Any story you’ve ever encountered contains a secret. Actually, every story contains a world of secrets. Every book ever written, every movie to ever hit the big screen, every TV show to ever air–they all are full of the stories that never will be.
Don’t believe me? Think about your favorite work of literature–whether something you’ve read or something you’ve watched. This story you’re thinking of–it has a main character. Alongside the main character are their sidekicks, mentors, enemies, and the guy who bags their groceries. We know pretty much everything there is to know about the protagonist. We know what they look like, who they’re friends with, how they think. But we don’t know nearly so much about the secondary characters.
As such, we tend to think that life happens to the hero (or protagonist) while the secondary characters are more or less along for the ride. To some extent, this is true. The narrative demands that we discover what happens to the main character. And so it should be.
But what happens to those secondary characters? Do they exist solely to interact with the main character? Could they be hit just as hard by what life throws at them? Is it possible for any given secondary character to be the hero of their own story?
I would argue that any secondary character could be the hero. We are all the heroes of our own stories, or so we like to believe. In the same way, the lens of the story–the perspective through which we experience the narrative–impacts who we see as the protagonist and why.
From a story-crafting perspective, this is actually fairly simple. Writers know their characters better than anyone else. They live among the people of their alternative world of narrative for the weeks, months, or years it takes to craft an excellent story. As such, there are millions of tiny details that no one (save the author) will ever know about certain characters.
Writing demands painful excision. The author knows that Character T has an irrational fear of spiders, but unless this directly affects the protagonist (Character A), it doesn’t really belong in the narrative. More seriously, Character G might have lost her mother last month. But unless her mother’s death pertains to Character A in some way, G may never have a chance to share that reality with anyone but her author. Writers are the parents of fully-grown children, but we don’t have the time to expound on every child’s exploits. We must pick favorites, and so we do.
However, just because we write A’s story doesn’t mean we aren’t thinking about G or T. Someday, we might even get around to writing their stories. But A’s narrative requires we focus on A for now. We leave G and T and all their companions on the sidelines, where they treasure their shadow narratives, waiting for the day when their stories might come to light.
Rather than continuing abstractly, let’s take a popular example: the Harry Potter series. Whether you’ve read the books or seen the movies or both (or even if you’ve never encountered the stories), you no doubt can ascertain that the hero of the series is Harry Potter. No huge surprise there. JK Rowling gives us a lot of information about Harry. We know where he’s from and how he grew up until he encountered the magical world. He lives through middle and high school (more or less) right before our eyes. We watch him go through puberty. We groan as he fumbles his way through interacting with pretty girls. And that doesn’t even account for the main narrative–he’s busy destroying the most evil wizard of all time while trying to figure out this whole Hogwarts thing.
Now consider Harry’s best friend, Ron. We know a great deal about him too. His family factors into Harry’s life, effectively adopting him. Ron’s brothers (and sister) are Harry’s friends as well. We know who Ron eventually marries. We know his dreams. We watch him make a fool of himself. But he is basically Harry’s constant companion. Let’s pull a little further away.
Dumbledore is an excellent example of the shadow narrative–the stories that are never fully told. Some time after Harry Potter was completed, Rowling shocked the world with a simple announcement: Dumbledore is gay. The uproar that followed notwithstanding, I’m going to assume that Rowling actually knew this long before she made the information available to the public. Remember, writers keep secrets that sometimes never surface. Rowling’s decision to out Dumbledore may have been a publicity stunt, but I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.
One of the complaints against a gay Dumbledore was that there was no evidence for it in the books. Rather than try to prove Dumbledore’s sexuality one way or the other, I’m going to sidestep that debate entirely. Instead, think about this: does Dumbledore’s sexuality in any way play into the story of Harry Potter? The short answer is no. The longer answer is assuming Dumbledore isn’t a pedophile, no.
Since Dumbledore’s sexuality had no impact on the ongoing war between Harry Potter and Voldemort, Rowling had no reason to place it in the narrative proper. Dumbledore and his past are a shadow narrative, a story that may have never come to light. Rowling chose to reveal this tidbit after the fact. In doing so, she did not change Harry’s narrative at all. Rather, she took Dumbledore by the hand and brought a small corner of his narrative out of the dark. Perhaps Rowling doesn’t have time to give us the full Dumbledore narrative. She picked her favorite–and that was Harry. But don’t for a minute think that means she doesn’t love Dumbledore. Don’t think that she doesn’t know Dumbledore just as well as the little boy with the lightning bolt scar. She simply has afforded Harry more publicity than the headmaster of Hogwarts. She made her decision, and Dumbledore will most likely always remain the half-shadowed man, a story that could have been told but never was.
Zooming back out, we can see how many secondary characters have lives of their own. Sometimes the writer gives us hints. Sometimes nearly everything is hidden. Each character has their own mix of secrets. If we viewed the narrative through their eyes, the protagonist would suddenly become very small.
This is where fanfiction becomes so important. Readers or viewers (in short, fans) latch onto characters the writers have all but abandoned. Fans imagine slightly different worlds or introduce a different lens to the same world. One story from two unique perspectives may end up seeming like two entirely distinct narratives. Fanfiction does what the single writer cannot. But that, I suppose, is a topic for another time.
For now, it is enough to say that the non-stories, the ones that are hidden behind the bright light of the protagonist, still exist. We may not see them, and we may think they won’t be interesting. Yet with a little creativity or a bit more detail, we might discover that the stories yet to be written are even more engaging than the originals. Go find your shadow narrative, and give a shot. Let the quiet kid in the corner have their shot at being a story in the light.