Picture successful fiction as a kind of solar system: around a central star which is the theme or governing idea of a piece of work orbit planets which represent the images, characters, objects and events in a story.
Remove the governing idea, and everything else in the story flies off into the void; remove the planets and you have an idea, floating in space but without life or motion. Some writers have fewer problems coming up with images - protagonists, villains, events, episodes, and so on - but frequently struggle with finding a governing idea strong enough to pull everything else into shape. Other writers develop powerful central themes but lack the imagination to populate their solar systems with living, breathing entities or incidents.
However, when writers can do both, we find something quite uncanny taking place: the central theme or idea does not pull everything else into orbit in a random manner, but in a fashion which is remarkably universal across almost all forms of fiction. Below is an attempt to summarise this underlying design, which is obviously something that could (and will) be studied at greater length elsewhere, but which is covered to some degree in the book How Stories Really Work.
The analogy is a useful and potent one. To grasp it, we have to understand that a successful story is a motion towards the Idea (or set of Ideas) at its heart. This is a centripetal motion, a force pulling the reader’s attention closer and closer to the ‘sun’ or core of the whole thing. Once the reader has accepted, or opened up to, or embraced the author’s theme, the work of the story is done. However, just as many people go on holiday each year to the same beach in order to soak up the sun’s rays, a great story almost compels readers to return and to follow its path to that same warm heart where time after time the story’s rewards pour down upon us.
Fascinatingly, weak fiction mainly consists of a centrifugal motion, a movement towards an ‘outer darkness’ in which the reader, uncaptivated by any central pull, is instead pushed away. What we object to in stories is this outward motion; what we love in stories is the pull towards a centre, no matter what that centre might be: even the bleakest tragedy, the most chilling irony, will tug us remorselessly towards its core, if these factors are in place.
The first ‘planet’ in orbit around the Idea at the heart of any successful work of fiction is, almost by definition, that which is closest to the Idea in its nature. In an astonishingly large amount of fiction, this is what we shall call a comic companion - a figure in the story whose integrity hardly ever falters, and whose task it is, throughout the tale, to assist everything else that happens to move towards the author’s Idea. We see this in Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings, in R2-D2 in Star Wars, in Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations, in the cartoon companions in Disney films, in the wise-cracking assistants of a thousand thousand protagonists in plays, films and novels all over the world.
This ‘comic companion’ doesn’t have to be a representation of a person - it is anything in a tale which directly and intensively opens the door onto the Idea or Theme at the story’s heart. It is, in effect, that symbol, form, motif or even word which comes closest to what the author is trying to say. Interestingly, Mercury, the first planet out from the sun, was also the Roman god of communication and comedy.
One orbit outward from that we encounter another fascinating representation - that figure (or object or image or motif) which most symbolises a dichotomy. In other words, here we find the things in a story which capture the notion of the author’s central message and its direct opposite, combined into a single shape or form. In a great many stories - so many that the pattern is breathtaking in itself - this is, in character terms, a female companion. Here we find Eowyn from The Lord of the Rings, or Princess Leia, or Estella and Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, or the Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or a further million examples. In some stories - notably in comedies and ironies - these figures take a central role, becoming protagonists, but in the great majority of stories they are associates of the hero, who is male. Depending on what the author is trying to achieve, therefore, these figures play varying roles: they either unite with a hero in order to accomplish the author’s purpose, or they fail or perish in some way, also in order to accomplish the author’s (darker) purpose. As figures in themselves, more often than not their chief characteristic is an inner darkness or void which is normally filled through marriage, or not at all, depending on what the author’s message is. Trace out the fate of any female companion in any successful work of fiction and you will be astounded by the similarities with other works. It is as though we are observing some kind of universal second planet from the sun, a cosmic Venus.
One step out from the author’s ‘theme sun’ brings us to the protagonist. In most stories, this is a male figure, who carries a wound or loss or deficiency of some kind at the beginning of the story. He is sufficiently removed from the author’s message to stand as an independent figure, but is adequately blessed by that message so that he doesn’t become a symbol of darkness. This is the third planet from the sun, Earth: close enough to its star to possess Life.
Here things get even more intriguing: in our solar system, the Earth is orbited in turn by the Moon, and in successful fiction, the protagonist is often ‘orbited’ by a darker sub-figure, the shadow protagonist - this character possesses similar attributes to the hero, but has made different choices and has usually ended up as a grimmer version of the lead character. This is Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, or Darth Vader in Star Wars; this is Orlick or Bentley Drummle in Great Expectations, or any number of minor villains in any number of works.
But, continuing our movement away from the sun, we come to Mars. In fiction, this is the warrior companion, whose chief motion is to emerge from the shadows into a leadership role: think Aragorn, think Hans Solo, think Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird, think Sirius Black in Harry Potter. And that bridges us nicely over into the next planetary role, the kingly world of Jupiter, as represented by any of these martial characters once they are fully developed.
Lurking on the edges of the solar system come other figures: the wise old man with the stick (a representation of Saturn in olden times) and, almost in the void, the worlds of Uranus and Pluto. Of the old man with the stick, little needs to be said: Gandalf, Obi-Wan, Merlin, Dumbledore, Atticus… these characters are symbols of wisdom, gatekeepers of their authors’ central intentions who stand on the edge of night and point the way to the sun which forms the line of the quest that is the heart of the plot.
The dark zones beyond them are furthest from the author’s visible Idea: they are represented in stories by the villain, the antagonist who opposes the hero at every step, whose urge is to defy the author’s core values and to wrench the whole work into an outer darkness, the opposite of what the author has planned. This is why an antagonist opposes a protagonist - yes, of course, through the mechanics of a tale a villain opposes a hero, but on this level we are talking about a cosmic battle between centripetal and centrifugal forces. Sauron doesn’t just seek to frustrate Gandalf’s plans, he desires a darkened world; any villain has irrational designs to destroy which are usually counterpointed by the author’s core themes - or, if the story is a dark one, the sunlight fails and the story ends in night.
Each great work of fiction thus forms its own solar system: the rational Idea burns at its heart, and is approached through these circles of symbolic figures and objects. The interaction of these ‘planets’ is what produces the scenes, chapters and episodes of the tale - but amazingly, you will find the planets there, wherever you look.