of the titles, you know where Ainsley stands on just about everything that is going on around her–because she tells us! The woman has opinions. This is the benefit of using the third-person limited perspective.
(It’s true that a writer can achieve the same with a first-person perspective, but first-person tends to work best with protagonists who are either a bit whack-a-doodle or outright liars, and with stories that are less plotted. For example, I love Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, but good luck describing that plot to a stranger. There isn’t one.)
So here’s the contradiction: Though we know all of Ainsley’s thoughts, we don’t know much about Ainsley’s background. Even I don’t know much! We only know what she wants to tell us. She’s like the cool French girl you met in the hostel in Amsterdam during your semester abroad back in college and you ended up hanging out with her for almost a week but never learned anything about her personally except the fact that she liked OG Kush better than Super Silver Haze. Ainsley keeps you, me, and the world, at arm’s length.
Think back to the series. Here’s what we know: Ainsley’s father passed away from cancer when she was a girl, her ex-husband disappeared after law school, and she used to be a state track-and-field champion. She’s also had a checkered work history. And that’s it. That’s literally all we’re told. She never reveals anything about her early life—not her birthplace, not her mother, not her siblings, not her extended family, not her education. We don’t even know her real hair color.
And that’s the way it should be. You, the readers, can project what you’d like onto Ainsley Walker. Maybe in the future we’ll all find out, in extremely granular detail, her complicated relationship with her mother, or her deep insecurities, or her turbulent adolescence. But that would remove some of the mystery.
With Ainsley Walker, you are free to fill in some of the blanks.
More than anything, it’s her many friends and allies who help define Ainsley Walker. Let’s revisit a few of them.
Spoiler alert! You may want to skip this part if you haven’t yet read all the Gemstone Travel Mystery titles.
In The Uruguay Amethyst (link: Amazon US), Ainsley befriends an extroverted hair stylist, Sofia, who becomes her travelling companion through the second half of the book. She is assisted by Bernabé, an elderly lecherous jeweler. Both friends serve different purposes. Sofia helps Ainsley accept her new identity as an international traveler, while Bernabé helps her physically achieve the mission.
Both are static characters. Sofia finds out that, despite her dreams of travel, she is meant to be in the Montevideo hair salon, and no reader can imagine Bernabé being anything other than himself. Their personalities are set in stone. Meanwhile, Ainsley plays the dynamic character as she tries to achieve two goals: one external (find the gemstone) and one internal (find her identity).
But sometimes the peripheral characters are the dynamic ones, and the main character remains static. The Puerto Rico Pearl is a good example. In this book, Ainsley befriends Luis, an unemployed poet and handyman who drives her around the island searching for the brooch. She also meets Orlando, an obese scholar of Caribbean pirate lore who is trying to free himself from his enormous private stash of historical documents.
This story wouldn’t be the same without either of them—but Orlando is the one who undergoes a significant change. Ainsley remains the same, beginning to end.
In The Spain Tourmaline, however, Ainsley returns to claim the role of the dynamic character, as she slowly must confront her hostility to the killing of animals. First, despite her newfound vegetarianism, she is forced to eat jamón ibérico. Second, she’s forced to watch a bullfight. Third, she’s finally forced to kill an animal.
I actually wrote this three-step ladder of escalating internal conflict before I knew anything else about the story. Ainsley’s friend, Gabriel, the bullfighter’s assistant, is static. He exists to carry her along this path of self-discovery.
It’s been exciting to discover that my protagonist and her allies can switch between the two types of roles. It keeps things unpredictable. Sometimes Ainsley’s a deep human being, going through wrenching internal changes—see, for example, The Camino Crystal.
At other times, she’s like Leo DiCaprio in The Revenant, simply battling for survival—see, for example, The North Korea Onyx.
Whether static or dynamic, her allies are just as important to the series as Ainsley herself.
A New Idea For Short Stories
Some writers set their series in the same location (say, a small town), and are therefore able to revisit the same cast of characters in book after book after book. Many readers love this, as they get to visit old friends with every new title.
This isn’t possible for my protagonist, since she travels to a different farflung international location in every title. Still, it seems a shame to dream up and portray a compelling friend–and then abandon that character forever after one book.
So I’ve been kicking around an idea.
Maybe it would be attractive to write and publish a series of short stories or novelettes about Ainsley’s many friends and allies? I’m thinking one title for each. It could be a great way for you readers to revisit some of your favorite characters from the series, and it could be a great way for me to revisit them too. Plus it would extend the number of titles in the series.
Keep in mind, I wouldn’t write an entire novel about a side character, because authors sometimes confuse their readers when they start publishing seven different series, all semi-interwoven with non-chronological timelines and characters running in and out of each. At one conference, I’ve actually seen an author put up a Powerpoint of an incredibly complex flow chart in an attempt to explain how his body of work was arranged. (It kind of looked like this.)
This series, however, wants to stay simple. For you, the reader.
Still, I don’t think a smattering of seven or eight short stories would clutter things up too much, especially if the titles are clear and brief, such as “The Basque Chef”. If that’s something you’d like to see more of, or if you have any other ideas, feel free to let me know via the comments below, via email (j dot a dot firstname.lastname@example.org), or via other social media such as Twitter. I love hearing from readers.
In the meantime, it’s a big world. Let’s go see it all.
[photo credit: Mick C via Flickr]