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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

There Are No Small Characters, Only Small People?

(Or something? Yeah, I screwed that title up.)

Not every character in a story is going to have a starring role. One aspect of writing that's frequently on my mind is how to flesh out the minor characters and bring them to life, ranging from the secondary characters who tag along with the main group for a lot of the action to the people who just pop up for a scene or two. The latter is where I really make myself crazy: Is this person really crucial to the story? Are they significant enough to be named? How do I give them dimension so they're just not a cardboard cut-out?

I second guess myself all the time when it comes to this. (Okay, maybe not as much as I used to, but still.) Hell, Geneva's father in the Skies series doesn't even have a name, and I don't think he's actually spoken a line despite being mentioned a fair number of times. While the main plot and its characters are at the top of my list of priorities, I still want to fill out my fictional worlds with "real" people, but I don't want to dwell on unnecessary details.

What got me thinking about this is a chapter in The Fall of the Midnight Scorpions* I finished up the other night. In this chapter, Ro meets a woman named Lesley. Lesley only appears in this one scene. If I counted up the number of words she speaks, I'm not sure I'd break into double digits. However, without giving away too many plot points, she is important to the story.

You can tell a lot about Lesley just in the handful of pages she appears in. For one thing, it is obvious from the get-go that she and Ro are not, nor will ever be friends. A protagonist's strong opinion on a character goes a long way in shaping the reader's perception. Now, since I'm biased towards my beloved heroine, within a few short paragraphs I already dislike Lesley, even though she didn't really do anything to warrant such feelings. (And I CREATED her. How unfair is that?) If it were a real-life situation, I'd probably side with her point of view, to tell you the truth. As the deliciously awkward scene rolls on, dislike morphs into sympathy, pity, and envy at various points. So in the space of what's probably less than 2000 words, poor Lesley is evoking all sorts of conflict in me-the-reader, and she's never even going to be mentioned by name again!

I'm sorry, Lesley. I wish good things for you since the little snippet we got probably isn't the most fair and accurate representation. At least it's implied you survive until the end of the book and live somewhat happily ever after?

(*HaHA! I remembered to use the working title instead of just calling it the Disintegration sequel!)


  1. I have a lot of minor characters in my WIP, mostly background people, some with names, some not. I have to cut a lot of them out this draft around. But then, I'm writing about a new neighbor in a new neighborhood, so some of these not-important characters are there as flavor.

    I need to remember to introduce new characters through the eyes of my protagonist. I have one character who my protag is initially unsure of---he's attracted to her--but I don't like nor do I trust her. My beta said that she wasn't sure how that character was supposed to come across to the reader.

  2. I have one story that it did a thorough background check on every single head that pops up. Won't be doing that again. Lol!

    That's awesome you're in such close quarters with your MC that you feel what she feels. I tend to like everyone irregardless. I can't help it. I have a character I need to kill and I'm just like, "but I like them!" Boo. Lol! They're all like little china dolls to me. Killing one is like throwing one away, never to be seen again. Yeah, I'm thinking I get way too attached to people.

  3. Making sure your "walk ons" aren't cardboard cutouts is super hard. Not caricatures either, though I'd say you can kind of make gestures at stereotypes (depending on your setting!).

    Because I see a lot of people in the course of my workday, I try to play mental games where I remember two vivid details about somebody who walked through, and see what I think that can tell me about them as a person.

    It's interesting stuff, major characters versus minor, how much info you need on any one of them, and what's just backstory taking up pagespace!