Word by Word

Practical insights for writers

Take Care with Minor Characters, part 2

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Mar• 19•18

Sven and Olaf, Frozen

In fiction there’s a hierarchy when it comes to characters: the protagonist, antagonist, secondary characters, minor, walk-on, and stock characters. Let’s focus more on minor characters, shall we? Writers who neglect minor characters are neglecting an essential ingredient, like omitting garlic or oregano from pasta sauce.

Minor characters, like secondary characters operate in a strictly supporting role.

  • They are rarely viewpoint characters.
  • Don’t take up a lot of ‘stage time’ and readers generally don’t care about them a lot.
  • Do not have a subplot.
  • This means they’re usually ‘flat’ that is, they won’t change over the course of the story and they’re not fully dimensional. (There are exceptions to this.)

HOWEVER: Minor characters add color, verve, spice, eccentricity.

  • Make things happen, help advance the plot.
  • Establish the setting.
  • Provide insights or information about major characters. Without secondary and minor characters the protagonist would be isolated.
  • Prove that the protagonist has grown or changed.
  • Support the mood or atmosphere in a scene.
  • Breathe life into the story.
  • Disprove stereotypes.
  • Support themes.


To Kill a Mockingbird: Heck Tate, Calpurnia, Judge John Taylor, Miss Maudie Atkinson, Dolphus Raymond

A Christmas Carol: Tiny Tim, Belle, Scrooge’s former fiance, Fred, Scrooge’s nephew, Fezziwig

Harry Potter series: Colin Creevey, Katie Bell, Pansy Parkinson,  Padmil & Parvati Patil, Neville Longbottom, Cho Chang (to name but a few)

Hunger Games series: Madge Undersee, Katniss’ friend who gave her the mockingjay pin, Caesar Flickerman the television host, Effie Trinket, the District 12 escort, other tributes–Cato, Thresh, Clove, Foxface, Glimmer, Marvel,  (Rue is a secondary character)

A few more tips:

  • While a minor character can be quirky or sexy, he or she shouldn’t distract readers from the main events and characters. Generally the more you tell your reader about a minor character, the more you elevate his or her importance.
  • Use minor characters for humor or breathers in the story.
  • Minor characters should complete the story, create verisimilitude.
  • Give them a ‘job’ to do, such as a witness in crime novel. In The Hunger Games,  Marvel, the tribute from District 1 kills Rue with a spear through her stomach. Later Katniss kills him. Although she’s already taken out several competitors, she is now a hunter, not the hunted, a significant shift in the story.
  • Emulate J.K. Rowling and Charles Dickens and grant your minor characters silly, memorable, or suggestive names. As in Martin Chuzzlewit and  Sophronia Akershem, and Uncle Pumblechook.
  • Use minor characters to reveal class, ethnicity, culture, and the milieu of the story world.
  • Brooks, Shawshank Redemption

Don’t be afraid to give them a poignant role or to motivate another character as Brooks does in Shawshank Redemption. Poor Brook is elderly when he’s paroled from Shawshank. Problem was, he didn’t have the youth or skills to cope on the outside and ends up hanging himself. He serves as Red’s ‘anti-mentor’ in the story. Later, when Red the narrator is also paroled after spending years in prison, readers and movie viewers are reminded of Brooks’ fate. Will Red follow him? 


Language is a Freedom

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Mar• 09•18

For me, language is a freedom. As soon as you have found the words with which to express something, you are no longer incoherent, you are no longer trapped by your own emotions, by your own experiences; you can describe them, you can tell them, you can bring them out of yourself and give them to somebody else. That is an enormously liberating experience, and it worries me that more and more people are learning not to use language; they’re giving in to the banalities of the television media and shrinking their vocabulary, shrinking their own way of using this fabulous tool that human beings have refined over so many centuries into this extremely sensitive instrument. I don’t want to make it crude, I don’t want to make it into shopping-list language, I don’t want to make it into simply an exchange of information: I want to make it into the subtle, emotional, intellectual, freeing thing that it is and that it can be.

