by Zoë Sharp
The main protagonist of a crime thriller – in fact, of any novel – may be the one who gets the star billing, but for me it’s so often the supporting players who make or break a book.
And I’m not just talking about the sidekicks, either. They deserve a whole separate section to themselves. What I mean is the real minor characters – the walk-on extras of the literary world. The ones who may only have a few lines of dialogue, but who completely steal whatever scene they happen to be in.
Sometimes, in a few broad brushstrokes, those are ones who jump off the page to become real people, quite out of proportion to the role they were supposed to play in the story. The ones who most stick in my mind after the final page is done. The characters who really should have had a chapter all of their own, or maybe even an entire novel.
Certain bit-part players are sneaky, I’ve found. They just cry out to have their role extended and expanded, and they rewrite their part when I’m not looking. Occasionally I give in to the urge and write them to the grander scale they feel they deserve. Almost inevitably, those scenes end up on the cutting room floor. They’re great, yes. I love them, but if they don’t move the story forwards, back out they come.
Even so, I’m always left with a lingering sense of regret, that they had a greater story to tell, and by not allowing them to speak freely, I’m missing something worthwhile.
I envisaged just such a minor player in FIRST DROP. His name was Walt and he was purely supposed to be a friendly face for Charlie, someone to offer her temporary sanctuary when she was on the run in a strange country with her teenage principal, Trey. A typical walk-on part. But Walt was made of sterner stuff, I quickly discovered. He’d spent time in the navy and was a retired FBI agent, living right on the beach in Daytona with his wife, Harriet. They fostered problem kids, and while Walt now spent his time just bumming around, beach combing and drinking coffee, he still had the power to disperse a gang of teenage tearaways with a few quiet, well-chosen words.
By the time I’d finished the book, I couldn’t get Walt out of my head. He became such a complete person that for a while afterwards I seriously considered making him the central character of his own novel. Possibly even the mainstay of a new series. And I really wanted to bring him back in THIRD STRIKE. Once again, I thought, he could be there for Charlie in a way she’s always felt – rightly or wrongly – her own father never was. A good counterpoint figure.
But the more I tried to follow that path, the more I realised that Walt just didn’t have a role to play in the book. The more I pushed, the more the story just wouldn’t come. Eventually, with much kicking and mewling, I had to face up to the fact that he simply didn’t fit, and out he came.
But I did manage to sneak in another minor character from a previous book. Gleet was a builder of custom motorcycles, an artist in steel and paint, who worked out of a farmyard barn in rural Lancashire. He and his shotgun-toting sister, May, both make a fleeting visit in THIRD STRIKE. May, in particular, has only one piece of dialogue, but it just feels right. I felt their inclusion worked on several levels, not just in the current story, but as an important link to Charlie’s past, a reminder of who she was before she moved to New York to take up very different life.
And there were others who acted their socks off for the brief time they took centre page. There’s one character who’s identified only as Buzz-cut, for the style of his hair. A former soldier by his bearing. A dedicated, fiercely loyal man by his actions. Misguided, maybe. Misinformed, almost certainly, but not a cut-and-dried bad guy by any means. As minor villains go – the second henchman from the left of the title – he’s another who won’t quite let go.
There was a character like that in SECOND SHOT. Someone I only ever knew as Man with the Glasses. He didn’t stay long, didn’t say much while he was there, but something about him has remained with me, some time after he departed.
So, my question is this. Have you ever written a minor character who just seemed to have that star quality, who refused to be contained by the itsy role you were initially determined they should play? Do you ever have to rein them in, ruthlessly prune their ad libs, or even strip them from the narrative altogether, to service the greater good of the story? Even though, in your heart, you really want to hear their song?
Or, has a minor character in an early, perhaps unpublished, draft, ever stepped into the spotlight, and looked you firmly in the eye, and said, "Hey, this book should be about ME!" and, if so, what did you do about it?
This week’s Word of the Week is camaïeu, originally a cameo; a painting in monochrome or in simple colours not imitating nature; a style of printing pictures producing the effect of pencil-drawing; a literary work or play that is monotonous or lacks interest. And thus, cameo, which among its meanings includes that of a short literary piece; a small role in a play or film that often gives scope for character acting. Adj miniature, small and perfect of its kind.