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Friday, September 23, 2011

My Gratitude Journal: Extras

Looking at the roles of major and minor characters and especially of the extras in our fiction has caused me to do some examination of the people in my life.

Since I've already admitted to being weird and thinking weird things, it probably won't surprise any of you that I frequently think about the "extras" in my life -- the people who come and go, whose presence touches my life in some meaningful way for a moment, but only for that moment.

My town has its share of four-way stop signs. We all know the rules of the road when it comes to such places, and yet there are occasional moments that aren't exactly covered by the rules. What if two folks arrive at the exact same moment, apparently, but the one on the left may have been half a second before the one on the right? In such cases, it takes a moment of communication between the two drivers.

I've had numerous occasions when someone waved me through ahead, easing my way. I may never see that person again, but for a moment he or she made my life easier.

Once I passed through a bridge toll path only to find that the driver of the pick-up, two ahead of me, had paid his own toll and the tolls for the following three cars. I never even saw that driver, but I still remember the way his small gesture blessed my whole day, and I've occasionally paid the toll for someone else as well. Paying it forward is often the best way to express thanks.

I've had people step out of the way in the grocery line when they had full carts and I only had a couple of items. I've tried to do the same when people behind me have only a few small things.

People can be so kind, courteous and thoughtful -- even to strangers. Today I'm grateful for all the people who have played tiny roles in my life, blessing me with kindness even though we may never meet again.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The two truck operator

On Thursdays I like to showcase bits of my work-in-progress. So why am I about to show you a piece from a book published more than two decades ago? My first book, BENEATH SIERRA SKIES, is being reissued in digital format, so what was old is new again.

Also I have a great character in there, an "extra" who barely appears, a functionary. I like him, though. I like the way he shows up, does his job and vanishes, never to be heard from again. Still, like some great extras in movies you've seen and books you've read, he has some memorable lines.

He's a tow truck operator sent by Robin's auto club when she finds her car won't start. From Chapter 2, here is their brief conversation:

The truck took its time arriving. Robin’s worry grew as she watched the attendant poke and prod the engine. “This car’s gonna need a mechanic, lady,” he said at last, pulling out some forms. “Where d’ya want me to take it?”

“Is there any place that can work on it right now? I need to drive to Modesto tonight.”

“It don’t seem likely, ma’am. You can try the Chevy place on Mangrove, though.”

“If you think that’s my best chance.” Robin signed the necessary papers, then unloaded everything and stacked it in her living room as the truck left with her car.

The unnamed two truck driver serves the function of confirming that Robin's car isn't going to get her to her sister's wedding and helps us understand why she is desperate enough to beg a plane ride from the cardiologist who has just tried to have her fired.

If Robin and Brandon never got in an airplane together, they would never end up BENEATH SIERRA SKIES, so the truck driver's role is important, however small it is.

The Great Bard said there are no small parts; only small actors. Perhaps we can say the same for the extras in our own casts of characters.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Minor Character Roles: Web Tip

Today's web tip comes from author Paul Rance who looks at how to give your minor characters important roles in your story.

In a post from about a year ago, Rance tells us, "Minor characters can certainly be of great value in fiction, and they can often be as important as major characters. Minor characters will often be pivotal to the whole story, and/or be a vital thread linking the major characters."

Yes, indeed. Think of Gone with the Wind without Scarlett's Mammy or Robin Hood without Will Scarlet. We need those minor characters.

As you consider the roles of the people in your own life, you know there are some (family and intimate friends, for instance) who are main characters in your life, and others (a co-worker you see briefly a few times a week, perhaps?) who take more minor roles, but we need them all.

So do your fictional characters. Give them people to share their stories, push their lives along, move their worlds. Give them minor characters who have important work to do.

What minor characters have had great meaning for you?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Indomitable Spirit: a Lesson

It's said that we gather the best and worst traits for our fictional characters from what we see and hear in the world around us. If so, a little girl I know and love has recently given me cause to celebrate toughness and optimism.

Adelaide isn't quite two yet. In fact, she was more than three months from her second birthday when the incident I'm about to describe occurred. She was climbing out of a portable crib, not more than two-and-a-half feet off the floor, and her mom was encouraging her discovery: "You can do it, Adelaide."

Then came the freakish accident: a toe caught in netting, a drop to the floor, a one-point landing on her left arm with the arm pinned between her body and the base of the port-a-crib.

Adelaide came up shrieking. Mommy, immediately repentant, ran to her and cuddled, assuring her she would be all right, but it was clear from the sag in her left arm that the bones weren't doing their assigned job. A trip to the hospital E-R and a set of x-rays proved the truth: Adelaide had broken both bones in her left forearm, both snapped and separated.

The first evidence that our little girl is made of tough stuff came minutes after the accident when the screaming ended. Adelaide lifted her one good arm into the air and announced, "I did it!" Broken or not, she had climbed out of the port-a-crib all by herself, and she wanted to celebrate her victory.

Since then she's been impossible to slow down. Although the arm has been wrapped first in a fiberglass splint and then in a hard cast, both too heavy to lift without help, she still insists on climbing, jumping, playing and doing everything she always did. Now she just does it one-handed. Nothing is stopping her. And she's doing it all with very little pain medication, which doesn't really agree well with her tiny tummy.

I couldn't be much prouder of my little granddaughter, and I'm going to remember her indomitable spirit. Future heroines may have just a little more of Adelaide in them than they might have had otherwise.

Is there a real-life hero or heroine in your life?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Roles for our Minor Characters

THIS JUST IN! My second book for Covenant, A SECRET FAMILY RECIPE, will be published in soft cover in 2013. Wahoo! Moving on . . .

What roles should the minor characters play in your novel? For now, just know that every character must have a role, a clear function and significance; otherwise, there’s no reason to have that character. In life, people simply are and that’s good enough. In fiction, a character must have a reason to be or he’s history, outta there, toast – and it’s your job as the writer to toast him.

I well remember Lilia Garcia, the wise-cracking co-worker and companion with whom Robin worked in my first novel, BENEATH SIERRA SKIES. Lilia was meant to serve as local color and also to illuminate Robin’s character, allowing her to speak her ideas about the hero (Dr. Brandon Demarse) aloud.

It was my first editor, Amy Inman at Silhouette, who pointed out that I already had another character (Robin’s boss, Nancy) who served that role. It was also Amy who advised me to cut Lilia. Poor Lilia. She had been a loved, fun character, but her purpose wasn’t worth the room she took on the page. Cutting Lilia from the story made for a much better book.

You’ve seen what happens when beginning writers pop in fleshed-out characters that have no clear role or only a minor function. Think for example of this extract from a would-be novel: “There was a commanding knock at the door. It was Steve Harrington, my UPS delivery guy. He is the son-in-law of my friend, Debbie Marston, married to her daughter, Amy Marston Harrington. They have three pretty little girls – Macie, Michelle and Mylie – all delightful blonde, blue-eyed darlings. Steve had come to bring me my book I ordered from Amazon. I was looking forward to a quiet night at home with my book and my cat, Sophronia, curled up reading until I retired.” If we never see Steve in the book again, why do we know all this about him?

For that matter, Sophronia had better be important, or she doesn’t need a name, either. She can simply be "my cat." In that situation, it’s better to end the fictional lives of all those seven non-characters before they even begin: “There was a knock at the door and I opened it to thank the delivery man who had brought me the book I ordered.”

So look at your minor characters. Give them warmth, life and color, but most of all, give them purpose. If they have no purpose, they have no being. Period.