Sometimes stories aren’t really about the main character: it’s the side characters and their stories that make the main character’s world so vibrant. Author Leah Cypess gives one of these side characters a voice in the first novel of her Sisters Ever After series, Thornwood.
Many years ago, I wrote a book that I thought had a Big Idea. The idea was this: what if Sleeping Beauty woke up after her curse, only to find that the curse hadn’t ended? Even though she was awake, she was still trapped in her castle by a forest of thorns. Somewhere in that castle was a vengeful fairy who still didn’t think they were even. Meanwhile, the prince who had woken her was super sketchy, and it seemed probable that she was actually in love with someone else. (An unsuitable but handsome commoner. I was in high school, okay?)
It was a pretty good idea, if perhaps not as original as I thought. I wrote a whole book based on it, in my typical floundering-pantser style, throwing problems and complications at the now awake princess… and then I lost interest in it. I made only a few attempts to revise the manuscript before I trunked it. It just didn’t have that spark that made me want to throw myself into it again and again.
Turned out, that was because it didn’t have a Big Idea yet. All it had was a starter idea.
I figured that out years later. I was looking through my old unpublished manuscripts, partly out of nostalgia and partly in search of inspiration. (Not long after that, I would look through my old manuscripts much more intensely, in search of reading material for my children while all the libraries were closed.) I came across that Sleeping Beauty retelling and vaguely remembered a lot of what I had thrown into it. But my clearest memory was of one minor scene. In it, Sleeping Beauty walks into the kitchen and discovers herself faced by a group of kitchen maids who hate her. Because of her curse, they have been asleep for a hundred years. Their families are dead and their lives are destroyed, simply because they had the misfortune of being minor characters in Sleeping Beauty’s story.
In the original manuscript, I didn’t do much with that scene. But it struck me now because I had, for a while, been mulling over the question of main characters and what we require of them. What makes a person a main character? Is it just the fact that they’re the person we’re telling the story about? Is it possible to write a satisfying genre book about a side character who has no agency and no effect on the story?
And just like that, I realized why that original manuscript had never come to life. The Big Idea wasn’t about how Sleeping Beauty’s curse had messed up her life. It was how it had messed up the lives of everyone around her – the people the original fairy tales barely bother to mention.
So I invented a new character: Sleeping Beauty’s eleven-year-old sister, living in the shadow of her sister’s curse and not all that happy about it. She loves her older sister, but she also resents her. She wants to save her… but she can’t, because no one can.
In the end, I didn’t lift a single word from that old manuscript. I wrote the new book from scratch, in a mad rush, in the same floundering-pantser style that hasn’t changed much since my high school days. (Though now, as a professional writer, I don’t have to write a whole book before figuring out whether it will work. Twenty thousand words or so are generally sufficient). A lot of elements from that old book did wind their way into the new one: a castle trapped within a magical forest, a prince with secrets of his own, a creepy fairy godmother. Some of the romantic complications also came through intact, though they are much more fun when viewed from the perspective of a snarky eleven-year-old.
But the core of the story, what made the whole thing work, what made me willing to revise it and re-read it dozens of times, was the character at its center: a powerless girl who is trapped in events not of her making, and who is really, really tired of being unimportant.
In other words: a main character.
I did not, I fully admit, overturn Western storytelling conventions in this book. My protagonist protags. She discovers that she does have agency, and in the end, it is her actions and choices that will determine her future.
And now that she’s realized the story is about her, what is she going to do about all the other people in it? The true side characters are still there: the other people in the castle – the kitchen maids and laundresses and blacksmiths – who truly have no power to affect their own fates. One of the choices that faces my actual main character is how to treat those people, the ones who don’t matter to the story. She knows what it’s like to be powerless, to be sidelined, to be a character the storyteller doesn’t even bother to mention. She’s raged against it – and now, she’s the one telling the story.
Her response to that choice is the core of my Big Idea. Because what we do when we tell stories is choose certain lives — and certain types of lives — to focus on. And in the end, as every writer knows, which person you focus on can change what the story is all about.