Unit Three: The Greater Cast
This unit contains three lessons, two worksheets, and a recap. Work through the content in order.
Lastly, we need to discuss the greater cast that populates your story.
Human interactions provide relatability and heart to a tale. They also provide immense opportunity for conflict. People don’t all think alike. Each person in your novel should be much like your hero—a fully fleshed out individual with their own wants/goals and belief system. As these cast members interact, interesting, entertaining, and tense situations can arise.
Every scene in your novel needs conflict, but that does not mean that every scene needs a ticking-clock or a big action sequence. Conflict can exist in quieter ways. Two characters disagreeing on how to proceed, for example, or one character lying to another because they fear the truth might be more hurtful. Every time you have conflict between your hero and another cast member, you can nudge your hero toward their inevitable revelation. As we’ve already discussed, it’s these moments of conflict that ultimately challenge your hero to question their belief system.
For the sake of this workshop, we’re going to sort cast members into one of two categories—aside from the hero, each character is either an ally or an opponent.
Villains, naturally, go into the opponent category, as do any antagonists whose actions keep the hero from achieving their goal. Allies, on the other hand, are the characters who aid the hero in their journey. They may have different end goals, but if their wants align more with the hero than the villain, they are on Team Hero. Of course, they don’t have to stay on Team Hero.
Think of your cast as two teams on opposite sides of the playing field. What team are they on at the start of the novel? Why do their own personal goals align them with this team?
I’m going to return to The Hunger Games, because it is such a well-known novel and also provides such wonderful material for these breakdowns.
The cast of The Hunger Games:
There’s also Prim, Katniss’s mother, and Gale, but they, like many people in District 12, are almost tertiary characters in book one. They are present in the opening act and then absent from most of the story’s central conflict. The above list makes up the main cast, with “allies” being on Team Hero (Katniss) and “opponents” being on Team Antagonist.
Haymitch is a perfect example of a character who starts out as an opponent but changes teams. He’s a drunk, pessimistic, and not very enthused about helping Katniss and Peeta. Haymitch actually hates the Capitol and the Games, but his self-destructive behavior at the start of the novel makes it actively harder for Katniss and Peeta to achieve their goals. Haymitch is (perhaps unconsciously) supporting the wrong “team.” But over the course of the novel and series, Haymitch becomes more invested in his tributes, ends up fiercely protective of them, and helps them/the Rebellion at every turn.
In the first unit, we spent a lot of time breaking down your hero’s goal and belief system. As you build out your cast, it can be helpful to ask the same questions about your other characters. After all, they will be experiencing their own mini-revelations throughout the novel. These “ah-ha” moments for your supporting cast will influence how they interact with your hero, which in turn will help your hero reach their revelations.
Let’s look at Haymitch:
In the very first act, when Peeta and Katniss talk about to Haymitch on the train and Katniss wedges a knife into the table, Haymitch perks up. He has a revelation: I have fighters this year. This shifts his goal to “sober up and actually try to help these kids.” By the second act, he’s rejected his lie, become a reliable ally, and is committed to mentoring Katniss and Peeta throughout the rest of the book. The fact that his lie is rejected so early is not cause for concern; he’s a secondary character, not our hero. This pacing works fine.
There are scenarios where your story doesn’t have a cast beyond the hero. This is common in survival stories like The Martian or Cast Away. In these instances, it’s important to look at the setting as a character. Mars and the island are essentially the antagonists for the heroes of The Martian and Cast Away, respectively. Instead of battling an opponent, the hero must battle their setting/world.
Objects in this world can take on a life of their own, becoming a character of sorts. Consider Wilson the volleyball, which becomes a friend and confidant for Tom Hank’s character in Cast Away. Or the technology that allows Mark Watney to record video diaries, maintaining a level of sanity and “dialog” with his team in The Martian. These objects become allies for our heroes.
Every character in your novel is the hero of their own personal story. They will have their own unique goals and belief systems, which will influence how they interact with your hero. This creates potential for conflict, introspection, and inevitably, your hero’s character growth.
Let’s dive deeper into opponents, specifically your main “bad guy.” This is your story’s key antagonist—the person who is the biggest obstacle between your hero and their goals. Throughout this workshop, we’ll be referring to this character as your hero’s main opponent.
