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I've really enjoyed the CW's show The Flash ever since it came out, but they recently did something that kind of feels like a mistake on the writers' part.

For those unfamiliar with the show, Barry Allen, the titular Flash, is a superhero whose powers include the (somewhat hard-to-control) ability to travel through time. He recently had an experience in which, for the first time in the series, he briefly ended up a few months in the future, and witnessed a catastrophic event taking place. Now he wants to stop it.

This is where the writers did something very clever, but also kind of dumb: while in the future, he observed a news report playing on a TV screen in a store window, with an anchor talking about something and various other headlines scrolling along in a news ticker at the bottom of the screen. Now he knows things that are going to happen in the next few months, and he thinks that if he can change some of them, he might be able to head off the disaster.

This is clever, as it gives the viewers a bit of a "teaser" look at what's in store later on in the season. But it also seems a bit odd, because every one of those headlines was about something The Flash would be involved in in some way. Barry lives in a major city. Surely there are other newsworthy events going on that have nothing at all to do with him, right? But no one on the news broadcast was talking about them!

That makes me wonder. Are there any techniques to be aware of to avoid this pitfall? How would I write a character who is genuinely influential and important to the world around him, without it coming across like he's the only interesting person in the world and everything else revolves around his actions?

  • (Yes, I saw the note in the world-building tag. This feels more like a question about writing technique to me, though, so I posted it here rather than on worldbuilding.SE) – Mason Wheeler Feb 7 '17 at 19:44
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    If the major events don't involve your character, even to the emotional effect they have on him/her, why include them? Then they are minor or inconsequential details. If the stock market crashes and Barry doesn't have billions in Edsel, Inc., he's not going to care much. Unless his Aunt Matilda's retirement money was all invested in Edsel. Now it affects him personally, even if he can't affect the event. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Feb 7 '17 at 21:17
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    @LaurenIpsum: on the other hand, the way you react to a stock market crash that has no real affect on you does say a lot about the character: Ignore it? Offer a fleeting thought for people who may have lost everything? Blame greed and bankers, whether dismissively or with hatred? – SC for reinstatement of Monica Feb 7 '17 at 23:07
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    @SaraCosta You can absolutely use a reaction to an event for character development, but then you can use any such event that way, not just a major news event. If the event doesn't affect the character directly, then however big it is, in story terms, it's a minor detail. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Feb 7 '17 at 23:11
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    @LaurenIpsum: True. But I do have a very soft side for using news that way. Especially if it's something big that impacts a whole country or continent and which gets a five minute frame of 'the horror, the horror' only to be forgotten the next moment because the office's copying machine has just broken down. – SC for reinstatement of Monica Feb 7 '17 at 23:24
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There are several different techniques I've seen used in books/shows that usually help to alleviate this problem.

  1. A side story arc. Barry may be the main character and the major events may surround him, but the foreshadowing on the news report may not just report the main event. The news could show something that may be a side event that Barry may only briefly address. Does Barry really like baseball? A news article talking about X team won X game, would still be relevant to the main character but help make the world as a whole seem bigger.

  2. Supporting characters are traditionally used to provide context/depth. I haven't watched any of the Flash, but Barry should have some supporting characters that help him out. These characters or their interests could be affected by whatever major even is happening. Focusing on how they're affected by this event might give the story a bit more depth, even if we're just seeing their reaction. (Think about The Avengers Age of Ultron, when Tony Stark sees ALL his dead team members, that was a lot more powerful than just Tony seeing the world being attacked.)

  3. Filler information. In literature with a lot of foreshadowing (Wheel of Time I'm looking at you), not every event shown will take place. Some may take place but not as expected. It would be more effective and believable to include some additional stories that didn't touch the main character, even if they were just playing in the background as he is trying to cope with the implications of the major event. These events, while they may not be important, would show the audience that while Barry is important, he's not the only thing in the world. A great example of this can be found in the movie Paycheck, with a similar premise. While part of the vision of the main character focuses on the end of the world, many events that don't necessarily lead to that are shown, to help focus the attention on the end of the world event.

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@bhilgert's answer is on the mouche but, if I may be so bold, I'll add a 4th point: my favourite technique for keeping characters from becoming too self-absorbed is to use random little things that mean nothing to the said character.

Starting with the news, I do like to have my characters glance at TV and lazily notice some news that will soon be forgotten as unimportant. Or dismissed with an off-handed comment such as 'people really should be more careful driving' in reaction to a big accident. Or (something I do in real life) listen to the news on the radio hoping to hear a particular information (like traffic) while really not registering any of it.

Something else I enjoy is to have characters sit (or stand) and wait for whomever and then have them glance about and notice a random action from anyone who may be around. Try people watching in your everyday life and notice little things people do that may or may not show a glimpse of their own daily dramas... or boredom. Then pick one or two to give the scenes in your tales a sense of realistic randomness.

Of course it's important not to overdo it. I only used this technique more intensely once, but I did want to convey the character's insecurities, feeling that she was less important than those around. I felt that the 'white noise' I created that way really brought her self-loathe home, as if she were putting herself below even the most trivial of things.

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What makes non-protagonist characters interesting to the reader is that

they are interesting to the protagonist.

Characters that affect the protagonist will be integrated into the protagonists actions and emotions and become well-developed by default. That is, if you write your protagonist well, all other characters will automatically follow from that.

The interest of the reader is nothing but a mirror image of the interest of the protagonist. If you want other characters to become interesting for the reader, make them interesting for the protagonist. If he doesn't care, why should the reader?

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Since this question is about a TV series, I think another serial might be a worthy contrast, namely the Manga/Anime series One Piece.

Typically, the common wisdom is to have your hero be the most interesting character in your story. One Piece ignores that wisdom for most of its story. Every character Luffy runs into, whether they join him or not, has a complex history and personality, even more so than him. Luffy's entire character is defined less by who he is and more by how he responds to the situation around him, and how he manages to save the unsaveable, by sheer force of will. As such, the story manages to keep the World more interesting than the protagonist, by using the World to define him.

The MICE Quotient defines the Milieu Story in this very way, and it includes many classic adventure stories and TV series.

Unfortunately, The Flash is a Character Story, about the titular Flash. It isn't Flash and his Superfriends, or The Speed Force. So if the spotlight ends up only on him, it may be less of a flaw and more of the show's intent.

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Every character had an arc. This does not mean that every character has their own subplot in your novel. But it means that they are driven in the same way that your hero is driven: they want something and they are exploring just how far they are willing to go to get it. You may not follow their arc, but they are on it, and the fact that they are on it drives everything that they do. Even the people that are on the protagonist's side have their own desires, their own arc, and therefore a limit to their loyalty and subservience to the hero.

The consequence of this is that there are other things going on in the world. Everything that happens in a world, no matter how incidental it may be to your story, is the result of someone pursuing a desire. If you forget that, the rest of the cast, major and minor, become mere drones and satellites to the hero, and the story falls apart.

Since you used a TV example, I'll propose another one. In the TV show Suits, every scene is an argument, a confrontation. There is literally no let up at all. Lovers argue. Friends argue. Colleagues argue. Rival argue. In every scene it is perfectly clear what each person wants, and how the desires of the two bring them into conflict. Even two characters who are declaring their love and devotion to each other, do it in the form of an argument. A scene may end in tears and reconciliation, but every scene start with burning cheeks and glaring eyes.

Everyone has a desire, everyone had an agenda, and everyone is pursuing that agenda, and therefore whatever is in the foreground of any scene, there are a half dozen other things going on in the background.

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