Last year, I wrote a novel called Fathoming Egression. It was a novel I had planned for a long time. I knew the world fairly well, and I knew the main characters and antagonist.
I kept the antagonist. The main character didn’t survive the first quarter of the story.
At the time, I thought it was because the main character didn’t have any backstory or dreams that existed before the story began. I tried to make him rise up to meet this ever-present evil, but for some reason, it didn’t work.
In a way, I was right. Characters without goals are useless except as very minor characters. A main character without a goal can go nowhere through the story because he doesn’t have any motivation. To keep this from happening, the Hollywood Formula adds a requirement that the main character must want something. Just recently, I realized that all characters want something– it’s only the main character we focus on.
But as anyone can see, not every character wants that thing since before the story began. Wouldn’t it diminish Frodo’s nobility if he longed to destroy the Ring even before it was required of him? It would mean he longed to be a hero, a savior of the world, although his main charm is his sense of duty rather than his sense of heroics.
But then, wouldn’t it diminish Dustfinger’s charm if he only realized he wanted to go home after he had sold the Folcharts to Capricorn?
There are characters of both types, but no one type should dominate.
Some characters tend to have aspirations prior to the story’s beginnings, like Dustfinger. These characters tend to be more secretive than others, making for excellent side characters but detached main characters. Eugenides, of Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief, is an example of a main character like this. Captain Jack Sparrow, Han Solo, and many of the separate characters I mentioned in another post, tend to be good examples of good side characters.
However, equally common are the decision makers. In the first act, the main character must choose to have a story, as dictated by the Hollywood Formula. At that time, decision characters decide what they want. Luke Skywalker may have wished to leave Tatooine in the first act, but before too long, he’s gotten his wish. It’s time to decide on another goal.
Many side characters do the same thing. They probably didn’t know about the main character before this chapter, and their goals extended to lunch, no further. But once the main character arrives on the scene, their dreams are reshaped into something plot-serving.
I honestly just realized this, but it shouldn’t have taken me so long. Wise, my first novel, turned out pretty well, but no one had goals before chapter one. I didn’t realize that it was because they had all chosen their paths.