Dustfinger, from Inkheart, is very complicated. The Book Chewers just published a guest post about him that I wrote, so you can read all about him there. The main discovery I made in that post, however, was that his goals don’t agree with the protagonist’s goals– nor do they disagree. This makes him a strange character.
Look, for instance, at the epic fantasy Team of Awesome. The old guy who wants the prophecies fulfilled and the world set to rights. The young hotshot who wants to spit in the face of Lord Maleficent. (He might be a traitor eventually.) The girl who really just exists for the romance plot line, but Lord Maleficent killed her father. And the protagonist, the Chosen One, born to fulfill a prophecy spoken ages ago by an old blind soothsayer.
What do they want? The old guy wants the world better again. The hotshot wants glory. The girl wants revenge. The protagonist might want anything, but it’s always associated with Lord Maleficent dying.
Lord Maleficent probably wants to live.
All of these goals center around Lord Maleficent. He’s a pretty important guy for this story. But if we create any more heroes focused on Lord Maleficent, what’s to keep him from getting a swelled head about it? You might as well name the story after him.
Enter Dustfinger, the perfect way to bring the big characters down a notch. Dustfinger cares not for Mo, not for Meggie, not for Fenoglio, not for Capricorn– he cares only for the book, Inkheart, his one path back home. You could rewrite the book from his perspective, the story of how he finally gets back home. But that would be boring, and it would rob us of an awesome side character.
Dustfinger has a goal separate from that of the main character, but their goals lie in the same place. They journey alongside one another, tying things together, but actually creating two stories in the same novel.
It takes an incredible imagination to create two plot lines within the same novel, but it be easier than you think. We think of multiple character arcs– the girl who lost her father, the hotshot struggling with his allegiances, the old guy who dies– but what about multiple stories? It’s slightly harder, yes, but think about it. More than once, I’ve planned sequels before writing the first books in the series. Why not add the two together? No, not completely, or your main character would be finding the magical thingamajig while trying to kill Lord Maleficent. What would happen if you gave finding the magical thingamajig to the love interest girl? And hey, that thingamajig is in the greasy clutches of Lord Maleficent himself. Whaddayano?
Of course, this isn’t completely unheard of: Star Wars, for example. Han Solo, smuggler, gambler, captain of the Millennium Falcon, only wants money to pay off his debts. He has no personal problem with evil ruling the galaxy. Luke Skywalker might want to blow up stuff, but that’s not Han’s problem– once he gets his money, he’s gone. The separate plot line creates the one character in the movie that everyone loves.
Mulch Diggums from Artemis Fowl, only wants gold, and to be out of his goblin-filled prison cell. He doesn’t care if Artemis fails or succeeds– if he gets money, he’s fine. He is one of the best characters in that book.
Obviously, this works best with the dishonest; people who care only about themselves won’t get caught up by the nobleness of bringing evil to an end, so they can complete their own tasks without hindrance. But if they’ve formed any sort of attachment with the main characters, there can be an emotional scene where they decide whether to get off the train here or personally help evil fall.
It is difficult to juggle several plot lines at once. Victor Hugo was a genius to create something like Les Miserables. But however difficult it is, a separate plot line will bring that character high above the rest.