Fleshing Out the Minors in Fiction

It’s easy to be focused on your main characters and to put your creative energy as a writer into just those characters you adore – the Good Guy and the Bad Guy, mainly – and leave until last (or leave out altogether) the small guys and gals that provide background support.

I’ve read a lot of books over the years and have seen lots of variation. I have seen books where the reader got the full life history of every single character, none of them important to the plot and none of them having anything to do with any of the others, until the plane crash or motorway multiple collision – some big accident, anyway – at the end of the book (the one you were shown a glimpse of at the beginning of the book). Basically, those books seem to be an exercise in writing characters, not plots, and I’m afraid they don’t do much for me.

I’ve also seen my fair share of Main Character in all his/her glory, right down to zits and all their foibles – completely and totally surrounded by 2D nothing characters that might have been made of cardboard.

There is life in between. It doesn’t have to be a giant pain and it doesn’t have to be ignored, either.

You can flesh out a character with a word or two. Flashes of human feeling or an expressive action will do it. Very simple things can do it.

*

A woman standing at the doorway of her home as she’s informed of an accident is emotive, but the same woman buttering bread when her sister brings the policeman into the kitchen tells you a whole lot more than there’s been an accident.

If you haven’t met her before, there’s hints to her history and her nature all around you. Her sister is there. That could mean a close family or a small town/village where everyone knows everyone and families have members up and down the road and feel free in each others’ homes.

The fact that she’s buttering bread hints at family, young children most likely or they’d be making their own lunches (true, it could say it’s lunchtime and she’s hungry – and you can point that way by adding the detail that she’d been looking forward to eating it but is hungry no longer).

The messages here are subliminal. Into your head pops close family, small town community, children. Immediately extra anxiety is there for this character – not only has she lost someone, or have had injured somebody she cares about, the children have too. Her sister has, too. The village will soon know and the trauma will affect the entire community.

You get a bigger effect simply because the woman was buttering bread and her sister let the policeman in.

Okay, so in this case, she sounds more like a central character than a minor one, but I’m sure you get the point I’m trying to make.

It doesn’t have to be explained in detail. It can be hinted at. You don’t have to give her full history. We don’t need to know when she was married, why she chose her husband, how many children she’s got and what their birthdays are.

Dialogue is another way of doing it.

“Good afternoon to you, sir,” conjures up a whole different personality than, “Hey! Good to meet you at last. Jamie’s told me a lot about you.”

Round that off with a polite nod of the head or a full and friendly handshake and you’ve captured character.

It’s often the small characters that add the real sense of surrounding community and you can make them real very easily. You don’t have to have each in full-blown description nor overpopulate your story with them, but it’s probably wise not to leave them out.

Cheers everyone!

😀

Allyson

16 thoughts on “Fleshing Out the Minors in Fiction

  1. winterbayne

    I was just telling a writer buddy that I’d like to fluff up some background characters b/c they have their own stories to tell should I continue with the world I made. I want them to have more personality so the reader is intrigued by them.

    Reply
      1. winterbayne

        How’s this. Have some that we meet chit chatting w/ protag. They have minor roles but i’m trying to put little bits of info in. Some are mentioned but we don’t see them until the end. Trying not to put too many in. Sprinkling them a bit. Or trying to.

        Reply
        1. A.D. Everard Post author

          It can be tricky to get the balance right. This where reading it through and reading it through and then reading it through some more really helps, especially if you can put it aside for a bit so that it’s fresh. Then you can see if it comes across the way you want it to. If you’re anything like me, the whole gradually improves as you tweak it into shape after every read through – that’s main characters, minor characters, plot, pace, everything.

          Reading it through for the gazillionth time can be a chore, but it really is vital for any writer to know what their story actually says as opposed to what they think it says or what they want it to say. You can only know for certain when you step away and come back and look at it as a reader would. You know the parts those characters play or will play, so you can compare how they look or seem with what you are after.

          Those mentioned but not shown until the end might be extra work. Will your readers remember that they were mentioned? If they were mentioned by minor characters a long way back, those characters coming later might have been forgotten (if you are relying on the earlier mention to explain or introduce them). I can see how you are connecting the whole, so if the fact they are mentioned is important or you want the interaction with these minor characters to be remembered at the end, you might want a heavier sprinkling so readers are more in touch with them and will remember them more easily.

          These are just ideas, of course. You know what you have and how you want it to work.

          I don’t think people realize just how much effort goes into writing a book. 🙂

        2. winterbayne

          or the comment you just typed! Wow, could make a post out that. I’ve mentioned the secondaries in the beginning, hope to mention them in the middle very briefly, then they show up in the end.

          That is the plan right now but as you said, on the gazillionth read and edit,. it will hopefully be perfected. I’m not writing GoT afterall.

        3. A.D. Everard Post author

          Sounds good. If they are mentioned a few times in a way that you are building expectation, I would imagine that could work.

          As for blog posts, I often get my ideas while chatting. 😀

        4. A.D. Everard Post author

          Oops! I’m afraid someone had beaten you to it. I’ve got my tomorrow’s post planned from a conversation stemming from my last post Getting into a writing routine where we’re discussing the merits of having fun. 😀

          I don’t take from someone’s comment, anyway, so the post is all yours if you have an idea for it (the post for tomorrow I’ve taken from my thoughts on the topic, not from what anyone said).

        5. winterbayne

          Take away. I was talking about the comment you had made anyway. And dang it! Someone beat me to it! *pout* always the commenter, never the muse.

          I’m thinking tomorrow I post an entire page from my nano WIP 😉

        6. A.D. Everard Post author

          No worries – I’m sure you’ve been inspiration for me at other times. I find that whenever writers get together, all kind of idea spring up. That’s what I meant when I said I get my ideas from chatting – Greg can’t work out how I can get writing solutions from talking with him when I haven’t given him any info. 🙂 Sometimes just talking about whatever it is generally will activate the thought processes.

          I look forward to checking out your page from your nano WIP tomorrow. 😀

  2. writingsprint

    Love this, especially the idea of buttering bread as a hint that there are children in the house. That opens up all kinds of possibilities for relating to characters who aren’t even there!

    Reply
    1. A.D. Everard Post author

      Precisely – not only do you get the information to the readers without being in-your-face with bit-part characters, it’s also very economical with words. It seems to me that this is one area most often overlooked.

      Reply

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