The Craft of Writing: Every Character Has A Story

One of the key elements in a memorable story, whether it is told on film or in prose, is the care with which minor characters are portrayed. It’s easy to recognize the throw-away roles: the “red shirt” who usually doesn’t have a name because he or she is doomed, the walk-on who recites lines and then departs, never to be seen again, the spear-carrier, the spinster aunt or bratty sibling or cold-hearted, moustache-twirling villain. The plucky girl detective must have a toyboyish best friend. Likewise, the dashing hero is accompanied by a jovial buddy. In neither case can the secondary characters present a love interest. In their extreme burlesque form, such stereotypes are not only predictable, but communicate that we, the readers, should not take the story seriously.

The purpose of these characters is to deliver a line, listen to the protagonist explain things to the reader or fill in a blank in the plot. They are driven not by their own desires and fears but by the author’s requirements. Hence, they are disposable. Their deaths mean little because they never lived.

The most common “fix,” which is not a fix at all, is to dress up cardboard secondary characters with a few colorful details. Okay, we’ll make the best friend — drum roll — a boy! But he has to be — second drum roll — unavailable, either dating someone else or gay, because there can be no possibility of our heroine finding him romantically interesting. This amounts to no change at all, because the character suffers the same constraints. His function could as well be performed by any other character of the same mold.

In contrast, memorable minor characters feel as if they have wandered on-stage while pursuing quite another tale, one in which they are the heroes. They may appear only briefly, but they carry with them the sense of a large and powerful untold story. This technique parallels the effect of sensory details that evoke a world “beyond the page.”

Sooner or later, most serious authors create minor characters who don’t play by the rules. He or she starts doing unexpected things, much to the dismay of the author, who is anxious to get on with the plot. I think such surprises are a good thing. They tell me that a minor character is taking on more dimensions in my creative back-brain. Sometimes, they point out weaknesses in set-up, plot, world-building, or the motivations of major characters. They can be an invaluable diagnostic tool when “something isn’t working.” My experience has been that the time and effort spent in following these mutineers is more than amply repaid in richness of story. After all, if I don’t care about a character, even a one-line walk-on character, why should the reader care? When that one-liner presents me with a reason to care, passions of her own, goals at cross-purposes with those of the hero, then I should thank her!

Secondary characters are notorious for running away with the story. I should say, the intended story, because in the process of writing and revising, I often uncover a “deeper” story than the one I envisioned when I began. However, it is not always helpful when deadlines loom and a spear-carrier decides to usurp the role of protagonist and go off on his own adventures. I joke about offering such characters bribes (“be good, follow the agenda, and I’ll write your very own story”).

Sometimes negotiation is helpful. I ask, “What about this character can tell me more about the world, the other characters, the themes and nuances of the story?” For a minor character, details must do double or triple-duty: reveal this particular character, develop aspects of a major character, evoke the culture and environment that produced the minor character, advance the plot, etc.

Occasionally, however, a minor character runs away with the story because it’s really her story and she’s much more interesting than the nominal hero. My characters can be smarter than I am. When I respect them, they are not only more likely to play nicely, but they add immeasurably to the richness and drama of the story. I think it’s a mistake to fall in love only with the hero. Memorable, quirky, passionate minor characters can up the emotional stakes of the plot, give depth to the major characters, and linger in the reader’s mind, leaving him hungry for more.



The Craft of Writing: Every Character Has A Story — 11 Comments

  1. How can one know the circumstances of the story without writing it? I don’t outline because when I start writing a story, I have only a few glimpses – and a lot of ‘oh, I know what will happen’ that are based on my experiences and expectations instead of the characters’. Once I write, things work out differently… and that’s OK. I don’t need to write _this particular story_. I need to write _a_ story – and the more grounded in the characters and the more unexpected and cliche-free it is, the better.

  2. I wrote a novel (it will be up on BVC later this year) in which a spear carrier walked on about page 200. He was just supposed to do some detective work so that the heroine could move on to the major plot crisis.
    But noooo. As soon as he appeared on the page he announced, “Well, since I am the protagonist, this page must be page one. Those previous 200 pages? Must be back story.” And they were! I had to rework them all into flashbacks, and while I was doing this he hijacked the theme, took the heroine to bed, and got into all kinds of trouble.
    Finally, I had her kill him. You would think a .38 slug square in the brisket would do it. But no! He came back, with a much much better ending, a final twist that I just had to keep. He survived and moved to California where he went into politics. So annoying!

  3. Brenda, something similar happened in the writing of my second published novel. Things didn’t start to get interesting until a second character showed up on page 150. She threatened to run away with the whole book until I bribed her with a co-star billing.

    green_knight, we all have different ways of writing. It’s so wonderful! I usually need an image or emotional twist, a sense of where I want to end up, and a character in trouble in order to start. But then again, from time to time my muse demands “a flying leap off the edge” approach, just to play. Things come together in revision.

  4. Originally in DREAMER (which is also up on BVC), I intended Sejal to be the male protagonist and Ara to be the female protagonist. Kendi was supposed to be pure supporting cast.

    But Sejal refused to take center stage in the book, and Kendi sort of strolled into the spotlight and said, “Since I’m here, mate, why don’t I just tell this story?”

    So I let him.

    Harenn, from the same book, was another runaway secondary character. I’d intended her to be a throwaway. The stereotype of the Middle Eastern woman is of a soft-spoken, gentle person, so just for fun, I made her a bitch in a veil, the sort of person who would pinch you to make you step out of her way rather than say, “Excuse me.” But then I had to ask myself, “Why is she like this?” And while I was exploring the answers, she became more and more interesting, and in TRICKSTER and OFFSPRING, the third and fourth books, she plays pivotal roles because I liked her so much.

    She couldn’t ever be main character–she isn’t suited for it–but I never dreamed she’d have such an expanded role over multiple books!

  5. I once killed off a character in the second chapter in an attempt to keep him a bit part. Didn’t come back to life, didn’t return as a ghost, but kept on appearing again and again and again in the main character’s thoughts.

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  8. Secondary characters can definitely be fun. I think it’s because you don’t have to worry about how their stories have to show the GMC of your protagonists. Of course, they tend to come back and demand their own books down the line, but I normally don’t flesh their back stories out that much until I have to.

    And I did have to kill off a secondary character in chapter 2 because she was already demanding too much attention.

  9. I so have a membership card for that club. 🙂

    I usually write historical fiction with fictional main characters while historical ones only get secondary or side roles. Except that Arminius wanted nothing of that. He made it damn clear that his story was more interesting than that of the invented characters, sneered a bit about Velleius Paterculus and Tacitus having an agenda and someone should correct that, and overall he was a tragic character worth a song, or an epic. Try to argue with a fierce Cheruscian prince who annihilated an entire Roman army if you want. I did’t feel up to that. 😀