Frodo’s Samwise. Luke’s Obi-Wan. Don Quixote’s Sancho. Marty’s Doc Brown. As memorable as any Main Character can be, his partner is equally memorable.
(“The force is strong here…and it’s telling me you need a haircut.”)
Why is this? Why is it that when Harry Potter is quite obviously the hero, we fawn over Albus Dumbledore, Ron and Hermione? A very real and obvious response is that such characters are well-developed, layered, emotionally charged, and just plain well-written. There is, however, another reason – one of extreme importance when building and developing a concept.
(“Take the ring to Mordor, Harry. Er, I mean…”)
“Behind every great man there is a great woman”, is a nod to this belief of a story’s Dynamic Character (secondary character) being equally as important as its Main Character.
(“He’s behind me, isn’t he?”)
This blog post could be cut quite short with the simple statement of, “No Main Character or hero can change, evolve or develop without the assistance of an outside force.” We will dive deeper into this particular statement, though, since this post would be rather boring and unhelpful without some form an explanation. More importantly, understanding the importance of a Dynamic Character within your story could be what propels you to craft a more exciting, emotional, and enjoyable project.
(“Maybe this Almanac thing isn’t such a bad idea.”)
Many of you, I am sure, have heard of the basic story structure statements of, “Man vs. Nature”, “Man vs. Man”, “Man vs. Self”, etc. Such statements are far too general when attempting to create entire worlds and engaging characters, however. Take, for instance, the statement of, “I am writing a Man vs. Self story.” That’s nice, but what does that mean? Is he punching himself in the face at any given moment? Is he sitting in front of a mirror all day, every day, and having conversations with his own image? Does he have a doppelganger that mimics his moves, intent, thoughts, etc? All of these questions create completely different stories, adventures and potential themes, so why be vague?
(Even the purposely independent Batman has Commissioner Gordon and Alfred.)
It is crucial to understand a particular aspect of such a statement as Man vs. Self. All stories have some semblance of “Man vs. Self”. No matter the movie, book, theatrical play, poem or TV show, every single story has an aspect of a person fighting to gain control over some kind of aspect of his life, and therefore becoming a little better than he used to be, OR failing at becoming better than he used to be and thus learning a valuable (albeit depressing) lesson. And here is a newsflash; all of these stories had a Dynamic Character of some kind embodying the qualities that will allow the Main Character to change.
(“Did I leave the iron on?”)
I can hear the comments now, “What about Tom Hanks in Castaway? He spent the majority of the movie alone on an island! Who was his Dynamic Character?” Robert Zemeckis needed more than a photo of Helen Hunt for Tom Hanks to evolve, so he created Wilson, the volleyball. What does Wilson do in the end? He floats away, forcing Hanks to make a decision. Wilson embodied Tom Hanks’ need to let go, move on, and trust the unknown. What was Tom Hanks’ character’s job in the movie? He was an overly organized logistics manager for FedEx that lived a life based completely around schedules and planned expectations. The following scene, after Wilson floats away and Hanks is rescued, is an amazing monologue where Hanks describes his time on the island and how he, “had power over nothing”, and all he could do was “keep breathing”. Could it be argued that the island itself was his Dynamic Character? In some ways, yes, but the island was embodied by a bloodied volleyball named Wilson because there was ahuman, relational aspect to the character dynamic and in a subtle, but very real sense, Wilson helped him change.
(“No! You can not have any ice cream before dinner!”)
The Dynamic Character as an Opponent: The best of friends is not someone who consistently says ‘yes’ to you, agrees with everything you say, and dotes upon you like a servant. The best kind of friend is the one who challenges you, pushes you toward a mountain that he knows you can climb even when you have given up. This friend, with certainty based in a realm of love and acceptance, knows what is best for you because he knows the best in you has yet to shine. Can she be annoying? Can she frustrate you beyond words? Can he assume the role of an enemy? Yes, but why can they be such things? Because they are forcing us to make the hard decisions, change, and to be better than we used to be all while admitting we are imperfect. Since character development and evolution most often drives an adventure, the essence of change becomes evident through every obstacle, and such change is charged and catalyzed because of the Dynamic Character.
In order to create a strong Dynamic Character, your Main Character’s internal struggle and problem (or “Misbehavior”) needs to be clearly defined.Without knowing what emotional struggle your MC is trying to manage (or trying to ignore), then you won’t truly understand how the assigned Dynamic Character will be able to help, and much less provide moments and setpieces during the Adventure that affect and change the Main Character. Yes, you read that correctly – “Dynamic Character provides moments and setpieces during the Adventure”. If you need to read it again, please do so.
(“He made fun of our hats. Shoot him.”)
This is such a vital aspect of storytelling that writers tend to either forget or not understand. When you are having difficulty brainstorming scenes and moments for your concept and Adventure, look to your Dynamic Character and how he can make things more difficult for your hero. By brainstorming a list of ways your DC can place obstacles in front of your MC, you suddenly create a list of scenes and moments that outline the 2nd Act Adventure. Evolving such obstacles so that they become more and more entertaining, challenging and/or difficult will then create more conflict, drama, action, suspense…you get the idea. Every character in your story is tasked with the responsibility to affect change in and therefore develop your hero. If there are characters in your story that do not progress your hero’s Adventure in some way, they need to go.
(“Who’s the real winner today? Mikey’s the real winner!”)
The Unsung Hero. The force behind the force, or to quote the Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn flick, Swingers, “the guy behind the guy”.
The invisible energy that propels action, conquest, and resolution, and yet finds solace in never receiving credit. This is the Dynamic Character. Your hero needs help, whether he knows it or not, and the Dynamic Character will be there for her to spot the cracks in the hull and either make the cracks even bigger in order to prove a point, or patch them up. Samwise Gamgee of The Lord of the Rings epitomizes the role of a Dynamic Character – ever loyal, ever helpful, and always pushing Frodo to keep moving forward. And when Frodo physically couldn’t go on, “I may not be able to carry it for you, but I can carry you.” Samwise knew what was best for Frodo, despite Frodo’s plea to stop. Had Sam given in, there wouldn’t have been a story in the first place.
Your Dynamic Character deserves more credit than you are giving him. Let her shine by focusing just as much time on her character’s development as your hero’s. Your story, and your writing, deserves it.
Max Timm is a 10-year veteran of the writing and screenwriting industry having been the Director of Development at a school for screenwriters, a screenwriting instructor, private consultant for A-List clients, as well as a novelist. His first book, a young adult novel titled, The WishKeeper was released in November 2013. You can follow Max on Twitter @iMaxTimm or on Instagram @TheWishKeeper