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.

Saturday, July 21, 2007


Around this time every year, my dad took my sisters and me on our summer camping trip. We had a favorite state park above the coal region of Pennsylvania. One year we reached the campground only to find out there were no sites available. We were told sites would open up in the next couple days. Being too far away to drive home and return, we took the park ranger’s recommendation and went to another campground a few miles away.

I was horrified (and angry with my dad for his lack of planning) when we arrived. This so-called campground was nothing more than a field off the side of the road with tents and Vanagons set up every ten feet. There was no running water. The toilet facilities were stinky outhouses at the end of the campground. We begged our dad to take us home, to forget the camping trip altogether.

“It’s just for one night,” he said and unpacked our gear. “You’ll feel better after you eat something.” As we unpacked, we discovered we had forgotten the kitchen utensils and…toilet paper.

“No biggie,” dad said. He remembered seeing a store down the road. We could get supplies there. As it turned out, it wasn’t a store but a shack selling hot dogs and ice cream. The building was falling in on itself, and I was leery of eating anything that came from that shack. But my stomach was growling, and like my sisters, I succumbed to my hunger. Our bellies full, we drove to the next town to find a real store. He laughed all the way saying we were on an adventure. I was not amused.

Our spirits lifted when my dad built a campfire. We roasted marshmallows and drank hot chocolate. The warmth of the fire surrounded me and made me feel sleepy. I turned in, feeling excited about going the state park the next day. I would not sleep that night. No one in the campground slept.

A couple sites away Foreigner blared from speakers atop a van. As the night went on, the campground grew noisier as other campers became stoned and drunk. I couldn’t bury myself deep enough in my sleeping bag to shut out the noise. Thankfully, my dad had had enough. We helped him pack up, and then we left and spent the rest of the night sleeping in our car at the entrance of the state park. The same time the following night, we were enjoying the quietness of camping, sounds of crackling fires and chirping birds. That year, I appreciated those nature sounds even more.

Freewrite about the vacations you’ve taken. What are your favorite destinations? Write about your most vivid memories. Write about the best and the worst. Don’t forget to include conversations and sensory details. Vacation doesn’t have to be about taking a trip. Write about what the word means to you. Describe your ideal vacation.

As always…have fun with it!
I've updated the Writing Practice page of the sister site, CSWriting Workshop. If you'd like more writing exercises, take a look!

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Independence Day

Happy Independence Day to all my American Readers!

When I was a little girl, every 4th of July, my Dad took my sisters and me to Coleman's Park to watch the fireworks. We'd find a spot under the knotty magnolia trees to spread our tartan blanket. Whilw we waited for dusk to arrive, we picked up magnolia petals and put them in our hair. I remember that the petals were soft and sweet-smelling. We pushed ourselves on the rickety wooden swings, trying to see how high they would go, while at the same time, we prayed they wouldn't break. Sometimes we were allowed to have ice cream. Someone was always roasting hotdogs on the charcoal grills by the pavilion.

For most of the fireworks display, I squeezed my eyes shut and covered my ears. I didn't like how the big booms made my stomach go fluttery. The magnolia smell became obliterated by the gun powder smell. The bruised magnolia petals fell out of my hair. One or two would be found on my pillow later. After the fireworks, we fought traffic all the way home.

I didn't know the meaning of Independence Day then. Fourth of July seemed to be a big pain in the neck. Later, though, I would be striving toward my own independence. Writing played a large part of it. With that came an understanding of why our country celebrates Independence Day.

How do you celebrate your independence? Freewrite for fifteen minutes about independence. What does it mean to you? When did you first feel independent? How did you get there?
More prompts for freewriting:

  • fireworks
  • magnolia trees
  • ice cream
  • swinging
  • hotdogs

I've added a new link in the links list on the right-hand side of the blog. It's not writing related, but it's a way I earn some extra cash between waiting for checks. Check out the EARN MONEY link.