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I've recently been working on some stories written in the first person from the point of view of what, in the grand scheme of things, would be called minor characters. Examples include a junior bridge officer's point of view while the captain of the ship tells most of the story or a minor functionary meeting the bridge crew of a famous, lost ship. So far, for short works, this "worms eye view" approach has, I feel, worked well.

Now I'm writing something longer and larger in scope, this from the point of view of the reluctant bodyguard of a VIP, and before I get too far down the rabbit hole I need to know if this minor character first person style can work without the narrator taking over a story that isn't properly theirs.

So how can I avoid a minor character, from whose point of view the story is being told, becoming the protagonist instead of the person whose story I want to tell?

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The most famous example of what you're describing is Sherlock Holmes, told of course from Dr. Watson's POV. Watson never becomes the protagonist of the story - the focus is always on Holmes, Watson serving merely as his "biographer". What Watson's perspective gives us is the incredulity at Homes's conjectures: where Holmes sees a solution to the mystery, Watson (and the reader) needs an explanation.

Proceeding from the Holmes example, your narrator can be a secondary character, so long as the MC is his main interest. Your narrator would then narrate only what is relevant to the story about the MC, his thoughts and feelings about the MC, rather than his thoughts and feelings about unrelated matters. Such POV is actually quite interesting, as it lets us see the MC from the "outside", as somebody close to him would see him, rather than from "inside". We'd never see his thoughts - only his actions, and what he is willing to tell his friend about his thoughts.

It is helpful, I think, to think of the narrator as a biographer of sorts: he is telling the MC's story, not his own. But of course this role can be held by a family member, a close friend (like Watson), an official records-keeper for a (possibly imaginary) historical figure etc. So long as the narrator's goal, in-character, is to tell the MC's story, he remains a secondary character, never becoming the protagonist.

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  • ^_^ I didn't see your answer until I posted mine. But yeah, Wattson is a very good example of this. – Fayth85 Jul 4 '18 at 19:23
  • Face-palm, in fact double face-palm; I've read Sherlock Holmes how many times and this didn't occur to me? Thank you both for pointing out whose wheel I've reinvented Complete Sherlock Holmes here I come. – Ash Jul 4 '18 at 19:31
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    See also Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby, an even more extreme example than Dr. Watson. So far as I can recall, Carraway hardly does anything other than watching Gatsby and the other characters interact. – Kevin Jul 4 '18 at 20:50
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    Ismael from Moby Dick is another famous example. Orson Scott Card retold Ender's Game from Bean's POV, and hangs a lantern on it by titling the book Ender's Shadow. – Dan J. Jul 6 '18 at 11:52
  • A Prayer for Owen Meany is narrated by his friend Johnny. – Ken Mohnkern Jul 6 '18 at 19:04
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So how can I avoid a minor character, from whose point of view the story is being told, becoming the protagonist instead of the person whose story I want to tell?

Well, you can't. Not really. The second it's written, the world will come to it's own conclusions. Like with The Tales of Sherlock Holmes. It's all told from the perspective of Wattson, but it's about Sherlock. So it can be argued that Wattson is the protagonist, or that he's just the placeholder of the reader. It's all about perspective.

What is useful to know, is that this narrative (told from the point of view of the sidekick) is far more common in Japanese media, because that is the common zeitgeist of their culture. The emphasis isn't on 'me' (broadly speaking), it's on 'us'. It's about cooperation, about uniting our focus to achieve a common goal.

So if you take stories like Final Fantasy X, where the story is effectively told from Tidus's point of view. Who's the real protagonist? History will recall Yuna as the hero. History at the time of the telling portrays Auron as the 'legend', being Braska's guardian that brought the previous calm.

But in the end, as is the common thread of the whole tale: "This is my story." Auron says that to Tidus. Tidus says that to Yuna. And Yuna herself comes to believe in the simple idea. This is my story. To me, this gives the viewer (reader, consumer) a sense of sonder--that everyone in the world crafted has their own story. And that might well spill out into the person's lived reality, where the sense of sonder lingers long after the game is turned off.

So. How do you ensure that your point of view character isn't the protag? Well, here are some thoughts on that.

  • Make the point of view character bland.

By making the point of view character uninteresting, the person they are focused on becomes far more interesting by contrast. Again, look at Sherlock Holmes. What can you really tell me about Wattson? Holmes was intelligent, methodical, a master at hand-to-hand combat, fell into a depression after solving each case. But what was Holmes really like? I can't remember, because he didn't stand out.

  • Offer the protagonist more screen time, even if written from 1st person.

While it's a bit... stalkerish if the point of view character's whole world revolves around the protagonist, it is incredibly potent if done well. Let's take Tomoko from Card Captor Sakura. She was in love with Sakura (I don't care what you have to say! Fight me!), and her whole world revolved around her as a consequence. She was constantly videotaping Sakura's life, following her everywhere. And when she got home, she would go through all the footage again.

Another option would be as you describe. This is a VIP's body guard. So have them methodically plot how to keep their client (or whatever) safe. Check the mail, check the car, check the locations the VIP needs to go to. Make exit plans. Keep close to them. Overhear the conversations--whether intentional or not.

In this context, it still feels stalkerish, but it makes perfect sense. But then you get into a very different thing. When the VIP isn't out in the world. What does the body guards see? When they are looking at the news broadcasts about the VIP, how does the world see this imperfect being the body guard is charged with keeping alive?

If you follow this route, it's perfectly understandable that the body guard needs to keep an eye on all aspects of the VIP. But you also get the advantage of them being snippy about it.

