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?

Too Real For Fiction?


A Fact Checker Is Born

I’ve always been geeky, more so at some phases of my life than others. Back in the late 90s, when I finally gave in and started internet service for my work computer, I was instantaneously hooked. All that lovely information out there, right at my fingertips! Suddenly, I could easily and quickly access facts about any subject I chose, no matter how obscure.

Besides being geeky, I’ve also always expected authors to know at least basic information about their settings, and other elements of their books. Put a key Civil War battle in the wrong location, call a mare ‘he’, or place a wild animal outside its possible ecological range, and the book turned into a wall-banger. Add the internet, and I could immediately check facts that just didn’t quite ring true.


And apparently, I wasn’t the only one. Today’s reading public is more demanding than ever for accuracy and realism in fiction. We want police procedures to ring true, manufacturer-model-caliber of firearms, medical facts accurate enough for the JAMA, and so on.

As a result of all that, countless readers criticize certain genres for being unrealistic. Make up a creature? Can’t exist, so it’s unrealistic. Alternate history? Yeah, right. A man who treats the woman he loves with respect? Absolutely not!

If you’re going to do something like those things, as an author, you’re often expected to make sure everything else in your book is accurate. No fudging historical details. No bending of physical laws. No hedging of medical details. No liberties with geography. No contriving logic. Well, you can, but someone, probably lots of them, is going to give you grief about it.

The info hound in me is glad for this insistence on accuracy. In part, because it means that as I read, I might be gathering little bits of trivia that could prove useful eventually. Also because I don’t like misinformation being distributed as what someone might mistake for truth.

Creativity v. Real

But the creative part of me wonders just how much realism and accuracy I should expect in fiction. It is, after all, fiction. Inherently not real. Do I really need the author to give the right police code for a kitten up a tree, when the responding officer is going to fall victim to the spree killer? And do I seriously care what kind of suture the surgeon uses to close the gut-spilling, as long as the hero survives it? And what the hell difference does it make whether the germ causing the pandemic is correctly named and classified, if the heroine doesn’t manage to get the cooler with the cure in it across the city so it can be put to use? Do I really care if the heroine’s ball gown is a color that won’t be widely available for another 75 years, as long as she manages to escape the evil countess’s clutches and entice the duke into falling in love with her?


As a reader, why do I get pissed if the author fails to correctly name an obscure object, if the characters are multi-dimensional, the plot interesting, the conflicts exciting, and all the elements of the story well-written? Is it really that important?

I’m not questioning whether the big things should be realistic, things like key battles in the wrong location in a historical novel, or sending low-slung sports cars along heavily rutted logging tracks in a contemporary novel, and that sort of thing.

I’m talking about those little insider details that no one outside a particular field of expertise would know. Do you care that the little container a tattoo artist puts the ink in when tattooing someone is called an ink cap? Or that the narrow band at the top of a horse’s hoof is the coronet? If it doesn’t matter to the story as a whole, do we need our fiction to be that real?

What’s your preference, as a reader? Do you like books filled with excruciatingly real details? Or can you tolerate a little laxness, if the story is good, and otherwise well-written? What are some of the glaring errors you’ve spotted in books?

Just Beat It!

Last week, for Nailing Down The Essentials, I took a look at dialog tags as a method of attributing speech.  This week, we’ll cover what is sometimes called an action beat, dialog beat, or descriptive beat.

No matter what you choose to call it, the action beat is a pause in the dialog. Done well, it serves several purposes.

“I don’t care!” Maggie stomped her foot and flung the newspaper onto the table.

  • To show the reader what the character is doing as she speaks.  
  • Notice, in the above example, the speaker is named. By following standard format and putting the character’s action in the same paragraph as her speech, we know who is speaking. If I had started a new paragraph with the word Maggie, the meaning would be entirely different. Maggie’s foot stomping and paper flinging would have been in response to someone else’s speech.
  • We also know, from Maggie’s foot stomping and paper flinging, that, even though she insists she doesn’t care, she is either upset or angry about whatever precipitated the outburst.

