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.
Yep. Mr. Phillips, the Hammett-reading British sniper in SAFE AND SOUND, plays a prominent role in STORM SURGE, the current WIP. He’s so much fun to write because he’s always the smartest guy in the room and he’s so exasperated with the cowboys he ends up working with.
Yes, and I often put them in short stories where they have a chance to shine. Seems to satisfy them.
I’ve had two minor characters in two different books hold a “place” in a first draft for what really needed to be a major character. Each was pretty well-drawn, but no one liked him, and I, not seeing any of this yet, had to be told bluntly – take him out of the book.
When I did, the new and real major characters marched in, took over, and completely turned the main character’s life upside down.
Which was as it should have been all along. 🙂
In my upcoming SHOT GIRL, the Reverend Reginald Shaw was just supposed to be a segway to one of the story’s plots. But he was larger than life when I began writing him, and he played a much larger role in the book. If there’s ever a fifth in the series, I’m going to bring him back, because his story isn’t finished yet.
I fell in love with the elderly aunt in Forcing Amaryllis, a newspaper obituary writer who said that she’d “written Nixon’s obituary twenty-nine times, always hoping this one would take.”
Zoe, I LOVE writing tertiary characters. I have one who makes an appearance book to book, a criminal, thug gang leader named Terrence Norton. Terrence is based on a real guy here in Nashville, someone who is such a thug but slippery enough to keep getting out of things when he goes to trial. Terrence is constantly under Taylor’s skin. He’s a fun counterpoint to whatever main plot is happening.
And I write scenes around these characters sometimes. In ATPG, there’s a waitress in a crappy old diner in Georgia named Lurene, and she practically wrote herself. My rule is to never put a character on the page, major or minor, who doesn’t propel the story forward in some way. Granted, it may be for the series arc instead of that particular book, but I want them all to have a reason and their own personalities.
Zoe,I’d had that experience in every book I’ve written. In CLOVIS, Abel King was only supposed to have a tiny role, but he became quite important. The Gustaffsons are among my readers favorites and they only appear in one chapter.
Darnda in BELEN has now become the protag of a new series. Actually, there were several characters in that book that I adored.
And in SOCORRO, I ended up taking out one of my favorites — a retired sheriff who lived in a trailor home in the middle of nowhere and decorated the place with thousands of rattlesnake rattles that he’d harvested himself — because he just wasn’t relevant to the story . . . no matter how hard I tried.
This is among the reasons why I enjoy working on a series. If a minor character seems to need more breadth, but this book won’t accommodate him, there’s always the next one. A cast of solid characters can evolve this way, allowing the author to pick through them as necessary–much like Peter Graves going throuhg his rogues gallery of possible Mission Impossible cohorts–instead of automatically creating someone new.
Hi Dusty – glad to hear you’ve got the opportunity to bring back Mr Phillips! Bringing back a minor character in a later book is almost like an in-joke for returning readers.
Hi SM – I’m not a natural short story writer, but I have tried out a couple of people in that format, and it’s a nice way to see if you like them!
Hi Billie – I know the feeling. I really wanted to bring back Walt in THIRD STRIKE, and when Andy pointed out that he really didn’t fit the plot, there was a bit of kicking and sulking went on, but he was quite right. It simply wasn’t Walt’s time …
I should have known something was wrong, because the writing at that stage was like wading through treacle. As soon as I backed up a bit, cut Walt out and went in another direction, it started to flow again.
Hi Karen – I had a dog in RIOT ACT – a Rhodesian Ridgeback called Friday – who was supposed to be a very minor character, but he was just too good to waste and he turned into a major player in very short order.
When I put the first draft out to my test readers, the overwhelming reaction was, “You haven’t told us what happens to the dog!”
Louise, I love the sound of the obit-writing aunt. These are the side characters that give a book so much life.
Hi JT – weird you should mention a waitress. There’s one from a little diner in Tennessee in THIRD STRIKE, her name is Glory, and when the book went over length I seriously considered taking out the whole scene in which she appeared. Eventually she was saved from the cutting room floor, because I really felt that her interaction with one of the main characters – Charlie’s father – showed a lot about him. So, yes, borderline self-indulgent, but I think I got away with it ;-]
Hi Pari – all these sound wonderful. I particularly like the rattlesnake-collecting sheriff! Another ideal short story perhaps?
And Darnda sounds intriguing. It helps link a writer’s work together if there’s some crossover of characters, I think. I know fellow Brit crime writer, Danuta Reah, usually takes a minor character from one novel and makes them the main protagonist of the next. That way, although she writes standalones, there is always some continuing thread between them.
