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“If you’re going to have a character appear in a story long enough to sell a newspaper, he’d better be real enough that you can smell his breath.” ~ Ford Madox Ford
Minor characters are too often faceless walk-ons in fiction. But that means the writer has missed a chance to create reality and complexity. ~Jessica Morrell
Here’s how it’s done in Paulette Jiles dystopian novel Lighthouse Island that takes place in the Pacific Northwest. This scene features two minor characters her protagonist Nadia Stepan is about to meet. Problem is, she’s on the lam in a hideous, nightmare society and the authorities are searching for her. And she’s an outlaw in a desiccated, chaotic world where danger lurks everywhere and the underclass people are perishing from thirst and deprivation. The government is a diabolical network of agencies that inflict senseless cruelty on most of its citizens while the one percent live in luxury.
The first character Nadia will meet for only a few minutes, the second one actually saves her and she spends maybe 5 minutes with him. Nadia’s trying to bluff her way out of capture–something she’s good at. At least so far.
Notice how Jiles instills them with just enough realism to underline their purpose. Notice how she manages this trick with only a few economical words.
Okay. The officer had tissue-engineered jaws square as a brick and eyes of two different colors and a scorpion tattoo on his neck. She saw him hesitate and so she turned and walked away down the narrow street and the biscuit-colored buildings of concrete whose dim and broken windows stared at each other across the pavement.
A hand shut on her elbow and shoved her forward. Nadia turned. A stout Forensics officer stared straight ahead and pushed her on. His gray hair shone short and clean under an old-fashioned watch cap with a bill and his body smelled of sweat and hot uniform cloth. She started to say something, to invent an objection and a story but he said Shut up. He was not much taller than she was but there was something about him of that proctor in high school so long ago but more unwavering and quiet.
Here are some tips for making minor characters count:
- Anchor them to a time and place–a street cop, a waitress, a lounge singer, a Wall Street executive.
- Give them at least one memorable characteristic. Mismatched eyes. Purple hair. A synthetic smile. Nasty yellow teeth. Vomit breath.
- Create an interaction, however brief–a taxi ride, an insult or accusation, asking for directions, buying a coffee.
Nadia sneaks into the Ritz Carlton and makes it to the elevator. A guard came up. His uniform was sweaty and the hem of his pants legs were leaking threads like a fringe. He smiled at her.
All right, all right, he said. What floor?
- Don’t worry about introducing them–they can simply appear.
Emergency workers in orange coveralls came running through the dust scrim and shouted at her to go back but she walked on toward them. The telephone poles were down and electrical wires curled in the rubble.
- Imbue them with meaning to your protagonist. In Nadia’s world—guards, troops, cops are the enemy. And they’re everywhere.
- Give them a voice if possible.
In a crowd of people who had lined up for something she saw a woman with a toddler in one arm.
Cute kid! Nadia said and slipped the badge into the toddler’s baggy pants.
The woman glared at her. Get one of your own, she said.
- Pretend that you’re walking into a room and seeing your character for the first time.
- What are your first impressions?
- Can you feel the force of his or her personality? Does he or she remind you of a celebrity? Or someone you know?
- It’s not all about the specifics of appearances—some people arrive on the scene full of confidence, some are hesitant or nervous. Why? Some people stand erect, some slouch. Some have lovely voice qualities, some people bray. Some wear too much cologne, some smell of fresh air or machine oil. Use clothes, setting, and possessions, including large possessions such as cars to reveal characters.
What to AVOID!
Avoid thumbnail sketches or police blotter descriptions whenever a new character steps into your book.
(The suspect was a Latino male, 6 feet, medium build, scar on the left cheek, a tattoo of a snake on the right shoulder, wearing a black jacket, jeans, and sneakers).
This technique tends to feel contrived especially if used too often.
Also, a character doesn’t need to be described all at once, you can layer his or her appearance into the story in increments.
Avoid heavy-handed effects and characterizations. You want enough nuance to make the reader pay close attention and to enjoy discerning subtle clues. Find ways to insert subtext—the unspoken, between-the-lines innuendo.
Avoid piling it on. Here is an example of what not to do:
“Allison, a 30-something, 5 foot 8 redhead, with heavily-mascaraed blue eyes and legs for days strolled into the restaurant her green eyes flashing. Her hair was shoulder-length, her figure striking, her fingernails painted a garish purple. She wore what looked like a real mink jacket over a tight, black dress and teetered on dangerously high heels.”
A character doesn’t need to be described all at once. Instead, try to layer details in throughout the story in increments—as one might adjust the seasonings while cooking. It is better to err on the side of less than too much. You can always add a little more “spice” if needed…
Here is the link to Part One of MINOR CHARACTERS – the SPICE of FICTION
Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart. Jessica
Jessica Morrell is a top-tier developmental editor and a contributor to Chanticleer Reviews Media and to the Writer’s Digest magazine. She teaches Master Writing Craft Classes at the Chanticleer Authors Conference that is held annually along with teaching at Chanticleer writing workshops that are held throughout the year.
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