Reflection on Minor Characters
In part sparked by Abhinav Jain’s guest author series on “Names A New Perspective”—which was titled “The Power of Names”—as well as the recent SF Signal Mind Meld on Heroes, here, I’ve been reflecting on characters and character development lately.
Over the past few days I’ve been thinking about minor characters, in particular how I take as much care with naming them as I do with the central protagonists. In part that’s because of the phenomenon I talked about in “The Power of Names”—and also in my post last Thursday—in which changing a name can change a character’s personality and role in the story. Even if that’s an entirely positive process, it’s still a dynamic to be aware—if not wary—of.
Another thing I said in Thursday’s post was: “Because characters, it seems, just like real people, have minds of their own—but perhaps that’s because, if I’m doing my job right, within the pages of the book they are real people: they have to be, in fact, in order to live for you on the page.”
The codicil I want to add today is that the statement is just as true for minor characters as it is for major ones. One of the telling measures of writing quality for me is whether the minor characters, for whatever brief time they are on the stage of the story, live and breathe and are real. When a writer does this successfully it adds depth and texture, as well as conviction, to the story—in my opinion. I know it adds greatly to my personal enjoyment of the read.
One way I like to think about this in my own writing is that even if a character is not important to the story being told, he or she (or it, in the case of certain speculative entities) will be important to him or herself. Even the most minor of characters will have a history and a life that matters to them, and as the writer I have to convey a sense of that, even if the reader will only ever catch the most fleeting glimpse of the character on the page.
To convince though, the glimpse the reader catches must feel real and three-dimensional—as real and believable as the main characters, albeit for a much shorter period of time.
I greatly admire authors who can do this with a key word or phrase that cements the character convincingly—but without overdoing the page time allowed, given the character”s place in this story (if not their own) is still minor.