Protagonists Need Friends, Too


June 3, 2013 by Kira Lyn Blue

Source: Google Images

Today, let’s talk about something I wish I’d better understood when I first started writing.

If you’ve done any amount of digging for writing advice, you’ve probably come across this commandment at least once: “Show, don’t tell.”

Even without further explanation, I think most writers grasp the core of this concept. I like to think of it as “Write a story, not a documentary.” Still, understanding the concept and actually putting it into play in our writing are two very different things.

Now, there are all kinds of strategies out there about how to show and not tell, but I want to focus on a specific one:

Is that a protagonist I see?

The Window Character

You know the old saying “You can tell a lot about a person by the friends they keep?” Well, the window character is the literary application of this principle. Your window charactersΒ show your readers things about your main character’s personality, behavior, thoughts, and development.

Think about it, would you rather hear an MC internally wailing about the conflicts she has to deal with or would you rather hear her discussing them with her best friend? Especially when that best friend gives her hell for navel-gazing and tells her to get some damn perspective?

In other words, developing our secondary characters is vital and not just to keep them from being flat and boring. Every character in a novel is a potential window into the MC. Who your MC chooses to hang out with and who they dislike shows us something about their personality. What they talk about and how they interact shows us more about the MC. Even an MCΒ not having a best friend would tell us something about that character.

Using the Window Character



Most of the really great books I’ve read make good use of the Window Character by making this sidekick of the MC strategically different from the MC. Look at your MC’s dominant personality traits and assign the opposite to the window character. For example, if your MC is impulsive, your window character is cautious and deliberate. A weakness of the MC might be the WC’s strength.

The benefit here is giving your MC a different perspective. Your characters will have to discuss things because they disagree on them which gives you dialogue that shows what’s going on rather than just telling the reader.

I also found an article that you may find helpful: 5 Types of Friends Everyone Should Have. While the author of this article probably didn’t have writers in mind, these are the possible types of people your MC may have in their life who will give you the opportunity to show things about your MC rather than telling.

30 thoughts on “Protagonists Need Friends, Too

  1. Excellent post. What about in an ensemble story? Can one MC also have the role of a window character for another MC? Or does that make things too complicated?

    • Absolutely! Yes, an ensemble does make things more complicated, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Joss Whedon is well known for his ensembles. Take “Firefly” for example. If you were to make a spreadsheet with the characters’ personality traits, strengths, and weaknesses you’d very quickly see how each of them fills a role and not just their “job” on the crew. Even if you took individual pairings, you’d see important contrasts and how those come into play in each episode.

      Granted, a TV show is not a novel and there is a risk of overwhelming the reader with too many characters and interactions. If I was offering advice to a rookie writer, I’d probably encourage them to keep their cast small and focus on the interactions between just a sidekick or two.

      • Best to start with ‘Batman & Robin’ (not the movie!) than full-on ‘X-Men’. That’s the best analogy I can make from years of reading comments. Also, the term sidekick always makes me think of comics.

      • Exactly. That’s not to say you can’t start with an ensemble or a protagonist who has no “sidekick” but the former adds difficulty and the latter makes it easier to slip into telling rather than showing. It’s something to be aware of at any rate.

      • I seem to stick with ensemble casts because I like the personality variety. Though, I’m curious how some stories work with only a MC and only a distant supporting cast. Would the window characters be the villains in that one?

      • Ooh this is fun! I love that you keep bringing up the side topics that I couldn’t fit into the post.

        One could make the argument that the villain is the most obvious window character because they so often stand for everything the MC despises and wants to put a stop to. In some cases it’s not what the villain is trying to accomplish but how they go about doing it that highlights important aspects of both characters. Don’t you just love it when the villain understands and anticipates the MC simply because of how much they are alike? Then it forces the MC to evaluate their choices and actions?

      • One could also say that the MC is a window character for the villain. In fact, I’ve read books where you learn more about the villain throughout the story than the MC.

      • Valid. I think you win, I can’t expand on that πŸ™‚

      • I’m kind of stuck on going further too. We’ll call it a draw.

