Make your minor characters work for you
Published: June 14, 2006
|How do we know that Scarlett O'Hara is catnip to men? The Tarleton twins show us in the first scene of Gone With the Wind by their adulation of her. The author doesn't tell us—she has minor characters do it for her.|
"Never fail to use your secondary character, wherever possible to characterize your protagonist and to further your plot..."
In The Godfather, Mario Puzo doesn't tell us that Corleone is powerful and ruthless and lives outside the law, he shows us. In the very first chapter, the author skillfully establishes the eponymous Godfather's character and position by giving us brief vignettes of three minor chararcters in deep trouble: the wronged undertaker, Amerigo Bonasera; the washed-up crooner, John Fontaine; and an anguished father, the baker Nazorine. Who do they decide is the only person to come up with illegal solution to their woes? Don Corleone. And in the next sequence we see them reverently approach the Don himself with their pleas and see him solve their problems savagely. And later that day, we hear Kay, another minor figure, speaking to Michael, the Don's son:
Kay said thoughtfully. "Are you sure you're not jealous of your father? Everything you've told me about him shows him doing something for other people. He must be good-hearted." She smiled wryly. "Of course, his methods are not exactly constitutional."How much more convincing this method is than if the author himself had ticked off a list of the Don's characteristics and background information. Never fail to use your secondary characters wherever possible to characterize your protagonist and to further your plot.
What would detective Steve Carella, of Ed McBain's many books about the 87th precinct, do without Meyer Meyer and the other minor chararcters who illuminate his lively pages? And in Nelson DeMille's current bestseller, Plum Island, Detective John Corey goes from minor character to minor character, each with his or her own life and agenda, until he finally uncovers the identity of the murderer.
Books about criminal activities usually lean heavily on secondary characters. In Silent Witness, Richard North Patterson's recent bestseller, the young attorney depends greatly on his old mentor's advice—and so do the readers—to find out necessary information of a technical nature about the murder:
Some secondary characters are dead before the story even starts, viz., the ghost of Hamlet's father, Mrs. Maximilian de Winters in Daphne Maurier's classic novel, Rebecca; and the writer Terry O'Neal in Olivia Goldsmith's 1996 novel The Bestseller.
Saul gave him a sour smile. "Don't you find it a little funny that we're the ones having this conversation?"
"I stopped laughing about an hour ago, Saul. When Stella Marz told me about the blood on Sam's steering wheel."
Saul's smile vanished. "There are a thousand possible explanations, my son. Even if it's hers. They can't convict on that."
"I know that. But that's not enough to make me feel better."
Saul reached for the bottle, pacing himself a precise two inches, neat, in a tumbler.
What would playwrights have done over the years without minor characters? The curtain goes up:
BUTLER (Dusting the furniture): We've best get this parlour spick and span wot wif the young master comin' 'ome from the war!Just as the playwrights did a do (and one hopes, more subtly than the above example), so can novelists and short story writers use minor characters to let the readers in on who the protagonists are and what their problem is.
MAID (Arranging some flowers): And 'im bringin' ome some French floozie he wants to marry the missus sayin' over m' dead body and all.
Homer knew the significant role minor characters could play. In The Iliad, the soldiers are grumbling, about the war; they've been in Troy ten long years, and they want to go back home to Greece. This is the only war in history where both sides knew exactly what they were fighting for—Helen of Troy—but the soldiers are battle weary and homesick. Then radiant Helen walks by. Wow! The men stare at her unbelievable beauty, then grab weapons enthusiastically and charge back into fight, home and hearth forgotten.
"A minor character can perform a valuable function for the author, subtly expressing some final thought or emotion for the reader&..."
Now we have been made to believe that Helen is indeed the most beautiful creature in the world in a way that all the adjectives in the dictionary could not accomplish.
Which would convince you more of a character's likeness? Consider the following:
Old Daniel Badger seemed a cold aloof man, but actually he was quite kind and did many nice things for people in town.
Or do you prefer this:
When Daniel Badger shuffled out of the barber shop, Max growled, "Old sourpuss!"
"Yeah?" said Bill. "When my little girl took sick with cancer last year I got an anonymous check in the mail for five grand for the treatment. Saved her life. Just found out yesterday—my son works in the bank—he told me who sent it. Old man Badger! And I barely know the guy."
Of course, the second is more convincing because no conniving, manipulative writer told you about Badger; you just happened to overhear it at the barbershop.
Secondary characters can be invaluable in describing your main character's looks. The narrator of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic, The Great Gatsby, is a minor player in the story, but is important in helping us see the people and events. Here we get first look at the protagonist:
The narrator in Gatsby also serves as sort of a Greek chorus, briefly summing up the meaning of the novel, and ending with the lovely line: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
He smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced or it seemed to face- the whole eternal world for an instant, then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey. Precisely at that point it vanished-and I was looking at an elegant young roughneck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd.
In this way, a minor character can perform a valuable function for the author, subtly expressing some final thought or emotion for the reader. In my novel Matador, when the hero dies, a very minor character, Cascabel, a banderillero, sums up the tragedy and the heartlessness of the crowd-"the only beast in the arena," as Blasco lbafiez wrote in Blood and Sand:
"More and more," said Cascabel dully, the tears spilling down his face. "They kept demanding more and more—and more was his life, so he gave it to them."Sometimes minor characters achieve a life of their own, "pad their parts," and become pivotal in the plot even to the point of altering the outcome of the story. Such a character is the oily Uriah Heep in Dickens's David Copperfield; the murderer in Joseph Kanon's current bestseller, Los Alamos; and many characters in Elmore Leonard's books.
So take care with your minor characters; as factors in your story they can be major. Be sure to invest them with human idiosyncrasies, foibles and agendas of their own. They can enhance your main characters, provide your plot with unanticipated twists and let your readers know that they are in the hands of a professional writer.
From the January 1998 issue of The Writer.
The author of the bestseller Matador and 33 other books, Barnaby Conrad is the founder of the Santa Barbara Writers Conference.
--Posted June 14, 2006