~ Jeanette Winterson


Creating Vivid Minor Characters

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Mar• 04•18

Last week I finished reading Melissa Arnold’s The Hazel Wood and I’m still thinking about it. Don’t you love how good stories linger in your memory, how characters ghost around after you read the final page? It’s a YA dark fantasy, the protagonist is 17-year-old Alice Crewe who has spent most of her young life on the run with her mother Ella,  and it’s intricate and magical with layers and layers of mystery and danger.

The story centers around a collection of bleak and grisly fairy tales, Tales from the Hinterland, written by Alice’s grandmother, Althea Prosperpine. The book is out-of-print, impossible to locate, has  a cult of obsessive fans, and Alice’s mother has forbidden her to read it. Then Althea dies and Ella and Alice settle into a mostly normal life in New York. But normalacy is ripped away when Ella is kidnapped, leaving behind a note warning Stay Away from the Hazel Wood. The Hazel Wood is Althea’s mysterious estate and Alice and her friend Ellery Finch, a fanboy, head out searching for Ella. I won’t give away too much, but I will mention that this story twists around  sinister and scary paths. It’s also about the magic of storytelling and books and the worlds we visit between their pages.

One device worth emulating was the care Albert took with all  her characters, including minor and walk-on characters. It’s a large cast so it’s important that they’re each distinctive. They are vividly drawn and imagined and add quirkiness, fairy-tale ambiance, and menace.

Searching for clues to Ella’s disappearance they hear about a copy of the rare book and visit the bookseller’s shop. Here’s the first description of him: The man who opened the door looked less like an antiquarian bookseller and more like a bookie. His tie was a loud yellow, his suit an exhausted brown. He had a napkin tucked into his collar that appeared to be covered with barbecue sauce.  

He squinted suspiciously at Finch–all wild hair, unzipped jacket, one restless hand stuck out for a shake. “You Ellery Finch?” he said out of the corner of his mouth, like he was trying to sell us drugs in Tompkins Square Park. 

“I am. William Perks?” The guy agreed and finally took Finch’s hand, giving it two good pumps. I held mine out, but he kissed it instead. I resisted the urge to wipe it on my wrinkled uniform skirt.   

“Come in. Come in. Would you believe I just got the book you’re looking for this morning?” I knew it wouldn’t be long before collectors started sniffing me out–it’s the first one I’ve ever had in stock, and only the second I’ve seen. I’ll be damned if the quality on this one isn’t high, high, high.”

His patter made him sound like a county-fair auctioneer, but at least he wasn’t treating us like children. I’d anticipated a tidy little bookshop, lined with leather volumes and looking a bit like Finch’s library, but what I got was a mind-boggling riot of bookshelves that started a few yards from the door, standing at all angles and punctuated by free-range stacks rising from the ground, in a room that smelled like paste and paper and the animal tang of vellum. And barbecue. Perks led us to a glass case in the back, full of books open like butterflies. Finch frowned. “Bad for the spines,” he muttered.

“So I’m gonna wash my hands real good, then I’m going to bring you what you seek. ” Perks put his palms together, bowed to us, and exited the room. 

“Do you think he really got it this morning?” I asked Finch, low.

He shrugged. “Stranger things have happened. Like, recently.”

Perks zoomed back in before I could reply. I had the idea that he was as eager to sell as we were to buy. 

I was right, but not for the reason I thought.

“Here she is,” he said softly, slipping the book from the paper sleeve. 

The sight of its embossed leather cover, dull gold on green, made my breath catch. It was the book at last, soft and inviting and perfectly sized for holding. 

Notice how the store also characterizes Perks. Can’t you easily imagine him and his store? Notice how Albert used associations bookie and county-fair auctioneer to bring his character into clearer focus? Notice how the scene includes smells to amplify reality?

To read an excerpt go here.

more to come….

Write a lot

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Feb• 22•18

Write a lot. And I mean a lot. I once read that being a writer was not a hobby, it was an affliction. That rings true for me. I’m forever trying out new stories, trying out new opening chapters, etc.  Only a small portion of these ideas ends up on the to do pile on my word processor……And write regularly.  Set yourself targets as in I will not stop until I have completed 1,000 words. Occasionally I hire a cottage for a week to concentrate on launching myself into a new book. The pattern is to write 2,000 words in the morning.Then have lunch and go for a long walk on the beach.  Then write 2,000 words in the afternoon, have dinner, a bath and write 2,000 words in the evening. By the end of the week I usually have a fifth to a quarter of the book in the bag.

