Tuesday, March 31, 2015

More on minions — and other minor characters

I loved Mario’s post this weekend. The word “minion” conjures up so many wonderful images, but it was also a very thoughtful piece that caused me to begin thinking about minor characters and even those little walk-ons that happen when one is writing fiction.

We often talk about “colour” and “place” in novels and they are crucial important background items that help a great deal in bringing a story to vivid life – especially if the reader lives there or has visited. That visceral “I’ve seen that building!” or “I know that place”, can certainly add to a novel’s success. For those who haven’t been to that location, the writer must provide clear images to fire the imagination and inner eye of the reader. It really can be the kiss of death when a novelist can’t manage to portray these things believably (or at all).

But maybe there’s a third very important background piece that is too often taken for granted in novel writing: the perfect background character.

I know I’ve been guilty of not giving these important people their due. You know what I mean. If you had to visually represent them, most would be cardboard cutouts. It’s quick and easy to populate a story with the “extras” you need, but I, for one, need to do it with more care.

There is something else that must be considered here, though, before you start to flesh out those walk-ons: how much is too much?

Everyone in a novel can’t be a “character”, those people who are quirky, often memorable, and when used judiciously, can lift the writing directly into the readers’ imagination. I can’t remember now whose novel it was (but it was a well-known, dare I say, famous author who was well thought of), but I do remember not finishing the book. The problem was that every character seemed to have an interesting background, or something quirky about their personality to the point that the main characters seemed overwhelmed by the background and the story rather bogged down. I remember thinking, Too hard to wade through, and set the book aside.

So that’s the back side of this coin. The front side reveals books that are so plot- and/or character- driven that unimportant characters are herded on and off the stage to the point where they seem more like cattle.

Where is the happy medium and how do you know when you’ve found it? And what are the secrets to being in that “sweet spot”?

I’ll have more thoughts on this next week, but first, I want to hear from Type M readers, and not just those of you who are authors. For the readers: how much do you want/need to know about those with whom the main characters in a book interact? What authors do you think handle this particularly well – and why? For the authors: how do you handle this aspect when crafting your novels?

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