Saturday, July 28, 2007

"Minor" Characters

Minor characters appear in books and films to add flavor to the story and setting. Though they appear only for a few minutes, usually they’re memorable. Zuzu Bailey (played by Karolyn Grimes) had only two spoken lines in It’s a Wonderful Life. Most memorable is the one at the end of the film, “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.” And who can forget Prissy (played by Butterfly McQueen) and her squeaky voice in Gone With the Wind? “Please Miss Scarlett, I know all about birthin’ babies!” Or Mammy’s frequent looks of consternation and the bright red petticoat, a gift from Rhett Butler, swooshing underneath her dress.

Minor characters offer a laugh or add to the drama and add reality to a scene so the story does not exist in a vacuum.

Recently I had a discussion on MyLot about the minor characters we run into daily. Sometimes we don’t give them much thought. We may not even know their names. On a typical day I’ll banter with the Indian men who run our corner store. At the other end of the counter the same hopeful elderly man buys his daily lottery tickets and promises to share his winnings with us. Walking to work, the man who wears a red bandana and biker shirt always stops to pet my dog and tells me he wishes he could switch places with him. The mail carrier hands me the mail and as I feign anger, he apologizes for giving me a stack of bills or junk mail. After their brief appearances, they vanish from my life for the rest of the day.

Most of the minor characters in my novel, Living in the City, were loosely based or were compilations of my colorful neighbors. For instance, Junior, "the entrepreneur," was based on an annoying and crusty man who lived across the alley from me. He owned a rusted blue ice cream truck and sold cotton candy and carnival toys. When I created Junior, I didn't like him much. But he kept inserting himself into scenes, and the more I spent time with him, the more I laughed, and the more I loved him.

Make a list of the people you meet in a typical day. Include those with whom you’ve never exchanged a single word. Those whom you pass without a second thought. Those who irritate you or make you smile, even for a brief moment. Those you’ve seen only once, those you’ve passed on the street, the one in front of you at the check-out line. Maybe they’ve made an impression on you—either positive or negative. Or maybe you hardly remember them, as they passed in a blur. Really make yourself remember. Hone in on at least one detail.

Now choose one and do a freewrite. Describe his or her appearance in detail by going from top to bottom. Start with the hair, the eyes, his build, what he’s wearing. Describe the way he walks and talks. His smell. What he’s carrying. If you can’t remember these details, make them up.

Give this person a name. Create a back story. Where did this person come from? What did he do, or what is he about to do? What is he thinking? What does he want most in life? Give him a life. Write about a typical “day in the life of…”

For an additional challenge, choose two or more from your list and make them interact. As you come across more “minor” characters in life, add them to your list. Freewrite as time allows.


Caryn Swark said...

Hi there,

I just wanted to let you know that I've been checking out your blog and really enjoying it. You have great advice. I plan to post a vote for you with blogger's choice.

Like you, I'm a writer with a blog and I've been nominated for a blogger's choice award. Please feel free to check out my blog If you are interested, we could exchange links, and if you feel you would like to vote for me in exchange, that's great too (or not -- no worries).

Keep up the great work!

Rita Marie Keller said...

Hi Caryn!
Thanks for reading my blog. I appreciate all your kind words. I'd love to exchange links!
Again, thanks for visiting!