How Much to Show of Side Characters

 

by Doug Lewars

 

Consider a scene in which a CEO is meeting with some senior executives. Of interest to the story are a couple of individuals – say John and Frank. There are, however, say eight people in the meeting. Presumably we need to know something about the CEO but there are five who are minor characters. One way of handling the dialog is to use generalities

‘John glanced quickly at his notes. “We’re down 15% in quarterly sales in Asia-Pacific. If we don’t take immediate action that division could substantially affect our overall bottom line.”

“We could replace the director,” said one of the gentlemen.

“Or we could increase our marketing expenditure in that region,” suggested another.

If this turns into a long scene, using tags like ‘one of the gentleman’ or ‘someone’ begins to wear thin. An alternative is to supply everyone in the room with a name. That makes dialogue easier but at the same time it introduces a certain degree of individuality among those participating. The question then becomes, do we want to leave them undefined or should we flesh them out a little? For example,

“We could replace the director,” said Mark. He was in charge of Human Resources and had a firm belief that firing a director would shake up an entire department, or, in this case a division. Among the group assembled around the conference table, he was not the youngest – that honour went to James Simmons – but he was sufficiently new to the organization to want to make a suggestion that might enhance his own standing.

In this example, Mark has no real bearing on the plot. His role is simply to interject a comment or two during the meeting to create a sense of verisimilitude. If all that dialogue went to John, Frank and the CEO it would seem too contrived for believability.

Technically, ‘“We could replace the director,” said Mark.’ is sufficient.

I don’t have a good answer for this but it’s something that has come up in a writers’ group I attend. It’s not unanimous. Some people want a great deal of texture in stories – everyone provided with a character, everyone’s motive understood, scenes fully described. Some think leaving a lot of white-space improves pacing and allows the reader to fill in any gaps.

In a fantasy series I write, I have two powerful groups – the Guardians whose job it is to preserve balance among the worlds and across the dimensions and the Opposition who want to create as much chaos as possible. I want these two to be balanced so neither can make use of their considerable power to do much. Therefore it falls to my main characters to take on and deal with any number of issues – not to mention some appropriate villains. Generally I will have the Guardians meet once or twice over the course of a book and when that happens they hold a discussion of some sort, but with the exception of two who directly interface with my main characters, the rest remain the background.

Should they be described? Should they be given personalities? So far in the series I haven’t needed them so haven’t done so, still it is an option.

When it comes to the Opposition I’ve been providing next to no detail. Only one of their number has ever made an appearance and his job was just to intimidate a villain into being more aggressive in his villainy. When I was asked why the Opposition were opposing the Guardians I found myself unable to answer. There may be a number of possibilities but it had never seemed important – until then.

Even though I don’t have all the answers, I’m raising this because I think it’s important to realize there are possibilities we may not have considered. Bit characters may not be critical to the plot but each one is an individual with an appearance, likes and dislikes, a personality of some sort and, presumably aspirations. It’s impossible to go into detail on every one, but I think it’s useful to at least remember such attributes exist because if we write in a manner that’s too sparse, we’ll leave readers confused. At the other end of the spectrum, if we provide too much superfluous detail we’ll put them to sleep. A line needs to be drawn and it can’t be clearly defined because personal preference plays such an important role in making the decision. Still, I think it’s important we recognize this exists so we don’t accept a default out of habit and risk losing our audience.

 

 

 

Guest post contributed by Doug Lewars. Doug is not necessarily over the hill but he’s certainly approaching the summit. He enjoys writing, reading, fishing and sweets of all sorts. He has published ten books on Smashwords.com.

 

6 thoughts on “How Much to Show of Side Characters

  1. Good post…

    My own personal opinion (for what that’s worth lol, is to only show enough of them to establish the scene. More if their dialog adds directly to the main plot or a subplot. A good example from the movies is the recent Shazam film where the villain attacks the board room of his father’s company. The rest of the board was largely just cannon fodder and didn’t contribute to the plot beyond showing that Savanna was ruthless and insane. A couple of them got a line and then died. Everybody knew they were the Board though because the scene opened with a short rant by the father. It’s easy as an author to get so bogged down in extraneous details that the plot never moves forward

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  2. Good points. I like to treat side characters as people I was just introduced to – I don’t know much about them except for what they reveal in the introduction.

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  3. In my 1st drafts, I usually ignore side characters altogether. Second draft, as I read the 1st draft notes, I put them in, deciding how much I need to expand on them. Sometimes it’s a tedious process.

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