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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A Hero To Die For

**Just a note before your regularly scheduled post. WordPress has offered the opportunity for bloggers to protest SOPA/PIPA, either by going dark today, or displaying the “Stop Censorship” Ribbon until the Jan 24th  Senate vote on SOPA/PIPA, or both. I decided to go with the ribbon, for various reasons.

As a writer, I am 100% against online piracy and theft of Intellectual Property. If I choose to give my work away, I will do so, but I don’t want anyone stealing it from me. But I do NOT believe this legislation is the way to go about protecting against those crimes. I urge EVERYONE in the US to contact their US Senators and tell them point-blank, “Do NOT support SOPA/PIPA if you want to SERVE another term!” Remind them they serve at the pleasure of the people, to represent the people.

If they do not accurately represent you, WORK against them in their next re-election bid. Don’t bitch about the poor job they do if you sit home on election day and justify your lack of fulfilling your civic responsibility by whining that the rich dude or the corporate dude or the insert-your-own-adjective dude will win no matter what. He absolutely WILL if you, and everyone else, continue to sit on your ass and do nothing about it. If you do the work, and he wins anyway, then at least you have the right to bitch. And next time, work harder!

OK. ‘Nuff said. Let’s get on with it.

A Hero To Die For

This piece originally appeared on GraveTells.com, Nov. 4, 2011. I wrote it as part of “The Hero Chronicles Discussions Series”. I’ve decided to run it again here, as part of my ongoing “Nailing Down the Essentials” Writer Wednesday series. It’s the second (here’s the first) post in a series on character development that I’ve been thinking about for a while. You can expect further entries on other types of characters, like heroines, villains, sidekicks, secondaries, and throw-aways/red-shirts.

So, here we go. (Oh, and despite serious temptation, I left out the NSFW pics that really wanted to be included. *sigh* The sacrifices I make for you.)

A Hero To Die For

You know him – the one that makes your heart pound at the thought of being near him, and not just because he’s so beautiful. Being the woman that wins his heart would satisfy you in a way nothing else could. He’s the Hero.

Impressive Cardboard?

Romance novel heroes tend to get a bad rap in the rest of the literary world. What’s that? …Oh, right. The rest of the world, literary or not. Many people believe heroes are just gorgeous faces with chiseled jaws, ripped bods with washboard abs. And don’t forget the “impressive manhood”.

Paranormal Romance heroes have an even worse rep. They’re supposed to be all-the-above, plus they’re either emo vampires, or savage werewolves, bad angels, or redeemable demons. Sci-Fi Romance has its misunderstood aliens. Historical Romance has the rakehell noblemen. Non-Romance readers probably associate all the subgenres with some stereotypical Hero or other.

The few who are so one-dimensional are the ones to get noticed, and perpetuate the misconceptions. No wonder non-Romance readers don’t want to get to know them. I wouldn’t either, if that were truly all they were. Fortunately, there’s sooo much more to a good Hero.

The Perfect Hero

But what makes a really good Hero? What makes him who he is? Can he be imperfect? Damaged? Not physically beautiful? That’s what we’re here to figure out.

A person’s appearance is often our first impression. Our, and the Heroine’s, first impression of the Hero is no different. What is it about him that catches her, and our, attention? I’ve read Heroes with phenomenal good looks, and just average appearances, and a few who were horribly scarred. But there’s something more, some indefinable quality, about all of them. Whatever it is, that quality makes them utterly beautiful to their Heroine.

A man’s actions can tell us a lot about him. There are good boys and bad boys, both in novels and in real life. The bad ones seem to be favored right now, just begging to put the past behind them and start all over with the right woman (though we all know that in real life, bad boys usually stay bad). But just because he’s bad, doesn’t mean he can’t have a good side. And even the good boys will do bad things if they have to, and since life is messy, they often do. Then we have Alphas, who take charge naturally, and Betas, who step up when it matters, and both can be sexy as hell.

But appearance and personality are just parts of the person, like so many pieces of the puzzle. What really brings a Hero to life is change. If he’s the same man at the end of the book as he was at the beginning, he’s just window dressing – a hot body to fill in certain empty spaces in the book. Not a real person.

At a bare minimum, he has to have a conflict, and work to resolve it. Ideally, he’ll be conflicted in several areas of his life, both internally and externally. Real people can fight the bad guys, and work on overcoming a phobia stemming from a childhood trauma, while seeing that their elderly mom has what she needs, and making bullies leave the neighbor’s kid alone, all while they’re coming to terms with the monster that lives in their heart, and so can a Hero. While he’s dealing with whatever trouble the author throws at him, he can also handle issues from a bad childhood, along with a jealous ex. Our Hero might not settle all his conflicts, but he will grow as a person because of them.

Romances from a couple of decades ago were full of Heroes who swooped in on their white horses and rescued the Heroine, whether she wanted to be saved or not. Today’s ideal Hero (with an action based plot) fights at his Heroine’s side to save both their asses, and is just as likely to need rescuing as she is. If there’s no bad guy, he’ll still fight, in whatever way necessary, to win his Heroine’s heart. He might start out being an arrogant a$$hat, but he’ll learn to respect his Heroine’s opinion and abilities, and to rely on her.

But what really tops it all off, turns a hot, exciting man into the perfect Hero? Love. Whether he’s a good boy, or bad, alpha, or beta, his love for his Heroine makes him perfect. The kind of love that makes him willing to give up his own life, or the very essence of who he is, for her. He will go through hell and back, and we hope for an ending that allows him to survive, win the heroine’s love, and spend the rest of his life loving her.

One of my favorites is JR Ward’s Vishous. What I like about him is that he comes with baggage of several varieties. He’s also not just a muscle bound warrior – he’s fearsomely intelligent and tech savvy. Definitely not a good boy, he’s a stone cold killer when necessary, and into some pretty hardcore BDSM, but he’ll do anything for the people he cares about. While he’s gorgeous, he’s not the traditional so-handsome-it-hurts-to-look-at-him beautiful. Doc Jane, his Heroine, is his reason for living. He might be a character in a novel, but he’s real.

Who Are Your Favorites?

Who are your favorites? Why? Do you prefer bad boys, or good boys? Alphas or Betas? Movie-star-handsome, or not? Describe your perfect Hero – not just how he looks, but those aspects of him that make him who he is.

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!