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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STRANGER DANGER!!

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

This week’s SSS is from BLOOD DRAGON.

Kiellen and Jaden are getting ready to confront James Redinger, the antagonist. Redinger was involved with Jaden’s kidnapping and torture.

And there was Redinger’s motive. He was in love with Rhee. Did the contradiction signal a larger, concealed split of his mind? Did she know what a monster her hero slash boss slash friend was? She probably wouldn’t be discussing the merits of breastfeeding her children with him if she did. Or so willingly be alone with him.

The outline for BLOOD DRAGON II, is almost finished.

Bright, Shiny, and New: A Sneak Peak

Since finishing BLOOD DRAGON, I’ve taken a couple days off to catch up on some other stuff. I’ve read a few blogs, caught up on some forums, read a couple of books… And gone absolutely stir crazy.

Apparently, not writing is something I can’t easily do. I seem to recall coming to the same realization when I finished the last one, and couldn’t wait to get started on BD.

I’m forcing myself to wait before I start writing the new idea. I know if I start before I have a good outline, it just won’t work. Oh, it might start out fine, but soon, I’ll stray from the story line, and it’ll turn into something completely different from what I planned. It’ll go on forever and take eons to revise/edit. So, I’ll content myself with outlining, for the time being.

For the next few days, I’ll be figuring out my characters – their physical traits, backstory, what makes them tick now. While I’m doing that, I’ll also be working out what kind of trouble they’re going to get themselves into, and what they’ll have to do to get out of it. This one’s going to be a blast to write!

I can give a little hint about the new story – which, btw, has a working title – Blood Dragon II. I haven’t made final decisions on the characters’ names yet, so I’m going to refer to them as the Hero, Heroine, and Bad Guy for this.

The Hero, a vampire, is a famous musician, just home from a nationwide tour of the US. He’s had stalkers in the past, and isn’t bothered by his newest one. Until the Bad Guy breaks into his apartment and vandalizes it, leaving a little surprise. The Hero’s manager pulls some strings with the Inter Racial Council and arranges for an Enforcer to investigate and apprehend the Bad Guy, and protect the Hero.

The Enforcer the IRC sends, the Heroine, can’t believe she’s being sent to babysit some spoiled vampire, especially one who daily risks revealing the reality of vampires, as well as her people, weredragons, to the human world at large. It doesn’t help that when she meets the Hero, he’s the hottest thing on two feet, or that he makes no secret of the fact that he can’t wait to get her in his bed. And it really doesn’t help that she would like nothing more than to lick him head to toe.

I’ll add further details as I work them out – little things like… Oh, the characters’ names, and the Hero’s instrument, hell, even what kind of music he plays. Though, at the moment, he’s leaning toward heavy metal. But that’s probably because I prefer heavy metal myself. He could even be a country singer, I suppose…

© Copyright Kenra Daniels 2011