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?


Absolutely not! I forbid it, young lady! What do you know about this… this… CHARACTER… you’re writing about? Nothing, that’s what! Well, I won’t have it! Before I allow you to write him, you’re going to figure out who he is!

Too much? Really? ‘Cause I didn’t th… Oh well, you get the idea.

Earlier in the week, as I was thinking about how to begin a short series of posts on characters for my Nailing Down The Essentials series, I came across this CuriosityQuills post. The author lays it out far better than I could.

Back in The Good Ole Days…

Way back, when I was a young writer determined to create a best seller, I wrote what I thought were extensive character profiles. Then I spent two decades just dabbling, while I focused on being all I could be as an Army wife, and a mother, and held down a demanding career. When I came back to serious writing a couple of years ago, I’d forgotten about character profiles.

I’m too old to waste time…

Okay, so I’m not ancient. 🙂 But, at 44, there are so many things I want to accomplish. I don’t mind taking the time to do something right, or to savor experiences. But wasting time, especially mine, really irks me.

I started writing my first weredragon novel with not much more than a vague physical description for Van, the hero. Really BIG mistake. I had no idea how or why he would act, what he might think or do in certain situations. I didn’t even know whether he was gay or straight, or what he liked. As a result, I spent a great deal of time writing scenes that didn’t ring true, and trashing them.

In frustration, I took another approach, that also wasted time and words. Every time I needed to make a decision about him (Was he modest, or comfortable with his body?), I wrote a scene justifying the decision (Slightly modest, as a result of his cousin’s cruel teasing when they were adolescents). I ended up writing dozens of scenes that I knew I would never use, but to be sure my decision rang true to his character, I wasn’t sure what else to do.

Why write character profiles?

Some writers might be able to write complex, multi-dimensional characters beginning with only the vaguest of details, and manage to keep every moment real. They make all those bits and pieces cement into characters that are more real and consistent than your college roommate. I can’t do it, though.

These days, I get to know my characters pretty thoroughly before writing the first word of the book, as part of my outline process. I’m not talking about their physical descriptions, or the list of events that make up their lives. I’m talking about the series of experiences that turned them into the people they are. I’m talking about WHY they make the choices they do, and react to certain situations the way they do.

When I know WHY, I can be sure all my characters’ decisions and actions will be realistic for them, that they will be consistent and multi-dimensional. After I point them in the general direction I want them to go, I can trust them to take care of the WHAT and HOW. It becomes their story. The events fit the character, rather than the character changing at the whim of the events.

Getting to know the stranger

HOW do I get to know them so well? Well, the process changes a bit with every new character. First, I decide the superficial stuff, but that could just as easily come after. The physical description, and things like: sex, age, race, profession, birth family structure, location, and etc., are pretty basic and generic.

Then we get to the hard parts. I write their backstory by first dividing their lives up to the present into stages – infancy, early childhood, childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, adulthood (sub-divided into regular intervals, depending on age, decades, half-centuries, centuries, and etc.), and if necessary, middle-age and old-age, subdivided in the same way as adulthood. For each of those stages/intervals, I write two influential memories, one good, one bad – just a brief little scene overview that can be fleshed out further if necessary.

My vampire’s having a rough day

For a one-hundred and fifty year old female vampire, I would write one good and one bad significant memory for infancy, early childhood, childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, and adulthood. The second interval of adulthood would begin at fifty years old, then one hundred, then each decade thereafter.

Maybe her old brother threw her down the well when she was six, and now she fears water and cramped spaces, after spending thirty six terrifying hours in the well waiting to be rescued. So, she isn’t going to willingly explore the narrow cave that’s actually a tunnel leading to the bad guy’s compound. She’ll need serious motivation, and no alternatives, to go there.

Since I know that, I know that when the bad guy’s henchmen try to force her into the cave at gunpoint, she’s going to fight hard, because she fears the cramped, dark, and damp cave far more than she fears a gunshot wound. I need her to get in that cave, though, so after she kicks the henchmen’s collective ass, I have to throw something else at her, something worse than the cave.