Why not simply villain or antagonist? In John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story, Truby suggests that thinking of your antagonist as your hero’s opponent helps you find the deepest and most intense point of conflict for the two characters. Your protagonist and antagonist are opponents in the purest sense of the word because they are competing over the same thing.
Yes. That’s right. The same exact thing. Having this shared goal means that your hero and opponent must be involved in each other’s lives. You can’t keep them apart the entire novel. They will constantly battle and clash over this shared goal (either directly, face-to-face, or indirectly, with the hero confronting someone else on the main opponent’s team). What sets the hero and main opponent on different sides of the playing field is what they are willing to do to win.
As The Hunger Games series continues a bigger main opponent is revealed in Snow, but in book one the most interesting character dynamics occur between Katniss and her fellow tributes and in many ways, they are her main opponent. Why? Because they are competing for the same thing—to survive. Some are willing to do anything to win (eg: the Careers are vicious and bloodthirsty). Others, like Katniss, don’t really want to hurt anyone. The magic happens when these characters of opposing viewpoints fight over the same end goal.
Once the reader gets to the second and third Hunger Games books, this tactic is still at play. Though your gut may tell you there’s no way Katniss and Snow want the same thing, they do. If you dig deep enough, you can see that they are both fighting to control the narrative. Snow is willing to use lies and manipulation to sell a narrative that everything is good, fine, right about the Games and the current social/class hierarchy. Katniss and the rebellion want to use truth and camaraderie to sell a narrative that people are being oppressed and that they will never be free of the Capitol until they unite and fight back. Same goal. Different ideas about how to get there.
Keep in mind that not all opponents have to be someone the hero hates. In a family drama, the hero’s main opponent might be their spouse as they both work to save a failing marriage. In a contemporary YA, the main opponent could be the hero’s best friend as they vie for the attention of the same love interest. In a thriller, it can be two rival detectives trying to solve the case before the other.
Opponents don’t have to be bad on paper. If they fit into an evil villain archetype, that’s fine. It makes them that much easier to identify. But your main opponent can look like a stand-up person. They might even be nicer, funnier, more popular, and/or morally superior to your hero.
Once you’ve figured out what the hero and opponent are both fighting over, they will inevitably start to cross paths—and clash. Many of these interactions will provide conflict that cause your hero to begin to question their lie. (Which in turn—you guessed it—will allow them to have their necessary revelations).
Interactions between the hero and the opponent (and between the hero and his/her allies, which we’ll get to in the next lesson) aid in stringing together these revelations. The interactions are the stepping stones between them, so to speak, the smaller challenges to your hero’s lie that build and grow until they can no longer be ignored.
During these interactions, consider carefully how your hero navigates conflict. Where does their moral compass lie and what are they willing to do to best or one-up the other within the scene? After each interaction, take a close look at your hero’s belief system and if the interaction caused any cracks to form.
Let’s look at an example using my own Vengeance Road.
THEIR SHARED GOAL
Kate and Waylan Rose both want the same thing: Kate’s father’s journal.
Throughout the novel, Kate has direct interaction with Rose several times. The first comes in the second act, during a poker game. Kate pulls off a con in an attempt to steal back her father’s journal. It works, but Rose nearly kills her in the process.
As he’s attempting to shoot her on p127 he says:
“Consider this a favor, girl…I’m ending yer suffering before you realize just how black that journal is.”
Rose is talking about the search for gold and how it can corrupt a person, but he’s also hinting at the theme of the novel—and Kate’s thematic lie. The search for justice can corrupt a person too. (This double-meaning works because Kate and Rose are both fighting over the same thing—the journal. What they plan to do with it is slightly different, but the fact that their goal can corrupt them both remains true.) Unfortunately, this second meaning doesn’t register for Kate in this moment. She still believes her lies and plows onward with her goals.
After an action-packed chase sequence as Kate flees from town, she is confronted by Rose again during a stand-off. Rose demands she return the journal or he’ll kill a hostage.
“You want another innocent person dead ‘cus of a family heirloom? Some dang journal? Bring it to me now and I’ll let this man return to his wife and son in town. Otherwise he’ll be dead on account of you.”
