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The two most important characters in any story

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Who are the two most important characters in a story? When I ask this, most people answer: the protagonist (the good guy) and the antagonist (the bad guy). Given that the majority of human strife comes from other humans, this is generally true. But to create real depth in a story, this principle doesn’t apply, as rarely are good guys purely good or bad guys purely bad.

People are complex. Various, competing forces wage within us all, and produce inner challenges which most often result in outer conflict. Manifestations of personal turmoil lead to great drama, ambitions and adverse circumstances. Properly organized, this makes for great fiction. However, if you dismiss the simple approach to character building, you’ll realize that the two most important characters aren’t the hero and the villain, but something a bit deeper.

Who are the two most important characters in your story? First, who the main character is at the beginning, and who that character is at the end.

This development is vital for rounding out your main character, who also serves as the readers’ main vehicle through the journey. People don’t connect to flat, unchanging characters — they connect with those who struggle, fail and make mistakes, and are inspired by those who, despite sharing their fallacies, still rise above their challenges.

It’s important to remember that you, too, are in a process of becoming a new person each and every day. As you learn and develop, you change. The person you were yesterday is gone. So long as you choose to grow, the decisions you made before — good or bad — were made by a different person. While you may have to pay the costs and consequences of yesterday’s poor decision making, you can learn and grow so that each day is better than the last. Like taking on debt as a young person, wise decisions allow you to pay down that balance and build a better life for yourself moving forward.

This principle doesn’t stop with your main characters, and should apply to most, if not all, key figures in your story. Ask yourself who you want your characters to become over time — what is their ultimate state? As you determine who you wish them to become — or who they tell you they ought to become, as your characters begin to fully develop and dictate their own stories — you should determine where that character should begin their journey.

The benefit? Your reader not only gets one main character’s journey from who they were to whom they will become, but multiple as every character takes part in, contributes to and also serves as their own small journey that weaves into a grander tapestry comprising your tale.

Even weak macguffins (plot devices) can make for a fun story if the characters seem real enough to carry the reader away into the universe-on-display. The most advanced drama, however, is meaningless, if your characters are mere avatars of ideas and are otherwise unreal.

So as you write your story, or read your next novel, look for those two most important characters — that’s where you’ll find the most interesting and impactful journey.

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