Not all characters are created equal.
You must know—and let your readers know—which characters are most important to the story (i.e. the major characters), so they’ll know which are worth following and caring about, and which will quickly disappear (i.e. the inconsequential placeholders).
So where is the dividing line between major and minor characters? There isn’t one. The different levels shade into each other, and as you master the writing techniques appropriate to each level, you’ll be able to create and define each minor character at exactly the level of importance the story requires.
Walk-ons and Placeholders
Unless your story takes place in a hermitage or a desert island, your main characters are surrounded by many people who are utterly unimportant in the story. They are background; they are part of the milieu. Here are a few samples:
- Nora accidentally gave the cabby a $20 bill for a $5 ride and then was too shy to ask for change. Within a minute a skycap had the rest of her money.
- Pete checked at the desk for his messages. There weren’t any, but the bellman did have a package for him.
- People started honking their horns before Nora even knew there was a traffic jam.
- Apparently some suspicious neighbor had called the cops. The uniform who arrested him wasn’t interested in Pete’s explanations, and Pete soon found himself at the precinct headquarters.
Notice how many people we’ve “met” in these few sentences: a cabby, a skycap, a hotel desk clerk, a bellman, horn-honkers in a traffic jam, a suspicious neighbor, a uniformed police officer. Every single one of these people is designed to fulfill a brief role in the story and then vanish completely out of sight.
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Setting the Scenery
How do you make people vanish? Any stage director knows the trick. You have a crowd of people on stage, most of them walk-ons. They have to be there because otherwise the setting wouldn’t be realistic—but you don’t want them to distract the audience’s attention. In effect, you want them to be like scenery. They really aren’t characters at all—they’re movable pieces of milieu.
The surest way for a walk-on to get himself fired from a play is to become “creative”—to start fidgeting or doing some clever bit of stage business that distracts attention from the main action of the scene. Unless, of course, this is one of those rare occasions when the walk-on’s new business is brilliantly funny—in which case, you might even pay him more and elevate the part.
You have the same options in fiction. If a character who isn’t supposed to matter starts distracting from the main thread of the story, you either cut her out entirely or you figure out why you, as a writer, were so interested in her that you’ve spent more time on her than you meant to. Then, in the latter case, revise the story to make her matter more.
Most of the time, though, you want your walk-ons to disappear. You want them to fade back and be part of the scenery, part of the milieu.
To keep walk-on characters in their place, sometimes stereotyping is exactly the tool of characterization you need.
A stereotype is a character who is a typical member of a group. He does exactly what the readers expect him to do. Therefore, they take no notice of him: He disappears into the background.
If we think that a particular stereotype is unfair to the person it supposedly explains, then we’re free to deliberately violate the stereotype. But the moment we do that, we have made the character unique, which will make him attract the readers’ attention. He will no longer simply disappear—he isn’t a walk-on anymore. He has stepped forward out of the milieu and joined the story.
There’s nothing wrong with a background character violating stereotype and attracting attention—as long as you realize that he isn’t part of the background anymore. The readers will notice him, and they’ll expect his uniqueness to amount to something.
The audience still isn’t supposed to care much about him; he isn’t expected to play a continuing role in the story. He might be momentarily involved in the action, but then he’ll disappear. Still, his individuality will set a mood, add humor, make the milieu more interesting or complete. The way to make such characters instantly memorable without leading the audience to expect them to do more is to make them eccentric, exaggerated or obsessive.
Remember the movie Beverly Hills Cop? There were hundreds of placeholders in that film—thugs who shot at cops, cops who got shot at, people milling around in the hotel lobby, people at the hotel desk. They all acted exactly as you would expect them to act. They vanished. Unless you personally knew an actor who played one of the walk-ons, you don’t remember any of them.
But I’ll bet that as you walked out of the theater, you remembered Bronson Pinchot. Not by name, of course, not then. He was the desk attendant in the art gallery. You know, the one with the effeminate manner and the weird foreign accent. He had absolutely nothing to do with the story—if he had been a mere placeholder, you would never have noticed anything was missing. So why do you remember him?
It wasn’t that he had a foreign accent. In southern California, a Spanish accent would not be out of the ordinary; he would have disappeared.
It wasn’t his effeminacy. Again, he would disappear.
