When a character is siloed off from the main plot, they drag the rest of the story down. It’s harder for audiences to care about a character whose actions don’t influence the central conflict, so that character’s sections quickly become a chore. Worse, if the siloed character ends up saving the day in the end, their contribution often feels unearned and random. This mistake is especially common in new writers who haven’t learned the trick of balancing a big cast, but it can happen to pros too. Let’s take a look at some characters who did save the day and see what they should have done instead.
Spoiler Notice: A Song of Ice and Fire, Jade City, Stranger Things, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, The Broken Earth, and The Skin Map.
1. Daenerys, A Song of Ice and Fire
The main plot of A Song of Ice and Fire is determining who will sit on the Iron Throne and rule Westeros, with a supernatural threat building in the background. The major characters are either claimants to the throne or closely connected to them. For the early books at least, they all reside in Westeros because that’s where the action is.
All except Daenerys Targaryen, anyway. She spends her time on the world’s other continent, and she’s still there as of book five. At first, it seems that Daenerys is still related to the struggle for power in Westeros because she’s part of a plot to raise an army and reclaim the Iron Throne for her family. The Westerosi nobles even send an assassin after her! Unfortunately, that connection quickly fades as Daenerys gets entangled with the Dothraki and other residents of her continent.
That’s how the story proceeds for five books. Most of the characters are fighting and dying in Westeros while Daenerys is off having adventures on the other side of the world. In theory, these adventures are all a buildup to her triumphant return home, but it takes a long time. Even if she were to finally make the journey in the next book,* it would be too late. She’ll be an interloper, intruding on relationships and enmities that have built up over years in both fictional and real time.
By the end of book five, it’s not even clear why Daenerys still wants to take the Iron Throne. She’s having trouble governing the territory she already has. She’s even had an entire arc about how she can’t just conquer a place and move on; she needs to take responsibility for making things better. It’s difficult to believe that after all that, she’ll just pull up stakes and move to a different continent.
How to Fix It
The most straightforward option for addressing Daenerys’s problem is to bring her back to Westeros sooner. That’s where the main action is, as well as all the other characters. If it’s important for her not to appear like a contender for the throne until later, she could hide as someone else’s retainer in the meantime. We’d lose out on some worldbuilding, but that’s probably a good thing. The series has enough to remember with just Westeros; it doesn’t need a second continent’s worth of trivia.
If we want to keep Daenerys where she is, things are going to become more difficult. She still needs to feel related to what’s happening in Westeros somehow, even if she’s not physically present. One option would be for her to have agents working to secure the throne for her return. She would control these agents through raven-delivered messages, and her actions would all be focused on making sure they succeed. This would be easier if the other characters had offshore interests as well. The books have some of this already, but it’s always in the background and never feels very important. That would change if Daenerys’s chapters were about her lobbying the Braavos Bank not to grant the Lannisters another loan. This scenario paints Daenerys as more of a mastermind than she currently is, but sometimes characters have to be modified to make the plot work.
2. Anden, Jade City
The main plot of Jade City is a brutal gang war between the Mountain and No Peak clans on the island of Kekon. To make things more exciting, the warriors of both clans have magical martial arts at their disposal, not to mention machine guns. Three of the main characters are important people in the No Peak clan. They lead negotiations, fight on the front lines, and make plans behind the scenes.
The fourth character is Anden, and he doesn’t do any of those things. Instead, he spends most of the book in the neutral territory of a magic martial arts academy. He’s briefly kidnapped at one point, but other than that, his chapters have almost nothing to do with the war. He goes to class, practices his powers, studies for the final exam, and worries that he doesn’t fit in because of his foreign heritage. He also spends a lot of time thinking about how his mother got addicted to her magic powers, resulting in her death. He worries that the same thing might happen to him.
If you’re thinking this is a lot of development for a side character, you’re not alone. Anden only joins the main plot at the very end, when the other characters need his special power to defeat an enemy. After this fight, he becomes convinced that he’s getting addicted to his magic, and he dramatically swears it off along with his allegiance to the clan. That’s why the book spends so much time on him even though he does nothing important: we needed the context for his big exit at the end.
Unfortunately, Anden’s change of heart falls flat because it has nothing to do with what we’ve been reading until this point. The other characters were risking their lives throughout the story, so it’s hard to sympathize with Anden leaving the clan after just one incident. Instead, he comes off as more than a little childish.
How to Fix It
Ironically, Jade City has another side character who is only important because of their special power. Her name is Wen, and we can use her as a model. Unlike Anden, Wen doesn’t have her own point of view. We only see her through the eyes of the main characters, and she’s only important in how she relates to them. Near the end, that relationship compels her to take on a risky assignment that only she can do because of her power.