"Christ. I can't believe that woman's just up and vanished! What is wrong with her! Why hire me to keep her safe, if she's just going to up and leave whenever she damn well pleases?!"

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  • Face-palm, in fact double face-palm; I've read Sherlock Holmes how many times and this didn't occur to me? Thank you both for pointing out whose wheel I've reinvented Complete Sherlock Holmes here I come. – Ash Jul 4 '18 at 19:31
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There are some questions that you should consider before you write your piece.

  1. Why is this person telling this story?

  2. Is this narrator reliable? Will this narrator tell the whole truth objectively, letting the readers to decide the morality of the characters, or will he be biased in some way, putting his own spin on the story? What are his motivations for bias?

  3. How much does he really know of the protagonist? Is he really close to the protagonist in such a way that he and the protagonist share conversations but he purposefully omits the conversations from his story? Does he secretly read the protagonist's diary entries? If he does neither, then he can only report his own observations of the character's behaviors and conjectures of the character's thought process. He may also insert how the protagonist behaves around other people, including himself, but the protagonist's interactions with the narrator is limited to a few scenes, making the narrator a minor character. It is possible that the narrator gathers information from other people who know the protagonist, and that's how he can write about the protagonist.

Once you answer these questions, you will know a little bit about your narrator.

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  • Okay where did I go wrong with the question because this is so far off base I don't know what you're speaking to. I want to be asking how much a particular person's perspective can be used to tell a story without them becoming the main protagonist of that story. – Ash Jul 4 '18 at 18:49
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    @Ash Well. Not to put my foot in my mouth, but I think Double U is trying to say here, is that if you ask yourself the questions he poses, you might well find a solid answer if writing this from the current point of view character makes sense narratively? – Fayth85 Jul 4 '18 at 19:00
  • @Fayth85 Perhaps but then the last part makes no sense, "you will know a little bit about your narrator" I don't want to know any more about my narrator, I want to understand how the narrator might become the protagonist and avoid that contingency. – Ash Jul 4 '18 at 19:04
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It's called a First Person Peripheral Narrator, and while most will recall Watson it's also used in Moby Dick for more or less the same reason: the main character is not relatable and has built-in character flaws that alienate the reader. Instead the narrator role goes to an admiring everyman.

Why not just write in third-person? Because the narrator is often wrong. If the POV was omniscient third-person, the author would have to lie to the reader.

In the original stories Watson is closer to an everyman. He isn't a genius but he isn't a fool either. Nevertheless he is often duped by Holmes's disguises, he imagines the situation incorrectly, and he doesn't solve any mysteries. Holmes in contrast is an asexual drug addict with antisocial personality issues. In subsequent versions, Watson becomes almost moronic (culminating in Nigel Bruce's comedy portrayal opposite Basil Rathbone), but originally he is a voice of reason. He grounds Holmes's sensational adventures in reality. Another problem with Holmes' character is that he is such a genius he essentially knows the whole mystery from the the first interview. These stories would be very short if Holmes was the narrator.

Moby Dick is a bit of a POV mess with some chapters apparently lapsing into third-person omniscient and Ishmael occasionally relating things he could not have observed, but Ishmael starts as a regular, relatable guy who has a formal education but limited life experience. He joins the whaling ship naively looking for "adventure", however he has no actual idea what that means. His prejudices are immediately challenged when he sleeps with a tattooed cannibal – which sounds like a crazy adventure in itself but the lesson Ishmael actually learns is that the most exotic-looking person can actually be a mench. Meanwhile Captain Ahab whose authority rises him above moral question is actually insane and doesn't care who gets killed so long as he achieves his goal of revenge. Again, if Ahab was the narrator the book would have almost no story, we'd know he was crazy, and there would be 130 fewer chapters about life on a whaling ship and metaphors about the human existence. It would just be Ahab writing "I hate Moby Dick" over and over in his demented journal as they wander the oceans.

There's another reason Holmes and Ahab are not the narrator despite being the protagonist: they both die. That's something narrators generally don't do.

How do you keep the Peripheral Narrator from stealing the role of protagonist? You have a protagonist who is more interesting, more complicated, more pro-active, more experienced, and who knows what's actually going on. By contrast your Peripheral Narrator is more ordinary, less-complicated, along for the ride, inexperienced (but trying to learn), and ultimately not the person in control of the events in the story.

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You can I avoid a minor character, from whose point of view the story is being told, becoming the protagonist instead of the person whose story you want to tell by writing with the following in mind:

  • The narrator is not important to the story. He is the mouse in the hole and the important character is the cat prowling about outside. The mouse needs to live, love and eat but is terrified of the cat to such an extent that his every move is squashed into nothing by that fear.
  • The main character is the sun around which the planet revolves. The satellite is bound by gravity to the sun and cannot escape. It speaks of the sun with every movement it makes. Without the sun it would fly off into space and die - cold and alone.
  • The narrator's character-map is an empty set. Write a full character-map for the main character and use that information to create a rich backstory, sparkling dialogue and entertaining action that speaks to the passion filled plot. By contrast, the narrator should be sat on a chair with only pen & paper. for company.
  • Bestow all conflict on the mind and life of the protagonist. The twists & turns, swirls and swooshes of the conflict in the story should be described by the narrator but she should not be involved in them. She should be bound to boredom like a leaf is branch bound. Freedom from this state can only mean death.

In short - shine a light on your protagonist. Only allow the narrator to shine that light from the shadows.

Good luck with your story.

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