(Rose to Kate on p144 of Vengeance Road)
Kate tries to do something, but Jesse stops her and Rose is true to his word. After the gang clears out, Kate is furious.
That life’s my fault. Another innocent soul gone and drained cus I sat here hiding.
Suddenly I’m furious with Pa. It ain’t my fault. It’s his. For lying and withholding and spending all those years spinning me false yarns. Acting like our gold was from Wickenburg. Pretending our last name’s Thompson ‘stead of Tompkins. If’n he were honest, even ‘bout half of it, we mighta been prepared[…]But no, he had to go and treat me like some helpless baby, keep the truth from me like I weren’t tough enough to handle it. And look where it’s got us both? Him in the ground and me caught in the middle of some bloody quest for gold, when alls I wanted was justice for his death.
(Vengeance Road p148-49)
Kate almost has a revelation here. She begins to acknowledge that her quest for revenge is causing innocent people to die, but then gets sidetracked and blames it all on her father. She deflects and makes excuses and ignores the truth.
But—and this is a big but—the cracks in her lie are starting to form, and a tense interaction with her main opponent helped put them there.
Kate’s next interaction with Rose comes just before the all is lost moment, when she rescues Jesse from Rose’s men. We discussed this moment in last week’s lesson, as it leads to Kate’s earned revelation: My quest for revenge is only causing more death and loss. After this latest interaction with Rose, she can no longer ignore this truth. Her lies are beginning to crumble.
The final interaction comes during the climax, and we’ve discussed that also. It’s during that final showdown that Kate rejects all her lies—including the thematic lie—and completes her character arc.
Much in the way that interactions with her main opponent cause Kate to begin to doubt her belief system, interactions with her allies will do the same. And allies will have even more opportunities to interact with the hero. (More on that in the next lesson.)
Allies can be lots of things to your hero—best friends, mentors, love interests, etc. They typically want the hero to succeed, and they will chime in as a the voice of reason throughout the novel, encouraging the hero to take (or not take) certain actions.
The most dynamic allies are often foils to your hero, meaning they have qualities that directly contrast your hero’s. When these two characters interact, their differences are highlighted and the contrasts in mindsets and values create compelling on-page relationships that are often rich with conflict.
Han is a smuggler and lovable scoundrel. He’s daring and brash actions are in direct contrast to Luke’s heart of gold, but his “me-first, survive at all costs” mentality get’s Luke & Co. out of some sticky situations in the first half of the story. Haymitch is cynical and defeatist—the exact opposite of what Katniss and Peeta need as they head into the Games—but his personality shines a light on the growing resentment Katniss harbors for the Capitol as well as the innocence and hope that fuel Peeta. Jesse preaches about the dangers of holding on to guilt and living the past. He tells Kate that revenge is not the answer to her problems and that she needs to make peace with her father’s death to truly move on, which is entirely opposite Kate’s opinion when the novel starts off, highlighting her stubbornness and grit.
Obviously not every ally can be a perfect foil to your hero, so focus on belief systems as you build out your allies. When there is a fundamental difference in how your allies and hero think, conflict will arise on the page as they interact. And conflict, as we’ve discussed numerous times over, is how we force our hero to examine their own lies.
Unlike the main opponent, the ally’s goal does not have to be exactly the same as the hero’s—at least not at the start. It simply needs overlap.
Somewhere along the way, the plot will encourage the ally to completely adopt the hero’s goal. If they are unable to adopt the hero’s goal, they will sometimes change teams.
Why would an ally switch teams? Well, sometimes this character has always been on the main opponent’s side and was only pretending to be an ally. Their betrayal will shock the hero.
Other times this character is truly an ally at the start of the novel, with their goal aligning with the hero’s, but they will ultimately decide that they are willing to different things to win. If this character is comfortable with the main opponent’s approach, they may leave Team Hero and join the “bad guys.” Or, if they don’t like the opponent’s approach either, they may break off and become an independent third player.