The vampire bounty hunter, with orders to bring her head to the bad guy, bursts into the clearing at the mouth of the cave. Enough? No, maybe she’ll take her chances and fight him too. Let’s add to it. The bounty hunter’s two assistants are with him. And the love of her life will die a permanent death in less than one hour unless she finds a way to save him. Maybe. Oh, and she has the secret weapon, the only thing on earth that can kill the bad guy and ensure her, and her lover’s, survival. She darts into the cave.

Adding it up

If I hadn’t known about the well incident, I might have sent her bravely forth into the cave, even after an earlier scene hinted at her fear. The phobia wouldn’t have been integral to who she is, just a passing fear. We’d have missed that kick-ass fight scene, and the additional conflicts and complications. The character would have been less complex, less real. Each of those memories can be used to add additional facets to the character, and new conflict or resolution to the story.

I don’t stop developing the character when the memories are written. I also create a short story for each main character, just a couple of pages, summarizing the story from their point of view, as if they are THE main character. This takes care of each character’s agenda and motivation as it fits within the larger picture of the whole story.

Now, not only do I know my character quite well, I know how she’s going to react to each situation. I know what else I need to throw at her, for the story to have the kind of impact I want it to have, while being logical and realistic for my character. She’ll be a multi-dimensional person, rather than just blinding going along the road I set for her, overcoming obstacles and making the changes I think she should. She’ll think and feel, and change on her own, and her character arc will feel natural and organic to the reader. She will have a REASON to be in the story.

Yeah, it took extra work at the front end, but it saved countless hours of floundering around trying to get characters to do things that don’t fit their personalities. The result is that I’m writing the story to fit the character, rather than writing a character to simply plug in to the story.

What do you do to get to know your characters before you start writing? Or do you jump in with little more than a vague idea what the character looks like?

Six Sentence Sunday

My memory’s like a sieve – forgot to post last week. 😀

This week’s Six is from Blood Dragon, from the same scene as the past several Six posts. Jaden fought back when Redinger tried to force her into a chair built for torture. She has knocked him unconscious here, and needs to make a decision.

Should she take the time to feed from Redinger? Would the boost to her strength be worth the risk of delaying her escape? Probably not. Better to just get the hell out of the ware-

Soul shattering pain hit the base of her spine. Her muscles refused to fight, and she dropped to the floor as everything went black.

Excerpt Party!

The members of my blogging network are having an Excerpt Party today! Unfortunately, I missed the posting deadline to participate officially. If you’re looking for something new to read, search #excerptparty on Twitter and check out the postings of a bunch of amazing writers.

Even though I’m not participating officially, I’ve decided to go ahead and put up an excerpt – more than my Six Sentence Sunday posts.

The following is from the first draft of Blood Dragon II, Chapter 2. The point-of-view character in this scene is an involuntary antagonist, forced to go along with his brother’s plans. All the antagonist scenes in this story are told from his POV.

* A word of warning before you read: This passage is from a first draft, and is still unedited, except for a quick spell check.


Cam Darcy was getting sick of waiting. His sore knee was stiff as hell, and he wanted nothing more than to get out of the car and stretch his legs. He ran his hand through his short hair. Needed to get the shit cut again before the weather got really hot.

He risked a glance at his twin. Ryn’s stony gaze met his, and he quickly turned his eyes away. Bastard wouldn’t give an inch. When Ryn said they’d sit there watching until King got home and called the cops, he’d meant every word. King came home an hour ago. They’d seen him arrive.

But for some reason, King still hadn’t called the cops. It made no sense. Any sane man coming home and finding his apartment trashed would call. But only one guy had gone through the main doors of the expensive apartment building since King arrived. No cops. No lights. Nothing.

Damn, his knee was killing him. “Okay, Ryn, this is crazy. He’s obviously cleaning up the mess himself. Not going to call anyone.” Probably shouldn’t have said that.

Ryn’s heavy fist stopped a hair short of his cheek.

Cam knew better than to flinch. It would just infuriate Ryn and the beating would be ten times worse. Not now, but later. At home. Where there were no witnesses.

“Shut the fuck up. When I want your opinion, I’ll tell you what it is.” Ryn returned to glacial silence, gaze never wavering from the door of King’s building.

