March 1, 2013

Developing Minor Characters

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I love characters.  I love getting to know them, however tricky and long the process is.  I love seeing them develop what writers might call "independence" or "personality" or what-have-you.  I love rubbing shoulders with them.  I just love them. They're always such - characters!

At least, that goes for the major players.  Regina and the Assassin, for instance, or Tip or Marta or Charlie.   These are, after all, the ones I really spend time with: not just the narrator, but the people whose lives are intertwined with that narrator's and who I must deal with in just about every chapter.  As in real life, being with them and trying to get to know them over such a long period makes them (relatively speaking) easy to write.  I know them.  Sometimes they surprise me, but in general I can tell you how they will react in a given situation.  I know Regina has no use for Dickens.  I know the thing Tip misses most when he's miles from land is the trees.  After a while, I just start finding these things out.

minor characters are a different matter.

Just about every story has them - people who exist on the periphery of the story, whose interactions with the protagonist are infrequent, who have a part to play but do not sit at the heart of the tale.  I don't know about you, but I find these ones the tough cookies.  When you have a fellow who drifts in and drifts out, how do you get to know them?  How do you make them memorable?  How do you make them a person?

I've read some tips that advise writers to "give the character a defining trait" - a drawl or a habit or a word they're particularly fond of - to make them stick in the reader's mind.  I suppose if that is the goal, it's a reasonable approach, but it rather smacks to me of "tagging."  You scribble down the defining trait, punch a hole in the card, put a string through it, tie it to the character's leg and voila!  An easy something for the reader to note!  No great brainpower needed on either side of the equation, but the reader remembers (a little remotely) who the character is and so it's all good.

Note, I'm not at all saying that there is something inherently wrong with defining traits; I know there are several in my own books, and I also remember a novel I read some while back where a character habitually said, "Listen now," and it worked.  It fit him.  It was natural, and I liked it.  I'm just not a fan of the dartboard approach to writing - picking a trait and plastering it to the character without even a by-your-leave.  A quirk doth not a person make.

And that, I think, ought to be the goal with every character, major or minor: to make a person of them.  They won't all be equally vibrant.  My word, some of Dickens' heroes were downright pale!  But we ought to do justice to the characters in our stories, and not make caricatures of the poor fellows.

I still find this a tricky business, but one thing I've found helpful in the process of writing Tempus Regina, whose cast is larger than any I have dealt with yet, is to take the time to dig into each person's backstory.  Not that it comes out in the actual novel, mind, because that would be downright tedious.  But when I feel a person is flimsy, it is helpful for me to take them, go back into the bits and pieces I know of their past, and write them a short story.  Casting them as the point-of-view character forces me to study their thought-patterns, and following the snatches of their undeveloped history gives me something to work with.  Then, when I go back to the novel and pick up where I left off, I think, "Nyaha!  I know who you are now."  And even if what I wrote ends up having no bearing on the plot, it still gives me confidence and grants that character that much more reality.
but sometimes what I write does have bearing, and that's even better.

14 comments:

  1. I have a long list of characters, both major and minor, in the book series I am creating at the moment. They can be very tricky, and it can be hard at times to make those minor characters just as interesting but still in a quiet way. I never thought of writing them a short story - that's a great idea :) Much better than simply choosing a quirk and sticking it to them with no explanation. I find those can be annoying because the author tends to overuse such habits to try and compensate for a shallow character.

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    1. I like quirks in small doses, but it does seem to me a little unrealistic that every minor character should repeat a specific word or twiddle his thumbs or drag his fingers through his hair. It just doesn't work out like that in real life. As you say, it can be compensation for a truly shallow character - and that is unfortunate laziness on the part of any author.

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  2. Very good thoughts as always. I like the idea of writing the short story for them - get to know your character, and have an extra short story on hand as well! :)

    Becca

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    1. Alas, these "short stories" tend to be so lacking in context that I don't think they would make sense to anyone but myself! But they do make a nice break from the serious work of novel writing.