 ~ Simon Scarrow 

Writing may or may not be your salavation

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Feb• 17•18

Writing may or may not be your salvation; it might or might not be your destiny. But that does not matter. What matters right now are the words, one after another. Find the next word. Right it down. ~ Neil Gaiman

Take care with minor characters

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Feb• 12•18

If you’re going to have a character appear in a story long enough to sell a newspaper, he’d better be real enough that you can smell his breath. ~ Ford Maddox Ford

Minor characters are too often faceless walk-ons in fiction. But that means the writer has missed a chance to  create reality and complexity. Here’s how it’s done in Paulette Jiles dystopian novel Lighthouse Island. This scene features two minor characters her protagonist Nadia Stepan is about to meet. Problem is, she’s on the lam in a hideous, nightmare society and the authorities are searching for her. And she’s an outlaw in a desiccated, chaotic world where danger lurks everywhere and the underclass are perishing from thirst and deprivation. The government is a diabolical network of agencies that inflict senseless cruelty on most of its citizens while the one percent live in luxury.

The first character she’ll meet for only a few minutes, the second one actually saves her and she spends maybe 5 minutes with him. Nadia’s trying to bluff her way out of capture–something she’s good at. At least so far.  Notice how Jiles instills them with just enough realism to underline their purpose. How she manages this trick with only a few economical words.

Okay. The officer had tissue-engineered jaws square as a brick and eyes of two different colors and a scorpion tattoo on his neck. She saw him hesitate and so she turned and walked away down the narrow street and the biscuit-colored buildings of concrete whose dim and broken windows stared at each other across the pavement.

A hand shut on her elbow and shoved her forward. Nadia turned. A stout Forensics officer stared straight ahead and pushed her on. His gray hair shone short and clean under an old-fashioned watch cap with a bill and his body smelled of sweat and hot uniform cloth. She started to say something, to invent an objection and a story but he said Shut up. He was not much taller than she was something about him of that proctor in high school so long ago but more unwavering and quiet.

 Here are some tips for making minor characters count:

1. Anchor them to a time and place–a street cop, a waitress, a lounge singer, a Wall Street executive.

2. Give them at least one memorable characteristic. Mismatched eyes. Purple hair. A synthetic smile.Nasty yellow teeth. Vomit breath.

3. Create an interaction, however  brief–a taxi ride, an insult or accusation, asking for directions, buying a coffee. Nadia sneaks into the Ritz Carlton and makes it to the elevator.  A guard came up. His uniform was sweaty and the hem of his pants legs were leaking threads like a fringe. He smiled at her. 

All right, all right, he said. What floor?

4. Don’t worry about introducing them–they can simply appear.  Emergency workers in orange coveralls came running through the dust scrim and shouted at her to go back but she walked on toward them. The telephone poles were down and electrical wires curled in the rubble.

5. Imbue them with meaning to your protagonist. In Nadia’s world guards, troops, cops are the enemy. And they’re everywhere.

6. Give them a voice if possible. In a crowd of people who had lined up for something she saw a woman with a toddler in one arm. 

Cute kid! Nadia said and slipped the badge into the toddler’s baggy pants.

The woman glared at her. Get one of your own, she said.   

What will it take?

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Feb• 09•18

This has been another grim, difficult week in world affairs and for our tattered republic. So many worrying events going on; another government shut down, DACA hasn’t been fixed, the stock market is volatile, more scandals and cover-ups in the White House. I’m weary, citizens everywhere are weary.

But across the Pacific, in another time zone amid chilling temperatures, the Winter Olympics have begun. I plan on watching my favorite events; I plan on following the athletes’ stories, I plan to cheer on Team USA.

And I’ve found that when life is clamoring or ugly, watching figure skating can make it all recede.  So last night I watched the men’s singles and the pairs skate. Such grace and ease and athleticism across that frozen surface. I’m inspired by their stories, by their sacrifices, and thousands of hours they’ve dedicated to their sport.