A good example of an ally switching teams happens in The Matrix. In the movie, everyone has the same goal: control what is perceived as reality. Neo and his allies believe that people should know the truth and be free of the Matrix. The machines want humans to remain ignorant to the fact that their lives are simulated. Cypher starts the story as an ally but ultimately decides that ignorance is bliss. He’d rather live in the Matrix and think it’s real than keep fighting a battle that seems doomed. He betrays his team, giving them up to the machines in exchange for wealth and other comforts in the Matrix.
As your hero and ally interact, keep the ally’s belief system in mind. What is this ally willing to do (or not do) to succeed in their goals? When will they be united with the hero, have arguments with the hero’s approach, or even abandon an ally over difference in beliefs?
The moments when they are bound to argue or question the hero’s approach are crucial to nudging your hero toward their revelations. John Truby calls such a plot point an “attack by ally.” These attacks will almost always precede a hero’s revelations.
Let’s look at an example using my own Vengeance Road.
Kate has several allies throughout the novel, including the cowboys Jesse and Will Colton, an Apache girl called Liluye, and a miner named Jacob Waltz. Jesse is the only ally that accompanies her through the entire novel, so we’ll focus on him.
THEIR OVERLAPPING GOALS
Jesse Colton wants to provide for his family (he wants income/wealth) and he also wants to uphold his father’s promise to take care of Kate if something ever happened to her pa. He originally allies with Kate to uphold this promise and because he is traveling in the same direction (he is reporting to a job south of Phoenix, Kate is tracking Rose and heading toward Phoenix).
THEIR KEY INTERACTIONS
Jesse and Kate spend a lot of time together in the novel, but we’re going to look at interactions where they fundamentally disagree about how to proceed. These disagreements lead Jesse to “attack” Kate’s plan, in turn, challenging her lies.
This first attack comes after Kate’s misguided revelation. She’s hit the road on her own and Jesse and Will ride after her, claiming they have business in the same direction, which also allows him to accomplish one of his goal to watch after Henry’s kid. (Kate is disguised as a boy at this point and the Coltons know her as ‘Nate.’) When Jesse learns “Nate” is going after Rose, he tries to talk her out of it because it’s so dangerous. When she won’t see reason, he tries a sympathetic angle, explaining how he lost his mother when he was young.
“It were ages ago, and it hurt for a long, long while. Still does on occasion. But the hurt fades with time. You always feel it, but it becomes a duller sting, ‘stead of sharp. Course, that’s assuming you don’t ride the road of vengeance. You got good intentions, Nate, but that path’s like rubbing salt in the wound. Yer cut’ll never scab over.”
God almighty, it’s like I’m siting in the Sunday pews.
“Nate,” he says, real serious when I don’t respond. “Sometimes you gotta let the people you love go.”
(Vengeance Road, p48)
Jesse’s attack here directly challenges Kate’s thematic lie. But much like with her misguided revelation a scene earlier, Kate doubles down on her flawed thinking that only justice will help her heal. She ignores Jesse’s advice, but the idea is out in the open and it will linger in the back of her mind during her travels.
A few scenes later, Jesse will learn that Rose is after Kate’s father’s journal because it shows the way to a rich gold mine. This shifts his goal. He now knows that if he continues to aid Kate, he just might be able to find this gold too, which will make it so much easier for him to provide for his family. He helps Kate with her poker con, then bails on his ranching job to the south and commits to tracking Rose into the Superstition Mountains.
But even with the maps, they have trouble finding their way. Kate’s approach remains reckless and dangerous, and Jesse has growing concerns. He asks to see the journal for himself during his second attack.
“Look, I’m asking to see the journal ‘cus I care ‘bout you, and heck, I care ‘bout myself quite a bit too and don’t feel like dying in the mountains. Just ‘cus yer pa said the mine exists don’t make it law. I know you can glorify a person after they’s passed. I done it before myself. But did it ever dawn on you that yer pa had an awful lot of secrets? That he lied to you constantly? That maybe he didn’t have everything right upstairs?”
And there it is: that damn sermon. I flick my cigarette into the dirt.
“You wanna look?” I yank Pa’s journal out and hove it into Jesse’s chest. “Go right ahead! Be sure to let me know what you think ‘bout my own sanity when yer finished.”