Even with such a simple example, not particularly well done, that one little action beat has shown the reader 3 different things. What happens if we expand on the action beat a little, and add other techniques?

First, straight dialog, without action beats:

“I don’t care!” Maggie said. “I never want to see him again.”

“It’ll be okay. You just need some time to get over him,” Arin said. “Now sit down like a good little sister and let me take care of you.”

“Please don’t say you told me so this time.”

Here, we know Maggie and Arin are talking about a man whom Maggie is upset with; Arin is Maggie’s older sister and has a habit of saying I-told-you-so. That’s about it.

Now, let’s do it again:

“I don’t care!” Maggie stomped her foot and flung the newspaper onto the table. How could he have done such a thing? “I never want to see him again.” A deep breath helped her swallow the tears.

“It’ll be okay.” The microwave beeped and Arin rushed to take out the steaming bowl. “You just need some time to get over him.” Cane thumping every time it struck the floor, she crossed to the sink. “Now sit down like a good little sister and let me take care of you.”

Maggie slumped into the hard straight-back chair and propped her elbows on the scarred table top. Would she ever learn to listen to her sister? “Please don’t say you told me so this time.” It would hurt too much.

By adding direct character thoughts, interior monologue, a few adjectives, and a little more action, we now know a great deal more about what’s happening. Maggie is upset with a man who did something to hurt her, and is about to cry. Arin is the older sister, is cooking, and walks with a cane. They’re in a kitchen where the table and chairs are probably old. Arin’s I-told-you-so habit hurts Maggie’s feelings.

With a little more effort, we could show the reader much more – physical descriptions, settings, characterization, conflict, action, mood, and much more. In addition to all that, action beats serve another purpose or two. They solve the dreaded Talking Head Syndrome, where one character says something, then the other character replies, on and on, ad nauseum. They break up long blocks of dialog that make it seem the character is preaching. They make dialog feel more realistic, mimicking the patterns of natural speech, where people pause occasionally, then go on speaking. They draw the reader deeper into the point-of-view character’s head, letting them see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and even think, the same things, without the constant reminder, dialog tags, that they’re reading a story.

Of course, just like any good thing, overusing action beats ruins the effect and renders them useless. Each one needs to earn its place in the dialog and serve a specific purpose.

All these qualities make learning to use action beats effectively well worth the time involved. There are many ways to learn to use action beats, besides simple practice. Examine the dialog in some of your favorite books to see  how the authors use them, and for what purpose, as well as when they avoid using them. Write some simple dialog and decide on a goal, what you want to portray with the action beats, then find as many ways of accomplishing that as possible.

Next week, we’ll start examining the actual words the character says.


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!

Writer Wednesday: Match Made In Heaven, Or Hell?

Welcome to Part 4 of my Critique Series. If you missed the first three posts, definitely check them out. Fresh Eyes, 10 Qualities Of The Perfect Critique Partner, and Where, Oh Where, Has My Little CP Gone?.

So, once you’ve found someone you’d like to try out as a CP, what do you do? Unlike a good crit, I’m only skimming the surface here, but maybe it will help a bit. First thing, you’ll probably want to exchange work for a trial crit. If you’re writing a novel, exchange opening scenes, or even the entire first chapter. Beginnings make good first exchanges because the other person can see your work as a reader would, and be able to tell you if something is confusing, or if you’re revealing too much or too little.

How do you know what to crit in the other person’s work, and how do they know what to crit in yours? This is a detail that needs to be worked out either before, or as, the work is exchanged. Personally, I prefer to have the other person do an in depth, extensive critique. That allows me to gauge the person’s skill in critting, and whether they’re at a similar level in knowledge of writing technique. It also lets me know if they’re going to be nit-picky, or if they overlook a lot of errors. I can also figure out whether they pay attention as they read, or if they just skim, and whether they have decent reading and language comprehension. Sometimes, I’ll even “salt” the work with problems of varying complexity to see if the person is able to pick them out and make viable suggestions for fixing them.