Hi Dana – I’ve recently watched the whole of the original series of MI on DVD – Mr Briggs, who came before the Peter Graves character. And yes, he did leaf through the portfolio, but always picked the same people. Funny how they always knew they’d need a big guy to carry bags and get punched a lot …
But bringing back minor characters in a later book is a lovely way to expand them more than is possible, or practical, in just one episode.
Sorry to reply in fits and starts to all these, by the way. Been off doing shoots in sunny Scotland today!
Fabulous post, Z!!! Yeah, this happens in my stories all the time. I’ll offer this insight from a film POV….
Doesn’t it seem like the minor characters in movies are almost always more interesting than the leads? But movie stars become movie stars because they can “carry” a film, which character actors very rarely can. The lead is the character that the audience can project themselves into, and is necessarily less defined because s/he has to be accessible to the entire audience.
I think this is the same with books – the protagonist is often less colorful than minor characters because s/he has to “carry” the book, and be accessible to a greater number of readers.
Great topic, Zoë — I have several minor characters who seem to want to take over the story. Ce Ce (who is the voodoo priestess who owns Ce Ce’s Cajun Outfitter and Feng Shui Emporium) is the one dearest to my heart. The LeBlanc brothers, who inadvertently tore Bobbie Faye’s trailer in half in the first book. Monique was a very minor character in book one, and ended up having a more important role in book two and now she’s lobbying for more time in three. (She’s hoping it’ll involve getting to ogle someone.) Putting them in a short story is a lovely idea suggested upblog. I may have to do that, especially with Ce Ce.
I had this kind of hippie-psychic named Madame Tessa in a story I wrote called Blood Vision. She said she only wears the kerchief, peasant clothes and big earrings for show. Her normal attire was jeans, a tye-dye shirt and Birkenstocks. She only appeared in one scene in that story, but has worked her way into a few more stories.
Hi X – I almost deliberately didn’t mention film cameo parts, mainly because I could have filled the whole post with them. Simon Pegg’s brilliant boffin in Mission Impossible III, or Clive Owen’s almost entirely silent assassin in The Bourne Identity are two that spring instantly to mind. You’re quite right, though. If the main character in a book was as quirky, you’d probably tire of them pretty quickly. They’re like accent colour in a house. They lift and complement the whole sceme, but too much would give you a headache!
Toni – “Ce Ce’s Cajun Outfitter and Feng Shui Emporium” – already I want to know more … ;-]
Yes, the short story screen test is a lovely idea, isn’t it? Nice suggestion from SM further up! I have a new character who is a bit of an unusual one. I talked to my agent about her, who said, “Well, it might be a difficult one to sell, but if you really want a challenge …” But I’ve just been asked to write a short story for a mag, and I thought it might be the perfect place to try her out!
And how did the LeBlanc brother manage to tear Bobby Faye’s trailer in half? No, don’t tell me, I’ll DEFINITELY have to get the book when we come over for B’con!
Hi RJ – Madame Tessa sounds like another keeper. Reminds me of the urban legends of the beggars and buskers in the tunnels surrounding the London Underground, who are rumoured to be making big bucks, all in spare change. I talked to one guy who reckoned he used to busk with a group of guys who could make $2000 a day in high season.
And speaking of minor characters, for Charlie there are four who are name-checked frequently during the series, but who have never appeared in person on the page – the guys who were responsible for her getting chucked out of the army and finishing her career.
She thinks about them in moments of stress, but as those events took place way before the start of the first book, they’ve never appeared on the page. Maybe one day …
X – just realised I put ‘sceme’ in my reply to your post. I CAN spell, honestly. It’s just I’m used to an ergonomic keyboard and when I borrow someone else’s computer, my hands just don’t know where to find the right keys. It should have been ‘scheme’, of course … doh!
Zoe — that sounds like a great idea. Makes them even more intriguing, especially since they don’t make an actual appearance.
Wow, what a great topic Ms. Sharp! Funny enough, I was having a hard time with my antagonist, until I really started looking into my story. Turns out an ex-wife, who had previously been no more than a conversational mention between two other characters, was masterminding the whole damn thing. Sneaky, she was.
Hi RJ – I said “Maybe one day …” because I had a whole storyline mapped out involving at least one of them. Maybe I’ll do that one as the last in the series. I just know it won’t end well …
And Jake, please call me Zoë ;-] Almost-ex-wives are even sneakier, as one character, Jacob Nash, finds out to his cost in ROAD KILL. And don’t get me started on second wives …
You got it Zoe. Sorry, just the way I was raised. Nowadays we have such an informality over the internet, but I couldn’t imagine seeing myself walk up to you in person, when you’d never laid eyes on me, and saying, “Hi Zoe, how’s it going?” It just seemed a little off in my head. But if you prefer Zoe, Zoe it is.
I just gotta applaud your choice in naming your chopper builder, “Gleet.”
Yep, “Clap, clap.” 😉