  2. I’ve never heard the term Window Character before, but it seems like an important aspect to telling the story. Great post. Thanks for the pingback.

    • Having no formal education in creative writing, I hadn’t heard it either until I picked up a novel writing 101 kind of book. The author talked about Window Characters and I didn’t quite get what was so important about it. It kind of hit me as an epiphany last night while working on revisions and I realized the tone of my book is very different once a certain character is introduced and now I’m trying to think of ways to involve him sooner.

  3. Great post! πŸ™‚

  4. Debb Stanton says:

    Reblogged this on Sunshine Factor and commented:
    This is definitely something I want to keep in mind! There’s still lots of facets to writing that I will be learning. πŸ™‚

  5. Debb Stanton says:

    This was a good post, I have reblogged it. Thank you! πŸ™‚

  6. tracycembor says:

    This got me thinking about some YA books where characters are defined by the social cliques they associate with. Often character growth is shown through trading one social circle for another.

    And the dog pic had me howling with laughter.

    • Oooh, good point. I keep trying to think of examples from “mature” literature that run along the same principle, but I’m drawing a blank. Where I have seen it, it’s the loss of a singular long-standing friendship that either the MC has evolved past or they have been changed too much by their life for the friend to accept them anymore. Both of the examples I can think of are several books into urban fantasy series.

  7. MishaBurnett says:

    A character who was just supposed to be a walk-on (little more than a parody of a particular horror movie character that I find annoyingly pretentious, actually) has ended up being my main character’s sidekick in Cannibal Hearts.

    It happened gradually, but I see looking back that it’s really convenient to have a character who can ask the main character, “What’s going on? What do these clues mean?” rather than writing tons of internal monologue.

    Also, because Exquisite (or Ex, for short) is kind of flamboyant character, I can give him the really bitchy lines that I come up with would be beneath my main character’s dignity.

    BTW, did you ever see my analysis of the ensemble dynamics of Firefly compared with WKRP In Cincinnati? It started as a joke, but the more I looked at it, the more sense it made. It made me really think about how similar ensemble casts tend to be in make up, even from drastically different genres.

    • I have now! I’ve never seen WKRP, but once you pointed out those character “roles” it was very easy to start picking them out of other shows. Star Trek comparisons (the original series and TNG) came easiest, but digging around a bit I see similar character roles or different spins on them in other shows, too.

  8. L. Marie says:

    Great post, Kira. Sometimes in YA, I’ve seen the whiny, loner heroine whom every guy falls in love with, but who has no friends. So the only window into her life is a smudged, surface level one. So, thanks for the reminder of the need to have friends. Another great piece of advice someone gave me is this: don’t allow the antagonists to be the only ones who disagree with your main character. This goes along with allowing the MC to make mistakes and make people angry sometimes.

    • That is a good piece of advice. Conflict in a novel is not just with the antagonist, but can come from any number of sources. I kind of hinted at this by suggesting that your window character have different personality traits than your MC. If you consider a Real Life group of friends or coworkers, how often does everyone on that group agree on everything? Or even if they agree on a common goal, they may all disagree on how to make it happen.

  9. LIKE… That dog picture. πŸ™‚

    Just kidding, great post Kira!

  10. Hmm. I’ll have to think about this. I sort of have a story where the main character is highly isolated, so the villain may act as a sort of unreliable window into the MC for the narrator while serving as a kind of skewed/funhouse mirror for the MC to understand himself. There are other people around, who I think offer a perspective of and for the MC, but again their vision maybe skewed. Is there discussion anywhere about window characters that might color the readers view, like an unreliable narrator?


    • Not that I could find with several combinations of search terms. If you’re concerned about how your MC is coming across to the reader consider that actions often speak louder than anything any character says or thinks. Or employ alpha/beta readers to see if they are getting the impression you want.

  11. melissajanda says:

    I haven’t heard the term Window Character before but after reading your description I realize that I incorporate them in my stories…by pure blind luck.Great post Kira!

  12. JP McLean says:

    This is a great way to think about show not tell. Thanks for sharing it.

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