That’s the perfect model for a side character. Anden could have been established through the POV of his cousin Hilo, No Peak’s best warrior and one of the other three protagonists. Hilo already visits Anden on several occasions, and those visits are all that would be required to foreshadow Anden’s special power for later use. Since Jade City is the first book of a series, Anden’s concerns over magic addiction could have been saved for the sequel, where there was time to develop him in a way that was actually relevant.
3. Eleven, Stranger Things Season 2
The first season of Stranger Things is a sublime execution of storytelling skill. The writers manage to balance a huge cast within the same plot, as different groups of characters investigate the same problem from different angles. Then season two came out, and the balance shifted. It’s bad enough when Nancy and Jonathan go off on a side quest to get someone fired for their friend’s death. But it’s worse for everyone’s favorite telekinetic, Eleven.
Eleven spends most of the second season cooped up in a cabin far away from the action. She only has contact with one other character, and their interactions are more about him than her. Eventually, she leaves town entirely to spend an entire episode having side adventures with a group of characters who are even less related to the plot than she is. She then makes her triumphant return to defeat the big bad and save everyone – the end.
That’s hardly satisfying. Even though Eleven is an established character, she’s so disconnected in season two that her appearance in the finale feels like a deus ex machina. She’s barely had anything to do with this season’s big bad, so her victory feels unearned. Combine that with audience disappointment over her absence from the rest of the season, and you have a major letdown.
It’s pretty clear why this happens: Eleven is too powerful. She can vanquish any obstacle with just the power of her mind, so it’s difficult to challenge her. In the first season, the writers managed her power by making sure she never had all the information she needed to solve a problem and by limiting the control she had over her abilities. Neither of those options were available in season two, so she was siloed off on her own.
How to Fix It
The problem of Eleven’s power is a difficult one to overcome. The best solution would have been to make her less powerful back in season one, but for this exercise, we’ll accept that we can’t change what happened in previous seasons. Given that, we need a way for Eleven to be present but unable to solve every problem the other characters come across.
My favorite way to accomplish this is to have Eleven trapped in the Upside Down, the way we thought she was at the end of season one. That way, she can be in constant danger, needing all her powers just to survive. To keep her linked with the other characters, we can give her the ability to briefly project her power across the veil. She can use this ability to help the other kids out of a jam, but it would have to come at a major price so she doesn’t do it all the time. In this scenario, the other kids can figure out how to bring her back and her triumphant return will actually feel earned.
4. Hohenheim, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
The main characters of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood* are the brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric. For the early seasons, one mystery constantly hangs over their heads: What happened to their father, Hohenheim? They don’t think he’s dead, but all they know for sure is that he left their mother without explanation. Why he left and what he’s been doing since then are open questions.
There’s a brief red herring that Hohenheim might be the villain, but we quickly learn this isn’t true. So when the boys finally meet their dad, of course they ask him what the heck he’s been doing that was so important he had to abandon their family. He doesn’t answer, and they immediately drop the subject, as if they didn’t really want to know.
For the rest of the show, Hohenheim wanders around the country, occasionally popping up long enough to say hello to another character. He gets a lot of screen time considering that he isn’t doing anything, and he spends most of it musing on his inner angst about being immortal. He even has an entire clip show episode devoted to his angst! All this time spent away from the main plot makes Hohenheim feel like a distraction.
Eventually, we learn that on his wanderings, Hohenheim was setting up a network of spells* to help take down the big boss. This took so long that he had to start when Ed and Al were little kids. That’s cool, but it’s delivered just a few episodes from the end. By then it’s too late; Hohenheim has already wasted our time. Plus, the explanation feels contrived. If that’s what he was doing, why didn’t he tell his sons?
How to Fix It
To address this problem, we first need a cover for Hohenheim’s secret spellwork that feels satisfying even before we get the reveal. Perhaps the villains have been hunting him, and he’s stayed away from his family to keep them safe. If we want a more active cover, then perhaps he’s been hunting for the ingredients necessary to maintain his immortality spell, something that takes all of his time. He needed to do that so he could stay alive long enough to help his sons take down the big bad. Then we can reveal that he was also setting up anti-villain spells.
Next, we need a reason for Hohenheim to hide the real plan from his sons. Perhaps he knows the villain can spy on them, and he doesn’t want to tip his hand. Alternatively, since this is TV, it’s possible he could just tell them without telling the audience. That wouldn’t work in most written stories because the reader expects to know what the character knows, but there’s no specific POV in visual mediums.