(Vengeance Road, p214-215)
Kate takes this as an attack on her character and sanity, when really all Jesse is doing is suggesting that she doesn’t have to do this alone. That if she trusted others to look at the journal and offer insights and help, things may be easier for them all. This attack challenges Kate’s belief that you must be self-sufficient and that needing others is proof of weakness. She’s too offended to see this clearly and stomps off.
Several scenes later, “all is lost.” Will is killed, Jesse nearly dies in a confrontation with Rose, and Kate—finally able to understand what Jesse meant during this attack—has her earned revelation. She accepts that going it alone doesn’t make you stronger and accepting help isn’t weakness. Jesse has also fully adopted Kate’s goal of killing Rose by this point; after the murder of his brother, he wants revenge/justice too.
Jesse’s third and final attack comes just before the climax. He and Kate are camping in the mountains, preparing to confront Rose the following morning.
“No matter what happens tomorrow,” I tell Jesse, “I’m with you till the end on this. If we go in blazing and never come out, that’s fine by me. I got nothing to go home to anyway.”
“You got me,” he says.
(Vengeance Road p274)
This is such a simple, understated attack. Jesse doesn’t debate Kate or get philosophical or give her a sermon, as she likes to say. Instead, he simply states what he believes to be true, and this three-word statement challenges Kate’s lie that she has nothing to live for without family. She begins to picture an “after” to her quest, something she hadn’t yet done.
By the time Kate confronts Rose in the final battle, her closest ally has challenged all her lies, making her rejection of them feel earned, authentic, and believable.
In many novels the hero will have more than one ally, but a prominent ally (like Jesse) is one who challenges the hero from early on, all the way through the climax. As such, a prominent ally almost always helps push your hero toward their revelations. Allies who enter the narrative for a shorter period of time can do this too, so long as they “attack” the hero’s plan and belief system. These attacks are integral in pushing your hero toward their revelations.
Just as the ally will challenge the hero throughout the story, don’t forget that your hero should challenge their allies back. Character growth for the hero is expected by the end of a novel, but a truly rich tale includes growth for key members of your supporting cast as well. Your hero can help those characters get there.
After all, in Star Wars, Luke’s influence and morals eventually leads Han to believe in a greater good. Instead of putting himself first, he returns to aid the Rebels in the final battle against the Death Star. Katniss (and Peeta) give Haymitch a reason to be care—to clean up his act and be hopeful for the future. Kate helps Jesse see that he is still harboring guilt for his mother’s death and later in the story, Will’s; Jesse is not living by the very advice he spouts (mourn and then let go).
It’s time to look closely at your novel’s larger cast and identify the interactions that your hero has with allies and opponents that will challenge their lies (and lead them toward their revelations). If you get stuck, refer back to my Vengeance Road examples in lessons 3.1 and 3.2. Before you begin, make sure you have your Unit One and Two worksheets handy so that you can reference your notes.
Download Unit Three Worksheet
Time to put it all together…
You’ve done it! You’ve successfully outlined your hero’s character arc! Don’t believe me? Grab your earlier worksheets and record your opponent/hero clashes, the attacks by ally, and hero revelations on top of the standard three act structure. (A Vengeance Road example is included for guidance.)
Download Final Worksheet
Character arcs can be so tricky to nail. Even when using the methods outlined in this workshop, I personally require lots of brainstorming and revision to execute/polish my character arcs. But by focusing on the revelations my hero must have in order to reject their lies, I can, in a sense, reverse-engineer their growth. Having that roadmap upfront—at least for me—is invaluable.
Whether you’ve used the information in this workshop to help you develop a new story idea or tackle a revision of an existing novel, I hope you’ve learned something that makes planning and plotting your hero’s character growth less painful. Perhaps even fun! I can only hope you’ve had some “ah-ha” moments of clarity as you worked through the lessons—some personal revelations, so to speak!
If you get stuck down the road executing your hero’s arc, please remember to return to revelations. What does your hero believe about the world? How is this thinking flawed or untrue? What must happen for the hero to reject these lies and where can conflict with other characters push the hero to see the light.
Revelations influence character and character drives plot. It’s all intertwined.
Happy writing, friends.
In this video, I answer popular questions that come up during Unit Three. It is best watched after reading through all the lessons.