Jan 13 2009
Sometimes a minor character will “steal” the scene from the main character, taking so much of the spotlight that the main character just seems to disappear. Here are several scenarios that often to lead to scene-stealing.
1. The minor character has a far more important role in a given scene than in the book as a whole.
OK, you may love this minor character, but if he isn’t important to the plot then he probably shouldn’t be the focus of the scene. Try to limit the minor character’s role to how he interacts with the main character. No one really cares what he does with other minor characters. For example, Moneypenny and M can both be interesting, but no one watches a Bond movie to see them talk together. Moneypenny and M only matter when they interact with Bond. If your book has a scene where your Moneypenny is doing her own thing away from Bond, readers may feel annoyed and dissatisfied. Your readers just don’t care about Moneypenny, at least not as much as they do about Bond.
2. The minor character has considerably more style than the main character.
This is especially a problem when the main character has a bland style that blends in with most of the other characters. For example, our Agent Black is a dry accountant that sounds like many of the other characters in Superhero Nation. Agent Orange, the mutant alligator, has a wacky style that tends to make him stand out a lot more. Style gaps are problematic because they make the protagonist become invisible. If one character is talking about doing taxes and the other is talking about his favorite television show, When Squirrels Attack, the audience will almost assuredly forget about the accountant. By definition, your main character should be the most interesting character in the book. Relying on a side-character to provide spice isn’t necessarily unwise, but it is probably more effective to deal with the problem by giving the main character more flavor.
3. The main character passively listens to an infodump by a minor character.
If the main character’s only responsibility is to listen to a minor character deliver chunks of information, the minor character will almost certainly steal the scene. Listening is not very interesting. You can fix this by giving the main character a more active role. For example, what if the minor character isn’t entirely willing to reveal everything he knows? Then the main character has to coax it out of him. What if the minor character is only familiar with one piece of the puzzle? Then it’s up to the main character to put it all together. At the very least, try to give your main character some emotional response to what he learns.
4. The passage gives the minor character too much description.
Readers may wonder “what’s Moneypenny doing in this scene?” but they should never have to wonder “where’s Bond?” If the main character has disappeared, it is often because the minor characters stole too much of the description. For example, if I’m doing a scene with an accountant and a squid monster from Mars, chances are that I’ll spend more time discussing what the squid monster looks like. After all, he looks far more unusual and interesting than the accountant. But don’t forget: the main character has to be constantly interesting. It’s his story. Don’t let the search for freshness let you get away from him.
For example, I could use the squid monster’s appearance as an opportunity to show us something about the accountant. Perhaps he gets squeamish. That will help ensure that the accountant has a role even though he’s less exotic.
5. The protagonist gets lost in a shuffle of characters.
As more characters enter a scene, it can become difficult to ensure that the main character is front-and-center. Try to avoid situations where the protagonist is just one member of a group. For example, if Clark Kent and Lois Lane are at a large press conference, they probably won’t get a chance to shine. They will be another two reporters in a huge mob. In contrast, they will seem more exceptional in a sparsely-populated scene like a private interview with an important witness.
6. The biggest problems are solved by minor characters.
This is especially prevalent in books about young protagonists. The kid gets into trouble and then his parents bail him out (Parentis Ex Machina). Try to let your main character do as much of the problem-solving as possible.
7. The material in the scene is not directly related or pertinent to the main character. For example, if your main character is watching as John and Mary discuss that time they went to the beach, the main character is probably going to disappear. What can he add? I’d recommend reworking the scene so that the material is more directly tied to the main character’s goals and agenda. Make it clear that this information is part of his story. Remember, we’re reading about him, not about John and Mary.