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Monday, September 26, 2011

Some Roles for Minor Characters

For a couple of weeks we've been looking at the place of minor characters in our novels. Here are a few of the roles minor characters can serve in good fiction:

Someone to talk to: Yes, you’re a novelist, not a playwright, so you can delve into a character’s mind. At the same time, you may have restrictions (publishers’ guidelines are one example) that keep you from being present in the minds of all major characters. Thus a major character can let the reader know what he or she is thinking by speaking it aloud to a minor character. The minor character will have another role in the story (faithful footman, best friend, next-door neighbor, secretary), but in fact, will exist primarily to illuminate the major character to whom he or she is close.

Picture the contemporary hero who reveals his thoughts primarily by speaking to his best buddy. We can hear him tell Buddy, “She’s great. I can’t stop thinking about her,” but we can also hear the buddy say to him, “Dude, she’s not your usual type. You go for the brainless blonde bimbos.” Both lines add depth to your hero.

Local color: Suppose your heroine’s duties involve walking daily to the post office and every day, when she arrives there, she sees a mohawked, spiked, pink-haired dude in black who sits on a bench opposite the post office in a blissed-out state. The character doesn’t need to do anything but be in order to serve this purpose. Such characters may not need names or any further description. They exist to add color.

You can make them even more worthy of their place in your story by giving them a small role at some critical point. Here my example from film comes from “Groundhog Day.” Bill Murray’s character daily passes the old, homeless man who is begging on the street. The man never has a name or any life history that we see, yet he is great local color.

He also serves the role of illuminating Murray’s main character, Phil Connors. Phil’s reaction changes from impatiently brushing by him to handing him some loose bills to even trying to save his life when the old man succumbs to the cold. Thus the old, homeless man goes from being merely local color to becoming one way the viewer can see how Phil is becoming less beastly.

The Foil: A foil, while filling the role of best buddy, or local color, or illuminator for your hero/heroine, can also hold a mirror up to your character. The foil has similar life events and yet handles them in different ways, showing your reader an alternative path that is open to, but generally rejected by, the protagonist.

A famous example from novels is found in Gone with the Wind. Scarlett’s foil is her mother, Ellen. Scarlett marries first Charles, then Frank, then Rhett, but always pines for Ashley, even creating scandal. As we read about Ellen, we realize that she too had a first love, an affair of the heart that ended when her family married her to Gerald O’Hara. Instead of pining, Ellen has learned to love her husband and has been a faithful wife and a loving mother. Both women go through the war and its horrible loss, but instead of turning hard and cold as Scarlett does, Ellen becomes a near Saint, offering free midwifery to anyone who needs her, feeding hungry people and treating everyone with caring compassion. Scarlett could have been what Ellen is; hence, Ellen becomes the mirror through which we better understand Scarlett.

The competition: When two men both show interest in the same woman at the same time (or two women show interest in the same man), there’s going to be rivalry. A rival can be both a foil (showing traits similar to those of your hero or heroine, but taking different directions) and a device for illuminating your protagonist.

In RIDE THE RAINBOW HOME, the second book in my Rainbow Rock series, Alexa arrives in town injured and immediately catches the interest of Kurt McAllister, but Kurt, being gentlemanly, moves Alexa into his mother’s home instead of his own. Meanwhile, his younger brother, Chris, who is also attracted, still lives at home with his mother. Chris makes the rivalry evident right away by telling Alexa that Kurt is useful to have around, “but I’m the cute one.”

Chris wins a few rounds while Kurt becomes steadily more frustrated. Then there is a moment of truth when all three are threatened and Kurt puts Alexa’s life before his own. Chris turns to his brother and says, “You’re serious about her, aren’t you?” From then on, Chris, who has been having a great time but is not serious, backs away and becomes his brother’s wing man, encouraging Alexa in Kurt’s direction. It was a fun dynamic to work with.

As you are writing your minor characters, assess what roles they are filling. Be sure to make them worth their space on your page.

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