Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

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….

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  1. “Exhausted brown!”

    • Jessica Morrell says:

      It’s a fabulous story with fabulous writing–her use of color, details, and mood are all exemplary.

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