I just had my in-laws staying. For seven weeks! Don’t get me wrong, they’re nice, easy-going people (at least, they kept telling me so), but I reckon Ghandi could test your patience after seven weeks in your spare room.
There was no one thing they did to annoy me (OK, there was one thing: “The car had an accident,” said Pops. It wasn’t him. It was the car.) It was all the little irks and ticks that built up over the time. And it was a long time. Seven weeks. Did I mention that already?
By the final week, I was frazzled. And my wife was away on business, leaving me to deal with them on my own. It came to a head one evening when I had to ask Mom, again, not to snap the spine of my paperbacks when reading them (“But it’s so much easier to hold in one hand.”)
I had to talk to someone. I had to get it all off my chest. But it was 11pm, who could I call? My wife’s days were full with meetings and preparing for meetings and, anyway, I’d just be moaning again if I called her. Who else then? Who could I call at that time of night to sound off?
It’s at these moments you realize the kind of support network you have. It’s a special kind of someone who’ll take that kind of call at that time of night and still give the level of sympathy you’re looking for.
There will be times in your story, too, when your protagonist needs support. And it’s not always obvious where that support will come from. Sometimes you have to dig deep to find that secondary character who will step in to save your hero just at the right time.
These moments usually come at the end of the second act in any story, when it looks like your hero has lost everything, with no chance of ever reaching the goal. Joseph Campbell called this moment “rescue from without” in his description of the seventeen steps in a hero’s journey, where the help had to come from somewhere other than the hero. But heroes need help throughout a story, and they could need support at any time.
The trick is to find exactly the right person, the one secondary character who can provide the right kind of support at exactly the right moment. Sometimes the answer is obvious, but sometimes you need to look hard to find that perfect helping hand. And bringing that assistance from somewhere unexpected can help to surprise the reader and add an extra twist to your story.
Just remember not to make it too much of a surprise. Help should come from somewhere that makes sense in the narrative. Readers hate nothing more than a story solution that comes from nowhere (well, they might hate seven weeks with their in-laws more, but you get the point). Try to avoid any deus ex machina type endings.
One way to find the right person for that perfect moment is to make a list of secondary characters and how they relate to the hero. This task may sound a little laborious, but it’s well worth the effort.
Start with a list of all your secondary characters, and don’t just include those who are obvious allies of your hero, add them all.
In a column next to that, rate each of those characters on how close they are to the hero or, more accurately, how close the hero feels to those characters. Rate them from 0 to 10, with 10 being very close.
In a third column, write the kind of support they could provide to your character. It could be financial, emotional, physical, spiritual, intellectual, or any other kind of support. Jot down a word or two to remind yourself of the kind of support this character can offer. You can make it specific to your particular story, so you could write down: sword, potions, spells, etc. Or: unconditional love, friendship, a full wine cellar. Whatever works best for you.
In the final column, consider the problem your hero faces. In my case, I had to find someone I could call late at night, someone who’d provide a sympathetic ear. My wife might have scored higher in closeness (column 2) and the kind of support she could give (column 3), but I had to rule her out at that moment. So, add quick notes or just words to column 4 to outline the reasons why, or why not, this character could provide support in this situation.
From here you’ll have a good overview of the potential sources of help your hero could get, and you should be able to spot the perfect person pretty quickly.
Working through this exercise helps you to build up a picture of your main character’s support network, who is going to help them out in a crisis and the kind of help they can give. You can use it as a reference to come back to whenever you back your hero into a corner (always good for adding suspense to the narrative) but don’t quite know how to get them out again.
And, just in case you’re wondering, I called another in-law to talk about my problem, my wife’s sister’s husband; he knew exactly what I was talking about.