Friday, July 20, 2012

No Small Parts

As I reported last time, I'm re-reading my own books as I think through my new series and work on revamping my web site. I made a discovery the other day. I realized that I seem to have a habit of having a "walk-on" character appear and then later re-appear to play a role in the resolution of the story.

As I re-read, I am recalling how these characters "came to me" as I was imagining a scene. They were there, complete in every respect. My protagonist, Lizzie, or another character that she was observing had a passing exchange with the "walk-on" character. Then the scene moved on. These characters were there to provide information, local color, and/or allow Lizzie to make an observation about herself or someone else. Later, they walked back into a scene -- surprise! I say "surprise" because I'm pretty sure I never expected to see them again. But somehow they burrowed their way into my subconscious.

And this raises a tricky writing problem -- how not to make a character a stereotype while at the same time not making him or her so memorable that readers think you're giving them a "pay attention" nudge. I noticed that in both cases (in the two books) when a walk-on character later reappeared, I had given him or her a name and distinguishing characteristics. One character wore a wool scarf around his neck and was in the habit of calling out a military command. Another character, in a book set in England, had a Southern accent and red hair. There was another time when a character would have been remembered if she had shown up again. But I did not give that character a name, apparently recognizing in my subconscious that her deep melancholy limited her usefulness.

I am fascinated to discover this about my own writing because my first non-fiction book was about the history of black characters in crime and detective fiction. I discussed the stereotyping of walk-on and minor characters (blacks and other racial/ethnic) in Golden Age classic detective fiction and hard-boiled detective fiction. So maybe that awareness of stereotypes is one of the reasons that I give my walk-on and minor characters slots in my subconscious. Or maybe that happens with many writers. No small parts -- we may need to pull even the briefly seen character out for later use in the book.

2 comments:

Hannah Dennison said...

How fascinating Frankie! I'm now determined to reread my books and see if I have walk-on characters, too.

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