But the effeminacy and the accent were combined—and so the audience remembered him. What’s more important, though, is that the accent was an eccentric one, completely unexpected. Pinchot based his accent on the speech of an Israeli he once knew; the accent was so rare that almost no one in the audience recognized it. It was a genuinely novel way to speak. He was not just a foreigner; he was a strange and effeminate foreigner. Furthermore, Pinchot’s reactions to Eddie Murphy—the hint of annoyance, superiority, snottiness in his tone—made him even more eccentric. Eccentric enough to stick in our minds.
And yet, though we remembered him, we never expected his character to be important to the story. He existed only for a few laughs and to make Murphy’s Detroit-cop character feel even more alien in L.A. Pinchot managed to steal the scene—to get his promotion from walk-on—without distorting the story. He was funny, but he made no great difference in the way the story went. He simply amused us for a moment.
Because he was a minor character, that was exactly what he needed to be. Likewise, in your stories you need to realize that your minor characters should not be deeply and carefully characterized. Like flashbulbs, they need to shine once, brightly, and then get tossed away.
Another way to make a minor character flash: You take a normal human trait and make it just a little—or sometimes a lot—more extreme, like the character Sweetface in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Butch and the Kid are in a brothel; the Pinkerton detectives ride up on the street below. There we see a pudgy-faced character who looks like the soul of innocence and believability. Butch tells Sundance a brief story about him—that with Sweetface covering for them, they’re safe because everybody believes him. His innocent look is an exaggeration, but sure enough, when Sweetface points out of town, as if to say “they went thataway,” the Pinkertons take off in that direction.
A few moments later, the Pinkertons ride back and confront Sweetface again; Sweetface panics and points straight toward the room where Butch and the Kid are watching. His panic and betrayal are as exaggerated as his innocence was before. He sticks in the memory, and yet we never expected him to be important again in the plot.
Let’s go back to the example I gave of Nora’s cabby, the one she paid $20 for a $5 ride. The stereotypical reaction—“Hey, thanks, lady”—is so ordinary we can omit it entirely. But what if the cabdriver is obsessive?
“What is it, you trying to impress me? Trying to show me you’re big time? Well, don’t suck ego out of me, lady!
I only take what I earn!”
Nora had no time for this. She hurried away from the cab. To her surprise, he jumped out and followed her, shouting at her with as much outrage as she’d expect if she hadn’t paid him at all.
“You can’t do this to me in America!” he shouted. “I’m a Protestant. You never heard of the Protestant work ethic?”
Finally she stopped. He caught up with her, still scolding. “You can’t do your rich-lady act with me, you hear me?”
“Shut up,” she said. “Give me back the twenty.” He did, and she gave him a five. “There,” she said. “Satisfied?”
His mouth hung open; he looked at the five in utter disbelief. “What is this!” he said. “No tip?”
Now, that’s a guy who won’t let go. If you saw that scene in a movie or even read it in a novel, chances are you’d remember the cabdriver. Yet you wouldn’t expect him to be important in the plot. If he showed up again it would be for more comic relief, not for anything important.
For instance, when the story is all but over and Nora is coming home with Pete for a well-earned rest, it could be funny if they get in a cab and it turns out to be the same driver. The audience would remember him well enough for that. But they would be outraged if the cabdriver turned out to be an assassin or a long-lost cousin.
This would not be true, however, if this were the first scene in the story. At the beginning of the story, all the characters are equal—we don’t know any of them at all. So if in fact you wanted to tell the story of how Nora got involved with this obsessive-compulsive cabdriver—or how the cabdriver managed to get Nora’s attention so he could start dating her—this would be a pretty good beginning.
The other side of that coin is that if the cabdriver is supposed to be minor, you could not begin the story with this scene. If these were the first five paragraphs of the story, we would naturally expect that the story was going to be about Nora and the cabby, and when Nora goes on through the story without ever seeing or even thinking of the cabdriver again, at some point many readers are going to ask, “What was that business with the cabdriver all about?”
As you use these techniques to varying degrees with the many characters in your story, an unconscious ranking of the characters will emerge in the readers’ minds, starting with the least-important background characters, moving up through the minor characters, to the major characters, and finally to two or three main characters or a single protagonist—the people or person the story is mostly about.