It’s absolutely amazing how often first Wednesday’s come around – like once a month, and to a busy writer, that’s like light speed. Well, here’s another installment for Alec Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer’s Support Group, a group of bloggers who share hints, fears, tips, and a lot of good dope on the writing life. You should pop over to Alec’s site to get a gander at some of the great blogs in this group. In the meantime, here’s a little piece on what to do about secondary characters in your stories:
You’ve done your book outline, created fully-rounded main characters, given your protagonist(s) daunting challenges, planted clues, and painted scenery that adds to the suspense and mystery, so you think you’re ready to dash off 40 to 50,000 words of deathless prose. Think again. There’s one more thing you need to do to have a story that your readers can really dive into – you need to create a cast of walk-ons – the nameless supporting characters that make your story truly come alive for your readers.
In the movies, the background characters never have names. They’re merely ‘the policeman at the intersection’ or ‘the convenience store clerk,’ but, without them, a story is one dimensional. It’s little more than the main characters talking to each other against a flat backdrop. The same is true of written fiction. Background or supporting characters add the necessary color and authenticity that makes it possible for a reader to suspend disbelief and enjoy your story.
While it’s not necessary to spend a lot of time crafting these characters, care must be taken to keep them from being flat, cardboard stereotypes that can turn a reader off. By flat, I mean characters like ‘the vapid blonde’ or the ‘stingy Scotchman.’ If your protagonist enters a store or fills up at a service station, he or she is likely to interact briefly, or at least notice, the staff. Without using too many words, paint a picture of these characters that adds a touch of realism to the scene. Getting to know the demographics of your setting is the way to do this. Who, for instance, is most likely to be a taxi driver in your area during the time of your story? In Washington, DC, where many of my stories are set, during the 1970s until the late 1990s, most cabbies were African – mainly Nigerian. In the past decade or so, that demographic has altered. Now, many DC cab drivers are from west Asia – Bangladesh or Pakistan. In many of the city’s urban neighborhoods, the convenience stores were once run by Koreans, but that too has changed. Now, your protagonist is likely to buy from an Indian or an Ethiopian.
If you want these characters to be more than cardboard props who make change, study the cultures and even though they remain nameless, have them speak and act in character. This can be done through dialogue. Many Asian languages, for instance, form plurals of nouns by merely adding a number rather than changing the noun. In Korean, for example, the word for man is nam-ja. A man is not ‘a man’, but merely ‘man,’ and more than one man is not ‘men,’ but ‘two man’ or ‘many man’ (tu nam-ja or mani nam-ja) and often a foreigner will, when speaking English, do a direct translation from his or her own language, making these phrases come out ‘two man’ or ‘many man.’ Inserting such a phrase in a bit of the character’s dialogue, along with a description, effectively paints the picture. Be judicious, though, when you do this. Once or twice is enough to let the reader know the character’s background, and if the character speaks again, even if you write it in standard English, the reader will make the translation because you’ve already set it up.
It can also add interest if you turn stereotypes around. The ‘dumb blonde’ for instance, could be a blonde receptionist who is reading a copy of National Geographic or Scientific American. With just that bit of prose, you’ve created a character that will stand out in the reader’s mind.
Creating credible secondary characters can make your story stand out, and is worth the effort you put into it. And, it’s not all that difficult. Keep a journal with you as you travel, and make notes of interesting people you see – how they dress, how they speak, and any peculiar mannerisms. Then, when you have to insert a walk-on character into your story, mix and match your observations. Don’t name them unless they will play a part in the story at a later point. A brief description that makes them unique is enough.
You’ll find that rounding out your supporting cast will make your story come alive.