April 11, 2003

Fleshing out minor characters

I occassionally drop by Holly Lisle's Forward Motion online writing group. Their concept is to 'pay it forward.' Someone asked the question on how to flesh out minor characters without distracting from the main story.

The more we learn of a character, the more the reader expects them to matter to the plot line.

If the heroine jumps in a cab and says "Fourth and main," rides to the destination and gets out, the cabbie doesn't need a name or description.

If the heroine jumps in a cab, and the cabbie yells "Hey, my light isn't on. I'm on break" And the heroine tips him twenty bucks to go on duty, the cabbie still doesn't need a name or description.

If the cabbie is the same cabbie as a earlier trip, you can get away with something like "the red haird cabbie" but people start to suspect he matters in the story. In a comedy, its done to build humor "Oh no you again!" In a spy film, he'll probably end up being a spy. You don't need to talk about if he's married or if he has kids or necessarily even his name.

In fact, he can be just short of the heroine's side kick and still be just 'a cabbie with red hair' and the rest be up to the reader's imagination. Giving him a name like "John" or "Abdul" will be easier to deal with him than the descriptor, but makes him more important in the story still.

In mysteries you do go into lots of stray details because you want to hide information. So if the heroine goes to a English house party, there will be the villian, the lover interest, and then all the red herrings. At that point, you can give out info in great reams and not really detour the story -- because the story is the process of winnowing through the mass of info for the important clues.

So how do you add it?

There is the simple tell:

"The woman on the right is Lady Whimsey. Her husband is the famous Lord Whimsey who solves murders. You must know of him. Their courtship was quite remarkable -- she murdered her first husband -- poisoned him -- and Lord Whimsey got her off scott free!"

Or the character can talk about himself.

"I'm a Tigger. That's spelled T-i-gah-er. I'm the only one you know." And he went on to explain that his bottom was made of rubber and his tail made of springs -- quite unlikely if you ask me -- all the while careening around the place like a hyper ball. After close questioning, I discovered that -- yes, thankfully -- he was a sole creation of a mad scientist who is now dead.

Or the hero can already know the info.

That left me no choice but to take the empty seat next to Stinky Robert. Yes, he lived up to his name. My mother says I'm to take pity on him since his mother died years ago and his father was a drunkard, ill-fit to raising a child. I liked taking pity on him from across the room. Like usual, he was stealing something out of his coat pocket to nibble on when the teacher wasn't looking. No one in four years of grade school had ever figured out what he kept in his pockets. Eye witness reports say it was green and apparently hard, so rumor had it that it was rabbit pellets. I eyed him as his filthy hand dipped into his pocket.

How much you tell without side tracking the story depends on what level of detail you maintain through out the story.

If you give lush details on everyone the heroine meets, the result will be a lush world with a plot line slightly out of focus. Where are we going? We're not sure but we're enjoying the trip.

The tighter the plot line, the more frantic the pace, the less you will find out about anyone but the main characters.

The trick is to be sure everything MAINTAINS the level. If you're doing lean and mean and suddenly spend five paragraphs on a side character -- that character MUST matter. If you're doing lush, you can't stop the level of detail halfway through the book -- unless of course the heroine has her brain half-eaten by an alien and she's teleported to another world -- but you might loose a few readers there. ;-)

Posted by wen at April 11, 2003 06:16 PM