Life doesn’t occur in a vacuum, and neither should your character’s life. Novels should be populated with realistic people who have backgrounds, hidden baggage, skeletons in the closet–all the cliches that make “life” life and dictate personality development. Secondary and minor characters’ lives affect your MC’s life, make it more interesting and give it depth. Weaving life into your story world is one of the purposes of subplots.
Subplots add a sense of community to your setting–a sense of life going on, surrounding your character, involving her, occurring while she does other things, complicating or enhancing her plans. They add depth to your story and are created for a variety of purposes. Jessica Page Morrell’s article “Adding Depth to Your Story Through Subplots” (Writer’s Digest, March/April 2013) gives several reasons to include subplots in your work.
In Give the Lady a Ride, Marie and Chance are the main characters in the subplot. Since they’re secondary characters, much of what developed between them occurs behind the scenes. They rapidly fell head over heels for each other, which served as a strong contrast to both Talon’s and Patricia’s (the main characters) reluctance to walk that line again. It also served as the catalyst to getting those two together. Marie’s behind-the-scenes conversion prompted Patricia to think about her own relationship with the Lord. The secondary characters impact the main characters, but they have a relationship and a story history of their own.
The subplot in my work-in-progress, Corporate Ladder, serves a different purpose. One of the things I need to do with Debra Chandler is to show her becoming driven, obsessed with earning more, climbing higher, gaining more power. So far, I’ve told her story entirely through her POV, and I can continue to show her personality change this way. But to enhance the illustration, to show how her obsession affects others, I decided to develop a subplot. The events in the subplot occur entirely behind the scenes and have little to do with her directly. Early in the novel, these events will seem inconsequential, but as the story continues, the reader will be able to see how sharply Debra has changed by how she reacts them.
I just recently realized how perfectly a subplot would work in Corporate Ladder, and since I’m an SOTP writer, I have to go back through and begin the weaving process to get it in and begin developing it. That’s an important thing to remember about subplots: you want them well woven so when they smack into the main plot, they’ll be natural and expected. They can’t exist simply for the purpose of propping up your word count. They have to serve a purpose and enhance the story line somehow. Like Morrell said in her article, “If a subplot can be removed without creating a hole in the story, it is not needed.”
It’s good to know exactly where to begin your subplot, how to develop it at a pace that best benefits the main plot, when to present its impact on the main character, and when to bring it to a conclusion. The more subplots you have, the more you have to keep up with the strings you’ll need to tie off later–but the more depth you’ll have to your novel.
And we all want our novels to have more depth!