Who IS This? Making Minor Characters Useful


Last week Nailing Down The Essentials continued the Character Development Series with Heroes. I’d planned to talk about the Heroine today, but home life has been incredibly busy (also the reason I’m so late getting this post up), and a post for less significant characters took far less thought than one for a main character. So, this week, it’s minor characterd.

Hotel clerk, bar tender, cab driver, friend of a friend. Anyone can be a minor character in your novel – it’s an equal opportunity career. The minor character is one who is only present for a short time in the story. They can make one appearance, or several, but the reader doesn’t see much of them. They often have a vital bit of information to pass on to the protagonists, and when they accomplish that, they can disappear. Some hang around a little longer to take care of less important tasks, but they don’t get a great deal of attention.

The temptation is to bring the character into the scene, let him do his job and leave, without bothering to do more than name him, if we even do that much. The trouble with that approach is, it can minimize the importance of the character’s job to the reader, causing her to miss something important.

A moment’s more work can add new layers of significance to whichever conflict the minor character is part of, and even introduce the potential for more conflict and tension. Suddenly, this one-off character can reveal some aspect of the protagonist’s (or antagonist’s) personality that we may not even have been aware of. The reader’s experience will be richer, the other characters more multidimensional, and the plot can become more complex.

How do we achieve this miracle? Simple. Give the character 2 or 3 unique traits, and reveal those traits judiciously. Put a couple minutes’ thought into the traits, and into how you can get the most mileage out of them.

In Blood Dragon, Kiellen’s mission is to find Jaden after her friends reported her missing. He goes to the motel her friends say she intended to check in to with the man she met at the nightclub. The clerk brings out facets of Kiellen’s personality the reader hasn’t seen yet.

The clerk is young, and insolent, which reveals Kiellen’s impatience in dealing with humans. His tension escalates as the clerk takes his sweet time answering questions. In a scant hint of foreshadowing, Kiellen begins to wonder why his emotions are surfacing with this mission. With his habit of emotional distance from his missions, dealing with anger and frustration while trying to keep a clear head is new, and frustrating as well, introducing a new source of inner conflict.

Of course, I could have revealed all that in other ways. But the clerk provided the opportunity, and to have wasted it would have simplified Kiellen. I could have used another trait for the clerk to either reveal more about Kiellen, or the plot, but I chose not to. Too much of even a good thing can ruin the story.

Give it a shot. Write a scene where your Hero and Heroine are out to dinner. Have the waiter flirt openly with the Heroine, while sneaking snide remarks. Using the Hero’s point-of-view, explore his reactions to this insignificant character. Does he realize he’s jealous? Try to hide that fact from the Heroine? How else does he react to his jealousy? How does the Heroine react? Perhaps this is where the Hero begins to realize he has feelings for the Heroine?

The key to using minor characters this way is striking the balance between giving them enough significance that the reader notices what they do, without making them seem more important than they are.

How do you use minor characters? Do you make them stand out, or just let them fade into the setting?

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Happy 2012!!!

It’s finally here! January 1st!

Happy Birthday, 2012!

My family experienced a great deal in 2011. Some very good stuff, some not-so-good stuff, and lots of just stuff. In the past few weeks, I found myself reflecting on it all. From my current perspective, the good outweighs the not-so-good, and for that, I’m profoundly grateful. As the year closes, my loved ones are relatively healthy, safe, and happy, with enough. I’m sorry more people can’t say that.

As I contemplated what 2012 might hold, I planned a few goals, both personal and professional. I can’t call them New Years Resolutions because in elementary school, we were made to write down 10 Resolutions each year. Because we weren’t taught the significance of a resolution, and it was treated very casually, I promptly forgot them as soon as I turned my paper in. So now, I have that little “homework assignment” connection in my brain, and I haven’t been able to break it, but I always break New Years Resolutions. If I want to follow through and achieve them, I have to call them goals.

So, here we go. First, the personal stuff. It’s a fairly short list, mainly because I’m focused pretty exclusively on my family and on writing. Yup, I’m boring. 😀

  • I want to be more accessible to my family, especially my daughter, who’s going through some pretty intense personal stuff right now, and my little grandsons, who need all the stability and love they can get.
  • I want to be sure the boys have a solid foundation for education, so I’ve started supplemental home-schooling for the eldest, who’s in preschool – nothing intense, but enough that he knows the importance we place on learning. In 2012, I want to expand those efforts into all the developmental areas, and do more focused activities with the middle and youngest boys.
  • I’m a little… shall we say… domestically challenged. I’m pretty good with the laundry and dishes, but I tend to get lax with some things. I want to stay on top of it all, so my house isn’t merely presentable. Over the last few weeks, I’ve worked on eliminating a lot of no longer useful things we’ve accumulated, and getting the remainder organized. I want to finish that, and maintain it. Hubby has always taken care of the essential outdoor work, but a lot of things  have slipped through the cracks. So, that needs to be addressed and dealt with.
  • There are several home repairs/improvements we’ve been dragging our feet on, so one of our family goals is to take care of the most essential of those – new flooring, new rain gutters, and hopefully, a new bathtub.
  • Hubby needs to lose a few pounds, and I have a few extra this year ( I was skinny up until about a year ago when a med change made me gain some), and our whole family needs to eat healthier. Since our daughter and her boys live almost next door, we often eat together, especially if she or I actually cook. The entire family needs a healthier, less meat-centric diet. To that end, D and I both will be cooking more from scratch. We’ll give up some of the time-saving and convenience of packaged prepared foods, but it will be worth it in more ways than one.
  • We all need to get more exercise. My health problems can make “exercise” impossible, so I have to be careful to use daily physical activity to maintain some level of fitness. The rest of the family is capable of intentional fitness building activity, so using the boys’ need for physical activity, and for positive fitness role models, should spur them on. Hey,  I’m not above manipulation, especially for a good cause. 😀