5. Nassun, The Obelisk Gate
In the first book of the Broken Earth series, protagonist Essun is trying to find her kidnapped daughter, Nassun. In the midst of an apocalypse, Essun crosses half a continent before finally giving up the chase. In book two, The Obelisk Gate, Essun has settled down to protect a small town and learn the magic she needs to save the world. Her chapters are a mix of local politics and sorcerous training.
Meanwhile, The Obelisk Gate gives us Nassun as a POV character. She never actually appeared in the first book, so this is her introduction. Her chapters are spent placating an abusive father* and learning to control her dangerous powers. Both activities are extremely traumatic, especially when Nassun accidentally kills her closest friend with a newfound power. It’s clear that Nassun’s experiences are putting her on a downward spiral. What’s not clear is what any of this has to do with Essun.
Remember, Essun has given up looking for her daughter. The story told us in no uncertain terms that it was more important for Essun to learn new magic so she can save the world. Nassun’s chapters have nothing to do with Essun’s plot, and we’re not attached to Nassun from the previous book, so they feel like a waste of time. In fact, they can be incredibly frustrating. Just when it seems Essun is about to make some progress in her training, the story will cut away to Nassun. It feels like Nassun’s chapters are just there to run out the clock until the real action can start in book three.
Near the very end, we finally get something that links the two plots: a villain shows up and recruits Nassun to destroy the world with the same magic Essun is learning to save it. This is better than nothing, but it’s not nearly enough, and it just reinforces that most of Nassun’s chapters were spent waiting for something to happen. They feel like a giant info dump rather than a part of the story.
How to Fix It
The problem with Nassun is that she’s not doing anything related to the protagonist. The fastest way to fix that would be to recruit her to team evil at the beginning of the book rather than the end. That way, we at least know there’s a point to all the times Nassun is traumatized learning her powers. Nassun wouldn’t even have to know she was training to help the bad guys. The series is written in an unusual type of omniscient narration, so it would have been simple to inform the reader while preserving the character’s ignorance.
Alternatively, if Essun were still searching for her daughter, then Nassun’s chapters would feel more relevant. Essun’s town politics would probably have to be cut in this scenario, but she could still train in world-saving magic. Heck, we could even keep the politics if she were traveling with a big caravan for protection.
6. Kit and Wilhelmina, The Skin Map
This novel opens with protagonist Kit discovering that he can cross the dimensional barrier and visit alternate Earths. He immediately brings his girlfriend, Wilhelmina, along for a trip in the hopes of revitalizing their flagging relationship. This doesn’t work out, and the two are separated. Kit goes on an adventure to recover a powerful artifact, while Wilhelmina is stuck trying to establish a coffee shop in 17th-century Prague. They only reconvene at the end, after Wilhelmina coincidently overhears information about how to reach Kit and rescue him from a jam.
Based on this description, it sounds like Wilhelmina is the one being siloed off, right? Turns out it’s more complicated than that. Kit is theoretically the main character, but he lacks agency. He spends most of his chapters being led around by the nose, and his ultimate goal is confusing. It’s difficult to understand why the artifact he’s looking for is so important, or why he needs to keep anyone else from getting it.
Meanwhile, Wilhelmina has the concrete, understandable goal of needing to make money. Her method for accomplishing that goal is also easy to understand, if difficult to execute: introduce coffee to Prague. Most importantly, she has agency. Despite being stuck in an alternate past, she makes decisions for herself instead of just following what someone else wants. Her chapters aren’t perfect by any means, especially when her successes start to feel unearned, but they’re far more compelling than what Kit is doing.
In The Skin Map, we have the unusual situation of two characters being equally siloed, and it’s hard to say which of them is more important. Kit follows the main plot, but Wilhelmina’s story is much more thought out. It feels like that’s where the author’s passion went, so it’s hard to see Kit as the main character.
How to Fix It
The most obvious solution for The Skin Map is to split it into two unrelated stories. Kit and Wilhelmina barely interact in this book, and they certainly don’t need each other for character development. Then the author could focus on giving Kit some agency and providing appropriate challenges for Wilhelmina.
If we have to keep both characters and their respective plots, then the best option is to combine them. Kit and Wilhelmina could end up in 17th-century Prague together and use it as a home base for the dimensional hopping quest. The coffee shop story could be adapted into a subplot where they have to make money to afford housing and gear for their expeditions. That might still be a little crowded, but it’s better than the characters having nothing to do with each other.
When a character is siloed into a separate story, it usually means their sections will be less engaging because the storyteller puts more work into the main plot. But even when a siloed character is entertaining in their own right, it’s still a problem. The audience is still having to consume two seemingly unrelated stories in parallel, and what if they like the siloed character better? Then the audience spends the rest of the story bored, hoping for a glimpse of their favorite character. Stories should be a machine of many parts, and all those parts must work toward the same goal.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?