What are some of the things to ask for, or expect, in a critique? When you specify what you want in a crit, specify any, or all, of the following, among other things.

  • Mechanics: Grammar, punctuation, spelling, verb tense, pronoun use, sentence construction, word choice, typos, etc. Let the other person know if any of these are a particular problem for you, and if you simply want errors pointed out, or if you want suggestions for fixes.
  • Narration and Description: Is everything understandable? Have you given enough, or too much, information? Are there info dumps? Is your description over done, is it too sparse to give the reader enough to approximate your vision? Any purple prose? Do metaphors and analogies work? Is narrative balanced with dialog and action? Is all the narrative necessary to move the story, or have you gone of off on tangents and self-indulgent info dumps? Any characters staring at themselves in mirrors in order to describe themselves to the reader? Are details and characteristics consistent throughout?
  • Dialog and Action: Is your dialog realistic, the way people speak, or have you given all your characters the same voice? Any talking head syndrome? Are dialog tags or beats effective, overdone, impossible? Can the reader visualize what the characters are doing as they move around the scene? Any extra body parts or physically impossible movements?
  • Pace and Flow: Does the story move along, or does it drag in places, or halt entirely? Are some areas simply too fast for the reader to follow? Does one scene flow smoothly into the next? Is the order of events logical?
  • Voice: Does your voice as an author intrude on the story? Is your message or agenda interfering with plot? Is the narrative voice consistent, reliable or unreliable? Does each character have his or her own unique voice?
  • Character: Any flat, cardboard cutout characters? Are all the main characters unique, well rounded, three dimensional individuals? Do main characters grow or change, or remain static? Are character motivations clear and logical, or at least justified? Is there enough info given about minor characters for the reader to have a hint about who they are? Are any of the characters stereotypical? Any Mary Sues? Is the point of view clear and consistent?
  • Plot and Arc: Does the sequence of events move logically from beginning to end? Is there enough conflict? Is the story working toward a resolution of conflict? Is there a clear beginning, middle, and end? Plot holes? Have you skipped or glossed over events the reader needs in order to understand? Have you given too much, held the reader’s hand?

There are other elements to crit as well, but there isn’t enough space here to go through everything. Both you and your potential CP need to know what elements the other wants and expects to be critiqued. You need to be very clear about whether you want suggestions for fixes, and you both need to understand that such suggestions are not an attempt to rewrite the story. Both of you also need to understand that trying to take over, rewrite, or make significant changes to the other’s story isn’t okay.

When you do a crit, it’s important to read carefully, and analyze the writing, both in detail, and in a “big picture” view. You both owe it to the other to do the best crit you are capable of doing. If the other person just does a rushed, half assed crit, just skimming the surface, be aware that’s probably what they’ll do each time.

In order for this potential partnership to have the best chance of succeeding, you both need to be clear about expectations and needs, as well as scheduling and level of commitment. Don’t take advantage, or allow yourself to be taken advantage of.

Are there other issues you would need to clear up at the beginning? Other specific elements to a good crit? Things to look out for that signify a  potentially poor match?




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

Empty Boxes…

It’s another late night break from editing, and I’ve wasted way too much time here. 😉 I’ve made a couple of changes to settings and chosen a theme, at least. There’s sooo much more still to do.

I’ll be adding links to all my favorite romance related websites and blogs, adding some different widgets, adding pages about my books, and too many other things to list here. While I’m doing all that, I’ll be learning how to use WordPress, so please bear with me.

I’m also editing, hopefully for the final time, my latest novel. If all goes well, I’ll be submitting it to e-publishers by end of May. The next story is well into the planning stages, so as soon as this one is sent off, I’ll start the next one.

Okay, enough for now! More unpacking to come in the next few days. Back to work…

Oh, be careful you don’t trip over the empty boxes strewn on the porch! Ooops…