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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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?