On Becoming a Professional Amateur: Characters, Their Care and Feeding

In every work of fiction, characters assume different levels of importance. There are vital, primary characters (the protagonist, the antagonist), secondary characters (companions, love interests, foils), and (to use film terminology) bit players, walk-ons, and extras.

One way we signal the reader about a character’s relative importance is by whether or not we give them names. The professor is less important in the reader’s mind than Professor Denning and Professor Denning is less important than Professor Joseph Denning or Joe.

I’ve read several manuscripts lately in which the writer gave a minor character a name and detailed back story only to kill them off half-a-page after introducing them. When I ask why, I’m often told, “I wanted him to be memorable.”

As writers, we want to make all of our characters memorable, but when we flesh a character out by naming him and telling the reader his life story, we’re asking the reader to invest emotional energy in the character that is wasted if he immediately buys a ticket to the hereafter. As readers, when we’re given details about a character’s personality and being we expect that knowledge to play into the story. When that expectation is thwarted, it causes us to disengage a bit.

How can you make a character memorable without overemphasizing their importance?

Let’s say you’ve got a technician who appears in a scene or two in your book. You can identify him by giving him a visual trait—carroty red hair. This visual trait allows the reader to identify him as an individual through unique tags—”the carrot topped tech” or “the red head” or through other characters reacting in some way to the brightness of the guy’s hair.

You could give a minor character that’s on stage repeatedly a speech mannerism or a nervous tic or a turn of phrase that they use in their dialogue. “Dontcha know?” or “The facts are these” or “I’ll tell you what I think…”

Single traits like this are memorable enough to mark the characters as individuals without giving them the sort of weight a name or back story does.

Do all characters need this level of identity?

No. Let’s say you set a scene in a restaurant. Restaurants have waitresses. “The waitress” can walk on and off stage with barely a ripple, while still giving the reader the impression that your scene is populated. This level of character is almost part of the scenery.

But what about characters who are onstage for more than half a page or so or return from time to time?

It can be confusing and awkward to continually refer to a character as “the red-haired technician”. If the fellow keeps showing up or takes part in an extended scene, I’d vote for making a real person of him and name him. Who knows, he may decide to take over the story.

Giving characters vivid personality or physical traits or mannerisms goes a looooong way toward adding dimension. The more distinguishing traits you give a character (up to a point) the more dimension he takes on. Think of each trait you give a character as a shape or a feature on a smooth surface and you’ll see what I mean. In fact, that sort of fleshing out is more memorable to the reader than any amount of expository back story.

But how do you SHOW back story without exposition?

Weave it into the characterization. For example, let’s say you have a female character who’s been in an abusive relationship. She will wear this abuse on her face, at least figuratively speaking. She will seem shuttered, closed, doubtful, or even angry. When a man speaks loudly, she jumps.

This is the way in which back story can inform the character’s behavior without a word of it being told in exposition. It extends to such things as the clothes they wear. If your abused female character has fought with her weight all her life, a trait that speaks of this is that she always wears dark colors.

If the character turns out to be important you may find an opportunity to have her abusive past come up as part of the plot. But AVOID INFO-DUMPS such as: Belinda Frewer came into the room. Belinda, Joe knew, had just gotten out of an abusive relationship which was why she looked angry all the time. And though she was slender as a reed now, she still wore dark colors as the result of her childhood battle of the bulge…

I might use that sort of expository bullet if I was making a point about how observant my POV character was, but to develop Belinda as a character requires more nuance. If the character traits that are revealed in the course of our experience with her hint at her back story, then only a few words are needed to confirm what we suspect of Belinda’s secret history.

Do published works contain the sort of expository lumpiness I allude to above? Indeed they do. In fact, I’ve probably perpetrated it myself. But I don’t have to like it.



On Becoming a Professional Amateur: Characters, Their Care and Feeding — 1 Comment

  1. I’ve advised young writers to think of themselves as Steven Spielberg. When he shoots a film he has masses of footage. He strings these together into a movie. If you give camera time to a character, you are indicating that this character is important. You may know all the back story of Belinda. But you don’t have to tell us unless she’s important to the movie.