And now, professional stuff. This list is a lot longer, and I had to cut it to keep it reasonable, and hopefully, achievable. There are far too many things I want to accomplish with writing, and I have to force myself to work deliberately toward each goal. Otherwise, I’ll end up with a huge mess, and nothing to show for it. So this list is the result of cutting down the three pages of my original goals.

  • Get Blood Dragon out there, and find a publisher. I’m winding down the last leg of some much needed revisions. There’s been a little interest in it already, so I’m pretty optimistic for it.
  • Get Blood Dragon II finished and out on submission. The first draft is halfway there. Just a couple weeks of my usual 5k/day production will get it done (if I can ever get it together enough to do that consistently again!). So far, it’s my cleanest first draft, so editing will be mainly story level stuff, I think.
  • Rewrite the two trunked Blood Dragon stories and get them on submission. They both have solid stories, but I’ve learned so much since I wrote them. I need to integrate all that before anyone sees them.
  • Finish building the new creature and write the first draft of the foundation book of the series. It’s coming along, slowly, but I haven’t devoted enough time to it. A couple dozen hours of solid work, and it will be fleshed out, with a complete evolutionary and natural history, just waiting to step off the page into your life.
  • Self-publish a few of the short stories sitting on my hard drive, and write more. Currently, I have several contemporary erotic romance shorts, and a couple of horror shorts just sitting here. So, I’ve decided to clean them up a bit, and self-pub them.
  • Post here more consistently, with more interesting, helpful, and thought provoking content. I’ve already started the Writer Wednesday series, Nailing Down the Essentials, where I’ll cover different story elements and techniques, and hopefully how to make the most of them – stuff I wasted a lot of time looking for when I first started writing fiction seriously again. I’m also going to be hosting other writers in an Author Spotlight feature, beginning in mid-January – so watch for some fantastic writers you might not be aware of yet. And I’m planning posts for roughly once a week on pretty random topics, though most will be relevant to readers and writers. I’m working on an overhaul (again) for the blog, which will include some expansions, but I’m not sure when that will go live. Still a lot of work to do.
  • Use Social Media more consistently, building tighter relationships with other writers, and especially with readers. I’m pretty consistent with Twitter, but I need to work on other platforms a bit.
  • I attended my first Writers Conference in April 2011. I want to attend at least 2 in 2012, with at least one of them being a bit larger than the free event in Bowling Green. It was fantastic, with some really useful workshops, and I learned a great deal, but if I’m going to travel several hours and spend 2-3 nights in a hotel, I’d like a little more bang for my buck.
  • And over and through it all, continuously improve my writing and increase my productivity.

I think that’s enough for now, don’t you? Periodically through the coming year, I’ll post an update to let you know what kind of progress I’m making.

What kind of goals and resolutions do you have for 2012? Do you have plans in place for achieving them? Or are they just “I’d like to someday…” things? Do your goals depend on someone else in any way, or are they your sole responsibility?

Come Again?

Last week, for Nailing Down The Essentials, we looked at the actual words the character speaks. This week is about how those words sound. As writers, we want so badly for our readers to hear our characters’ voices as we do, and we often struggle with how best to ensure they do, with mixed results.

The task becomes even more difficult if our characters speak in something other than standard English with a fairly mid-Western accent. If they have a regional accent, or worse, speak an obscure dialect, how can we be sure our readers hear that? And what about speech impediments? Most readers will be familiar with lisps or stutters, but what about other issues, perhaps from a tied tongue, or cleft pallate?

If we write dialogue exactly as our characters speak, we run the risk of the reader not being able to follow. Take Jack for example, from my own WIP, Blood Dragon. He speaks a regional dialect I grew up with – it’s steadily disappearing and was only spoken by a small population to begin with, and is difficult for non-native speakers to understand. This passage:

“Time is running out. They said twenty-four hours. It has been seven and we have nothing. Pain doesn’t do it for her, or she’d have bent a little by now.” 

If I had resorted to phonetic spelling, a technique newer writers may be tempted to fall back on, that passage would look like this:

“Time a’ru’n’ out. ‘ey sa’ twu’y-four ares. ‘s b’n se’n, ‘n ‘e ain’ go’ no’n. Pain ‘on’ do ‘t f’r ‘er, ‘r she’ ‘a’ ben’ a l’ul ‘fo’ now.”