Like it or not, the beating was inevitable now. No use holding back. “What if he’s not a vampire? I know Fite and his buddies say he is, but what if he’s not?”

“Can you really be that stupid? Of course he is. Why else would he have all that blood hidden in the back of a broom closet? There’s a ton of other signs, too. He’s a fucking parasite is what he is.” Ryn fell silent once more, as if that were the end of it.

Cam let it drop for now. King wasn’t worth it, anyway. His twin was a pit bull when he latched onto an idea, and he wouldn’t let go of this one. Cam wasn’t even certain their sister was worth it. But that was Ryn’s obsession. Anytime a guy got close to their younger sister, Helen, Ryn went off the deep end until he found a way to destroy the guy.

King wasn’t easily accessible, though, and Ryn hadn’t been able to find anything in his past to make King back off. It didn’t help that the big man had just laughed when Ryn challenged him. An attempted mugging resulted in King wiping the alley with both Cam and Ryn. Hence Cam’s fucked up knee. Then Ryn came up with this bullshit.

A resident left the building, jogging past their car, and started a steady stream of people leaving the building for the day as they headed to work. The car parked in front of them left, to be replaced immediately by a dark green SUV with blackout windows. No one got out for a quarter of an hour, then a pretty woman with dark red hair and long legs encased in snug jeans got out and crossed the street. She entered King’s building.

“Go grab us some fresh coffee and a sandwich or something.” Ryn’s voice broke the silence.

Cam couldn’t prevent the surprise from showing on his face. Ryn never allowed him to leave like that. Not in the middle of an “operation”. This departure from the script didn’t bode well for Ryn’s grasp on reality, or Cam’s health in the near future. Arguing wouldn’t do any good, either, so Cam climbed out of the car.

Grateful for the chance to stretch his legs, he took a moment to appreciate the feeling of using muscles that had been forced to inactivity for long hours. Just wished it wasn’t daylight yet.

He started off toward the corner, long legs eating up the distance. People he met took one glance at his face, and looked away fast. Not that he could blame them. The knife wound that made the scar that ran from his forehead to chin had also ruined his right eye. The right side of his mouth lifted in a permanent sneer. The scar was wide, and angry red, stark against his tanned skin. He would look away, too, if he could.

Self-conscious, he lowered his gaze so he didn’t have to see the disgust on people’s faces. Acute memory of receiving the wound, and its aftermath, surfaced against his will. Ryn had been drunk, angry, and Cam had dared try to take his car keys. Ryn reacted by pulling a knife and cutting him. Their father refused him more than basic medical care. The wound wasn’t even stitched closed. Wonderfully durable seventeenth birthday gift. So far, it had lasted a decade.

A little boy clinging to his mother’s hand stifled a scream when he saw Cam’s face, and jolted him out of the memory. The mother clutched her child to her, scolding him for being rude, and hurried on past.

Cam lowered his face as much as he could, wishing for a baseball cap or something, and quickened his step. The sooner he got this over with the better. That kid was exactly why he didn’t go anywhere during the day if he didn’t absolutely have to. Which brought his thoughts back to King. How the hell could the man be a vampire, even if such a thing existed? He went out during the day all the time. It made no sense.

He finally reached the McDonalds and shoved through the door. Cram packed full of morning breakfast buyers. Shit. He groaned. The rush could take hours to clear, so he couldn’t just wait it out in the restroom or a secluded booth. Ryn would have a conniption if he took longer than half an hour to get back. He was going to have to face the crowd and hope he didn’t scare anyone so badly they screamed or fainted.

Chewing his lip, he joined the back of the line, and studiously stared at the floor. Even with four workers taking orders, the line was incredibly slow. Finally, he drew near the front, and nobody had screamed or fainted yet.

His turn came and he stepped forward, when something small and soft and sweet smelling careened into his right side. The force shifted all his weight onto his bad leg, which gave way. At the same time, scalding heat splashed over his chest.

Cam struggled to keep himself from falling, and instinctively grabbed for support onto the person responsible. His hand encountered the soft fullness of a breast, and he yanked it away as if burned. “Sorry.”