Nathan Chen is a rising star skating for the US. Amid much hype and speculation about his Olympic  chances he has mastered the difficult quadruple jump. He’s even called the Quad King. And yesterday in his first performance in the men’s short program, with the whole world watching, he blew it. Even though he performed the first quadruple flip in Olympic history. All those hours of practice and more practice and in two minutes and 40 seconds it didn’t matter. He had one of the worst performances of his career.  Later, after receiving his disappointing score he said he felt bad about letting down his team.

Here’s my point:

We’re heading into mid-February, the Chinese New Year, Lent, and Valentine’s Day. If you’ve fallen, get up. Lace up your skates. Head to the ice.  I’m speaking figuratively here, of course.

Start over if need be. Pull out an old manuscript and read it with a fresh, scrutinizing eye. Transmute heartbreak or breakthrough in your memoir.  Do whatever it takes, because writing will extract much from you. Make it your obsession.  Because becoming a real writer requires stamina and thousands of hours.

I guarantee that you’ll struggle to make it look effortless. To translate the truth of your body  onto the page. At times you’ll feel muddled and thick-headed; other times you’ll feel deliciously alive and clear-headed. I can also guarantee there are fewer activities more gratifying than birthing a story, a book, a poem. It’s such a rare, fine gift to the world.


And go Team USA



Written By: Jessica Morrell - Feb• 01•18

Ursula K. LeGuin: There must be darkness to see the stars.

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 24•18

The legendary writer Ursula K LeGuin died on January 22  in her home in Portland, Oregon. She was 88 and leaves a long legacy of  novels, stories, essays, poems, and musings. It goes without saying that she inspired millions, including many writers. Her website  is a wonder and includes a link to her blog and recent writings.

Here is a smattering of her brilliance:

“When women speak truly the speak subversively–they cannot help it; if you’re underneath, if you’re kept down, you break out, you subvert. We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains. That’s what I want–to hear you erupting. You young Mt. St. Helenses who don’t know the power in you–I want to hear you.” Bryn Mahr College commencement speech, 1986

“It is very difficult for evil to take hold of the  unconsenting soul.” A Wizard of Earthsea 

“Love doesn’t just sit there like a stone; it has to be made like bread, remade all the time, made new.”

“Change is freedom, change is life. It is always easier not to think for oneself. Find a nice safe hierarchy and settle in. Don’t make changes, don’t risk disapproval, don’t upset your syndics. It’s always easiest to let yourself be governed. There’s a point, around age twenty, when you have to choose to be like everybody else the rest of your life, or to make a virtue of your peculiarities. Those who build walls are their own prisoners. I’m going to fulfill my function in the proper social organism. I’m going to unbuild walls. ”

“The book itself is a curious artifact, not showy in its technology but complex and extremely efficient: a really neat little device, compact, often very pleasant to look at and handle, that can last decades, even centuries. It doesn’t have to be plugged in, activated, or performed by a machine; all it needs is light, a human eye, and a human mind. It is not one of a kind, and it is not ephemeral. It lasts. It is reliable. If a book told you something when you were 15, it will tell it to you again when you’re 50, though you may understand it so differently that it seems you’re reading a whole new book.”

— Staying Awake: Notes on the alleged decline of reading, Harper’s Magazine, February 2008.

“You cannot buy the revolution. You cannot make the revolution. You can only be the revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.”

“The creative adult is the child who has survived.”

“We read books to find out who we are.”  The Language of the Night, 1979.

“It is above all by the imagination that we achieve perception and compassion and hope.”

“When you light a candle you also cast a shadow.”

Here is Julie Phillips brilliant piece on her published in the New Yorker, The Fantastic Ursula K LeGuin. I cannot recommend it enough.

Here is a link to Margaret Atwood’s farewell to her in The Guardian.

The interview in The Paris Review.

John Scalzi’s tribute in The Los Angeles Times.

She knew dragons. Keep writing, keep dreaming, read great writers.

Joan Didion

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 11•18

“I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package. I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment.”
– Joan Didion