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  3. When I started reading this post, I was thinking 'well, my problem with characterization tends to fall full-bore on my main characters; so far secondary characters have very often stolen the limelight in my stories and out-starred even my main characters in strength of characterization (i.e. Anthea, Flavius, Grandmamma Wilson) so I probably won't get much help out of this post' :p. Silly me!

    But as I got to reading through it, it came to me how many of the minor characters in The Crown of Life and A Love that Never Fails are somewhat flat and unrealistic and really need more than a 'tag' as you put it of a quirk or characteristic - so, see, this was such a helpful post after all, Abigail :-). Like Sarah and Becca, it never occurred to me to write short-stories for my minor characters to discover their back-story more - what a capital idea! Except the word 'short-stories' sounds rather daunting ^_^

    I have found another great way to find out more and break the shell about any particular character who is giving me trouble is to write out a scene of drama and tension (which may or may not have anything to do with the actual story) where my character is thrust into danger, temptation, fear or grief or something really dramatic - through such scenes I often find out more of the mettle and heart of that particular character I am working on and then am able to get back to write in my novel the normal scenes with a fresh understanding of the person.

    And taking cue from 'The Hobbit' movie and the Riddle Scene between Bilbo and Gollum, it seems that even in film-making and acting, this method works ;).

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    1. Putting a character in a tense situation sounds like an excellent way of breaking the proverbial ice. I haven't done it myself, but I've noticed that the first scenes of a story that present themselves to me are generally dramatic (and occur late in the book - which is nice, since it gives me something to look forward to as I write!).

      As far as writing character "short stories" goes, mine really aren't short stories in the proper sense. The fan-fiction term would be "one-shot": just a snippet featuring that character, without a whole lot of storyline. I have such a hard time with brief plots! Random scenes are so much easier.

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  4. I adore minor characters. Actually sometimes I become so fond of a minor character that they end up being a MAIN character! But usually I try to make them stay in their proper place. ;)

    I agree with you that writing a short story is very helpful for finding out more about a minor character and getting them to develop their particular quirk or style. Doing that has been such a help for me! In my story about the twins, their youngest brother is very popular among my readers even though he's also not very important in the book and I know that having an idea of his back story in my mind made it that much easier for me to write his character well.

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    1. Minor characters can be pushy like that! One character in "The White Sail's Shaking" was meant to be minor - actually, he wasn't really meant to exist at all - and pushed himself into the center of the plot. Ho hum.

      I find backstory one of the most enjoyable parts of character development. It can't always come into the novel itself, though, so the short stories give me an outlet for them and a chance to refine them at the same time. I heartily agree: it is so much easier to understand and write a character whose past you already know.

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  5. I like minor characters as well. Sometimes I get to know them so well that they deserve to have a bigger part.

    By the way, I liked the older layout for the blog better to be honest, but I'll get used to this one.

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    1. That's another fun thing about short stories - the minor characters get their day in the sun without impeding the progress of the actual novel. Everyone's happy!

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  6. A short story for a minor character is a great idea! I have a character right now who needs one ... we'll see if I can get around to it. : ) Thanks!

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    1. If you do write one, I hope it helps! Of course questionnaires like Beautiful People are also helpful, but I find I don't really know a character until I've written them for a while. As in most cases, there's no better way to learn how to write than to actually write.

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  7. I love minor characters, but I always struggle with figuring them out. I think that I shall employ your wonderful techniques, Abigail, and see if I can't love my minor characters MORE, and know them inside and out. :-)

    Wonderful article! And thoughts. Thank you, Abigail! I'll be printing this up for further reference. :-)

    -Patience

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    1. I'm glad it helps, Patience! I find even main characters difficult to understand just at the start of the novel - inertia, I suppose - and it's worse with minor characters. I do hope the process of scribbling down scenes will iron out some of the character's wrinkles!

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meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
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Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
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Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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