But the quick movement of his arm finished the unbalancing the collision had started. He went down. Hard. On his bad knee. A groan that wanted to be a scream ripped from his throat as fire slammed through his knee and up his leg.

Small hands grasped at his shoulders. “Oh, my God, are you okay? God, I’m so sorry! It’s all my fault.” The voice was silky soft, laced with something that instantly made Cam hard despite the pain and mortification.

He got his bearings enough to attempt to rise to his feet. Those little hands were still there, trying to help. Finally, he stood, trying to keep his weight off his injured leg. A tiny slip of a girl, head coming just to the middle of his chest, stood, flustered and fussing over him.

No, not a girl. Woman. Slim, but with a grown woman’s curves. Pale blonde hair straggled around her elfin face and shoulders, having come loose from whatever arrangement she’d made of it on the back of her head.

With an alarmed expression, she touched his chest where the scalding liquid still burned. “Oh, my God. I spilled the coffee on you! Come on, you need to get that shirt off before it burns you worse.” She started tugging his shirt from the waist of his jeans and pulling it up.

“Uh… Miss, it’s okay. I’m fine.” He had to do something to make her stop. Every eye in the place was on them. He didn’t want that kind of attention. He caught her tiny hands where they had successfully pulled his T-shirt up to armpit level. “Really. I’m okay.”

Vivid turquoise eyes widened and traveled upward, taking in hard abs and sculpted chest. They didn’t stop there, as Cam would have preferred. No. Instead they continued up until they were gazing into his one good eye. “You can’t be fine. I heard your knee crack when you hit the floor, and you have blisters starting on your chest from the coffee. You need to see a doctor.” No trace of fear, disgust, or revulsion. Just genuine concern for another human being.

Cam’s heart turned over in his chest. Why couldn’t he have met her another day and another way? But a woman like her wouldn’t notice someone like him unless forced to do so. Heart pounding, struggling to keep his breathing even so his voice didn’t scare her, he tried to reassure her. “Seriously. I’m okay. No harm done. Let me get you another coffee.”

Six Sentence Sunday

This week’s Six is from Blood Dragon. This is later in the same scene as last week’s Six. Jaden has recovered from the cattle prod enough to stand and make Redinger think she’s going to cooperate nicely with his demand that she sit in the torture chair.

When Redinger closed his eyes in a full blink, she charged. This time she made contact, just above his knees, and propelled him back and down.

Rather than going all the way down, he landed on his ass with a grunt. He struck her head with the baton, hard enough to make her see stars. Then hit her again.

Jaden hit back, her fist connecting with his jaw in a glancing blow. 

Sharing Saturday – The Hero Chronicles

Sir Galahad, a hero of Arthurian legend, detai...

Sir Galahad: Image via Wikipedia

Some of you know I occasionally do reviews and blog posts for GraveTells.com. All during November, GraveTells is hosting a Discussion Series The Hero Chronicles. Each week will focus on a different aspect of the books we love: Heroes, Heroines, Villains, and World/Setting. And each week, one commenter will be selected to receive some random swag. At the end of the month a Gift Card for the Book Depository will be given away!

This week, check out my post, A Hero To Die For, and tell us all about your favorite  Hero, and the qualities that make him perfect. Your comment might just be the winning one! Then come back each week for a new segment. See you there!

Six Sentence Sunday

The official Six Sentence Sunday is taking a break this week, but will be back next week. I’ve decided to go ahead and post my Six this week anyway. Partly because I’m a creature of habit, and partly because there might be one person out there looking forward to seeing what my characters are up to. So, with further ado…

This week’s Six is from the new beginning of BLOOD DRAGON, and immediately follow last week’s Six, which, in turn followed the Six from 10-9.  Jaden’s kidnapper gives her one last chance to give him what he wants.

Smiling his tight smile, Redinger approached Jaden’s cell. “Well, you’ve had time to compose your thoughts. Are you going to give me the names of the other vampires, or do I get to pull the information out of you, bit by bit?”

“I’m not telling you anything.” Determination made her voice strong. These humans would kill her anyway, as soon as they had the information.