by John Briggs
I’ve known plenty of authors who spend hours creating character sheets for their main characters, worry about what their shoe size is, favorite color, and the name of their childhood pet. They rewrite them to seem more alive, but forget that their minor characters, even those who appear for several pages, have personalities, too.
Remember, your story may have minor characters, but no one believes they are a minor character in their own life. Everyone has a personality.
In other words, even a wallflower doesn’t have to be as bland as wallpaper paste.
So how do you make sure they leap off the page? Here are five ways to give your minor characters some pizazz.
1. Create a dominant personality trait. You only need one. Is this person obnoxious? Patient? Overly nice? Angry? Don’t use this trait in every sentence, or use shades of it, but use it often enough so that it stands out. If you’re character is a clichéd angry cabbie, not every line has to be full of rage. Use a variety of expressions from sarcasm to swearing to hand gestures to get this trait across. Even humor could work, or a sense of satisfaction that he got his opinion out. Tie it all in to the dominant trait, but don’t make it overbearing.
2. If the dominant trait is positive, create a negative trait, too. The opposite of this is also true. If you have an extremely patient waitress, perhaps she gets frustrated as a character makes special requests or tries to order off the menu or gets drunk, etc. Of course, being a nice waitress, she keeps her temper in check, but the frustration at the other character’s action is evident.
3. Create a style of talking all their own. This doesn’t mean revert to some strained vernacular. It’s easy to stick in a foreign accent, even if that means a Texas drawl in a New York bar or a Brooklyn accent on an Iowa farm, but that always raises the question, “Why is this character there?” No, keep your characters believable. A style of talking can be a favorite word or phrase they like, a sense of humor, inappropriate words, the use of too many questions, overly eloquent phrasing, or short, clipped sentences that are little more than grunts that make it seem like Hemingway is typing away in your character’s brain.
4. Give them something memorable to wear. This doesn’t mean make them outlandish, but it does mean something that stands out, like a particular hat, or a pair of glasses. You’d be surprised how far a uniform can go. It’s easy to remember somebody in playful scrubs, a postal worker shirt, or police uniform. Even in a story full of uniformed people, like a crime or military drama, differences exist, from rank to tattoos to the way clothing fits. Exploit your minor character’s fashion sense.
5. Have them act and react. One of the biggest mistakes I see is characters that don’t react to what’s going on around them. They’re statues. They take a lunch order, but don’t interact with customers. They witness an accident, but don’t want to get involved. It’s not believable, and makes it seem like you just threw someone in there to move the scene along. Maybe you did, but it can’t feel like that to your readers, or you’ll start to lose them.
None of this means you should overdo it. Don’t let minor characters steal a scene or overshadow your main characters. Keep them in their places, but make them memorable. They may be people you made up, but your minor characters are people, too, and they should act like it.
(This is the second part of a two-part post. Click to read 5 Steps to Making Minor Historical Figures Exciting.)
Guest post contributed by John Briggs. John has been a writer for nearly 20 years, starting out in newspapers and eventually spent several years as a nationally syndicated children’s TV critic. His book, Leaping Lemmings, is coming out Sept 6th, 2016.