“There are no small parts, only small actors.”
The truth in this Hollywood line is that any actor can make his part better by bringing out every ounce of character in the role. Thelma Ritter did it in spades in roles like she had in All About Eve and Rear Window. Her presence and personality did a lot for the part, but let’s also give some credit to the playwright. And in a book or short story, you have to give ALL the credit to the author… or the blame if he or she doesn’t make every character work, large or small.
But what about those minor characters?
- They bring the background to life. Example: regulars in a cheap dive bring out the seedier side of life while diners at the Ritz show us how the other half lives.
- They provide information about the surroundings and specifics. They can run in and tell us the bridge is out or mention that so-and-so’s nutty sister is still in the institution or just got out of the slammer.
- They add mood and comic relief. Example: Joe Pesci in a Mel Gibson movie.
- They can be places the hero might not be able to be. This works especially well in a first person narrative. The main character can’t be everywhere, so Old Clem can fill our hero in on what’s happening somewhere else.
- They can advance the plot. Sometimes you need to dump information without making it sound like an information dump. When the old lady down the street can tell our hero every move of the mysterious guy who rents the small house on the corner, get out of the way and let her blab.
- In mysteries, Secondary Characters are called suspects… or victims.
Flat vs. Round Characters (Amongst our Minor Players)
Flat characters can be described in one or two sentences. They fit their surroundings, sometimes the way they dress tells us if we are in the city or a rural environment. Since they have a minor part, often they don’t need a name because they aren’t on stage or the page very long.
Example: The butler, with the demeanor of an undertaker, escorted the police detective and the other officer to the business wing of the large house with solemnity befitting a funeral procession. It was slow and wordless, like a bizarre pantomime. The men were ushered inside the large workroom and the door firmly shut behind them. From “A Perfect Alibi” in From Light TO DARK by G.B. Pool
The term “butler” alone says we aren’t in a flop house in the Bowery. If you are writing a short story you can eliminate a lot of unnecessary words by dropping in a character who fits a particular situation.
Round characters are those who have something to say about the situation. They inform the reader and/or the main character of facts not readily available.
Example: She stood there, all five foot-one of her, petite, platinum hair, looking up at me through glasses thicker than the bottom of a shot glass. She must have been eighty-five. Why did I seem to attract folks lingering in God’s waiting room?
“You’re Johnny Casino, aren’t you?” she said, her faded blue eyes squinting at me, sizing me up. “You came to my house when you were looking for that dead girl, didn’t you? She wasn’t dead, was she?”
I managed a “no,” but that was all.
“I told you I heard their voices. All those dead girls. They’re still there, you know?”
I remembered her, all right. She looked like Ruth Gordon in that Clint Eastwood movie with the orangutan. Just another nutty old lady who sees things that aren’t there and hears things that were never said. She swore she could feel the vibes from scores of dead girls buried in her backyard.
“Have you talked to the sheriff?” I said, resuming my quest for the perfect cold brew.
“He thinks I’m crazy.” She tugged my sleeve. “But I’m not.”
“We found the missing girl,” I said over my shoulder. “She wasn’t dead. You don’t need to worry anymore.”
“These girls are dead. I can feel it. I hear them screaming, ‘Stop! Stop! You’re killing me, or am I already dead?’”
From “The Snuff That Dreams Are Made Of” in The Johnny Casino Casebook 2 by G.B. Pool
The fact that this is an old lady is slowly revealed one word at a time until we get to the thick glasses part. She adds to her part by not letting the detective get a word in edge-wise. The old lady gives Johnny information that he needs to solve this case. And she has personality up the wazoo.
Here’s a brief exercise to work those creative muscles of yours.
Minor Character Worksheet – Describe a lumberjack or deep sea fisherman who is a minor character in a story.
NOTE: Okay, this was a trick… If you wrote out more than a word or two about either the fisherman or the lumberjack, you were working too hard. The very fact both of these occupations come with a built-in look, all you had to do was mention that occupation. Most readers will assume you mean the guy with the yellow slicker and wading boots on a fishing boat or the big guy with the plaid shirt and an ax over his shoulder in the woods. You needn’t go much further than that unless there is something unique about the guy like maybe one is three-feet tall or one had a peg leg. Stock characters are just that. A mention of their occupation or places they frequent tells the reader all he or she needs to know. Save your word count for something important.
Without a handful of great characters, all you have is a travel guide. Readers want someone to care about and be willing to travel with, but in a short story you will have fewer people to go along for the ride. In your novel, you can have a few more of these folks to carry your story along.
But remember this, if the character has no purpose, if he isn’t imparting valuable information or if she isn’t describing the surroundings, eliminate them. You can also combine several of your walk-ons into one character so you don’t have too many folks populating your story.
Also, if you have too many minor characters, they will start to clutter up your story. Your reader won’t know if he is supposed to remember this character or if the person is just an information-dropping entity.
If you don’t give the minor character a name, it will be assumed they aren’t a major player. That might help. But most of all make sure they have a reason for being there. Remember, there are no small parts…