The Walk-On’s Moment of Glory

Once in a while, you write a great story.  I know it doesn’t seem likely, but it does happen.  The plot is intricate, the setting spectacular, and the characters delicious.  And I’m not just talking about the main character.  This is a story you think could be told brilliantly from any angle.  Yes, Hans the Fairy Butcher has the best story of all of them, and you’re glad you chose him— but Gertrude the Animal Rescue Professional is almost as good, and even that unnamed androgynous janitor (you lovingly call him/her/it The Janitor) could carry the plot with some entertaining flair.  The side characters are wonderful.  So just for fun, you imagine rewriting the book, perhaps in a short story or novella, the way those characters saw it.

Examples: Parallel Perspectives (a short story Howard Tayler wrote to follow his book Massively Parallel), Ender’s Shadow (book by Orson Scott Card mirroring Ender’s Game— probably my favorite version of this, and the longest one I’ve seen), and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, s3e13 or something like that.  While I enjoyed Parallel Perspectives, and Ender’s Shadow is brilliant, I’ll be focusing on the Buffy episode because that both inspired this post and did more work to be awesome than the other two combined.

In each of the three examples, the writers took a character who isn’t usually in the spotlight and followed them around through the plot of the story.  In Parallel Perspectives, there were several characters, each getting a couple pages of comics.  Ender’s Shadow got an entire book.  Buffy didn’t even use the same plot as another episode, but created two separate plots: the one the episode ought to follow and the one it actually followed.  Rather than treating Buffy as the main character and watching the characters figure out weirdness and then fight said weirdness, the episode follows Xander as he is ousted from the group for being simultaneously uncool and inept.  We don’t know what happens in the Buffy plot, so we have no clue what’s going to happen in the Xander plot, and it’s all great fun.  But the writers made it perfectly clear this story had to be told through Xander’s eyes.  Why?  Because Buffy’s plot was boring.

We’ve had two and a half seasons of Buffy fighting supernatural creatures by this point.  Here’s the basic formula: someone dies in a strange way, a new threat appears for Buffy, her pet librarian figures out what to stab and where to stab it, and the last half of the episode is Buffy stabbing.  First rule of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Buffy must slay.  The writers don’t let anyone else kill people.  Even if Buffy’s trapped, her friends find a way to free her so she can kill stuff to death.  Yes, it’s fun— yes, it’s formulaic.  This is the point where we need Xander’s special episode.

Here’s the first principal of rewriting from a side character’s point of view: if there’s a plot going on that centers on our normal main character, we have to understand both that plot and the side character’s plot at the same time.  If the side character doesn’t have a plot, go back to the main character’s POV.  If the main character doesn’t have a main plot, they might as well butt in on the side character’s plot, so go back to the main character.  If both of them have plots and the side character’s is more interesting, we still have to know what the main character’s doing.

It’s annoying, but the truth.  The main character is usually our favorite, so if they can’t solve the side character’s problem, we need to know why.  However, we don’t have a lot of time to figure that out because the side character has a plot too.

In stories like Parallel Perspectives and Ender’s Shadow, that’s easy as pie.  Going into those stories, people have usually read the originals— that’s why they bother in the first place.  They saw the entire complex story from the main character’s eyes, but now they’re ready for a side character.  By seeing a couple memorable plot points from the side character’s eyes instead, they get a sense that the main character is busy.  They also know what’s going on with the main character, so they don’t mind following the side character.  The reader understands both the main character’s plot and the side character’s plot at the same time.

With Buffy, though…  This was fun to watch.  Through a couple of scenes— Buffy getting attacked by a mysterious new force, then doing a bit of “I don’t want you to die” with her suicidal love interest, followed by snippets of a thrilling battle scene with the Sarlacc from Star Wars— we saw Buffy go through the same motions she’s gone through several times before.  Only a couple episodes before, her love interest was suicidal.  Every other episode, we get some wormy-type thing attacking.  And this episode’s mysterious new force was humanoid, leathery, and recognizable as new, yet boring.  The writers made sure Buffy’s story was easy to follow, yet didn’t steal the show.  Had the episode actually been about the Sarlacc, it would have been boring.  Luckily, it was about Xander.

Is this possible to do in the first book of a series?  No.  Without an established main character who’s destined to punch ugly things, it makes no sense to focus on a side character instead.  However, for retelling a well-known story such as one you’ve written before or even a fairy tale, this would work brilliantly.  If you’re looking for a shorter piece based on something longer, it’s perfect.  Even if you’re going for the same length, and you decide to use a Superman doppelganger as the ‘main character’ here, you could foreseeably write a stand-alone story about a side character— just make Superman’s main plot standard enough to follow.

In short, those who write fanfiction can just add water.  The rest of us have a little setting up to do.


15 thoughts on “The Walk-On’s Moment of Glory

  1. After reading this a few times, I have to admit I’m slightly confused.

    So I gather you’re talking about the difference between rewriing an existing story/plot people are already familiar with from a side character’s POV and writing a new story with the main character still present, but the side character having a more interesting plot or take on things. That’s the asumption my questions are coming from, so please correct me if I’m wrong.

    Mostly, I’m confused about the second type of scenario. What do you mean by making sure we know the main character’s plot? Is that seeing them do stuff from the different POV character’s eyes? In oter words, is it making sure the rest of the story is still moving along?

    I think this is an important concept to understand, since I’m trying to edit a book with two POVs. Is this sort of the same thing? What about when the characters aren’t around each other and don’t know what each other are doing?

    1. I think I might have given you the wrong idea. I’m sorry.

      This works if you write a book, publish it, then right a sequel in which the same things happen but from another character’s eyes. If you have two POV’s, this post doesn’t apply. Very sorry.

      1. So the first part was right, but not the part about two POVs?

        Also…what if I want to left a sequel? Don’t discriminate against lefties, here. Sorry. I had to.

  2. Oh, the Janitor… haha.

    Anyway, good post! I don’t know any of those examples, but I think I followed along well enough. Would the Doctor Who episode “Blink” be the same, here? Since it followed…whatever-her-name-is-why-can’t-I-remember-her-name-this-is-bugging-me, rather than the Doctor and Martha? Ah man, I can almost remember her name…but not quite.

    1. Good example. Blink works well. The episode follows Sally Sparrow, and since the Doctor is pretty much out of the picture, we get to see her be awesome.

  3. So why watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the first place?
    Yeah, good point. Parallels can be tricky, though, ’cause by the time you’re writing the parallel, you’re all “hang on, the reader’s seen this already” and it can be tempting to get sloppy with the clues and cues.

  4. Varying povs–another fun thing. I need to think seriously about this… my latest WIP has a couple of subplots, such as one in which a walk-on character took over and created the first shipping. Um… oops?

      1. No, it’s just what I thought of… my novel is in first-person for one character, and everyone else is in third person. As a result, nearly all the voices are proving tough to write… Iris is giving me a lot of grief and then telling me “it’s not so bad.” It really is.

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