Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

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.   

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