Um. Srsly? You want to subject a reader to deciphering THAT?? Well, I don’t. If my reader has to slow down and try to reason out what my character is saying, my book is going to put a dent in their wall. So, how do I let my reader know he speaks something other than standard English?

First, while I was planning his character, I selected a few words to emphasize his dialect. Supposed became s’posed, probably became prob’ly, get became git. When Jack speaks those words, I use my modified phonetic spelling, but I don’t stop there.

I use his word choices, turns of phrase, and his grammar, to show the reader a little more of his actual speech. I make a couple of references to him being difficult to understand. “His habit of slurring words together and dropping entire syllables made his words nearly unintelligible.”  at one point, when he is speaking to someone unfamiliar with him. I have another character who knows him admonish him to speak correctly. Another frequently asks him to repeat himself. Here is my representation of him speaking that passage:

“Time’s running out. They said twenty-four hours. It’s been seven and we ain’t got nothing. Pain don’t do it for her, or she’d have bent a little by now.” 

My reader won’t hear him exactly as I do, but they’ll have an approximation.

Accents can be treated similarly. Most Americans are at least slightly familiar with a Southern drawl, or a Brooklyn accent. By simply telling the reader that the character has that accent, they get it. We can further show the accent with word choice, and one or two simple phonetic spellings.

My good friend and critique partner, Azure Boone, has a supporting character with a unique speech impediment, and she shows it brilliantly. Jeremy is also developmentally disabled, so she uses his phrasing, grammar, and word choices, to give the reader a sense of what he sounds like. Then she goes one step further, and uses just a couple of words exactly the way he pronounces them. Remember is mamember, and breech (he tells everyone he meets how he was born breech – a stellar technique for showing his personality) is pronounced bleech.

We can give our readers a pretty good representation of what our characters sound like if we use a variety of techniques, and trust the readers to be able to put it all together and interpret what we’re trying to show them.

Practice using all the tools I’ve covered in the last few weeks, formatting, dialog tags, action beats, unique character voice, and, finally, accents. Put them all together, add a little research and your own touch, and your dialog will become more realistic, and make your characters memorable.

This post concludes the dialog portion of Nailing Down the Essentials. Next week, I’ll move on to a different story element. Since I haven’t decided yet, if there’s an aspect of writing you’d like to see covered here, leave a comment. As I’ve said before, I’m no expert, but I’ve picked up a few things. And if it’s something I don’t know enough about to explore here, I’ll research it.

Have you found the dialog series helpful at all? Do you have other techniques to make your dialog stand out?

Six Sentence Sunday 12-18

This week’s Six is a little change of pace. Still from Blood Dragon, this one is from Kiellen’s point-of-view. He and his team have followed the evidence toward Jaden, and finally, they’re on the right track.

Kiellen disconnected and climbed back into the van. “Wake up, sleeping beauties.” His men came awake, fully alert and ready to go. “We got info.” He filled them in on what Adelle told him, then turned to the computer.

Redinger’s face stared back at him from the screen.  

Will they get there in time to save Jaden?

For a list of all this week’s participants, stop by Six Sentence Sunday.

Thursday Throbs 12-15

It’s been a long week, trying to get my family ready for the holidays while also trying to finish revisions for Blood Dragon, and sneak in a little time to continue working on BDII‘s first draft. I really need to come up with a title for that one – getting sick of calling it “BDII“. Oh, yeah, and I’m slowly working on some changes here, too. And I just remembered, I need to send out Christmas cards… Oh, well, you get the idea. I’m sure your week has been just as busy!

So, I took a little eyecandy break and dug up a few pics for you. I’m a some-time tattoo artist, though these days I mostly limit myself to creating the art (and not much of that, too busy), leaving the actual tattooing to my daughter. As a result, I love looking at tattoo pics. It’s even better if the tat is attached to a sexy guy – not a balding, middle-aged, overweight, mid-life crisis dude with stretch marks who’s suddenly decide he’s always wanted ink. Seen enough of those, thank you very much!

These tats have sexy guys attached! Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Six Sentence Sunday 12-11

This week’s Six continues the scene from last week’s. Jaden has fought her captors to keep them from torturing her, only to be knocked unconscious. Now that she’s awake, Jack, Redinger’s assistant, explains what happened.

Jack laughed and stood up. Filth encrusted coveralls sent off a fresh wave of nausea-inducing stink. “That’s my own invention. Redinger’s cattle prod ain’t strong enough to manage vamps, in my opinion.” His habit of dropping entire syllables and running words together made him difficult to understand. “I jerry-rigged one to double the zap – slap it to the base of the spine, and they’re down for the count.”

 

Visit SixSunday.com for the list of all the Six Sentence Sunday participants.

Six Sentence Sunday 12-4

This week’s Six is from another scene, but picks up where we left off, with Jaden unconscious.

Jaden came to, lying on a blanket in the cell. The pain in her back and head made her wish she hadn’t regained consciousness. She tried moving, only to groan aloud and stop.

“Oh, you’re awake.” The nearby voice sounded vaguely familiar.

 A little at a time, she forced her eyes open, wincing as memory flooded back. 

To check out other fabulous writers, visit SixSunday.com for a list of all the Six Sentence Sunday participants.