My favorite part of writing fiction -- well, one of my favorites, there are many -- is discovering minor characters. When they introduce themselves, I need to know them wholly: feel the texture of their hair, smell the layers of cigarette smoke dulling their nylon windbreakers, understand what it means when they dance in place or are stilled by the grace of death. A minor character's life needs to be bigger than the short turn each has on the page.
The great Michael Lowenthal (really, he's that good, read his books) did a workshop at Grub Street's Muse and the Marketplace conference this past May and spoke to this very issue. If I had Michael's eloquence, I could explain it better, how to make what could easily and certainly should be a two-dimensional character three-full-D. Lynne was there, she'll probably remember the short story he gave as an example (was it a Flannery O'Connor?) that included a large woman, a woman whose bulk and personality filled a doctor's waiting room. She was lush with ego, the characters around her wilted under her disdain -- in a few carefully chosen words. Michael's examples truly did astonish.
The fleshing out of minor characters is crucial because they're able to reveal much about a protagonist. William H. Macy believes a good actor reacts to other actors. I believe a good character reacts to other characters. After all, in life don't we find much of our behavior to be a reaction to those around us? Minor characters reveal to readers both how our protagonists are perceived by the world and how our protagonists perceive their worlds to be. Only a fully-formed minor character can execute both duties well.
I didn't know this when I set out to write my book. It wasn't until it was my turn to have a passage critiqued by Lisa, Hannah, and Lynne that they said they fell in love with a character who appeared for two brief pages. To me, he was only a means to an end. They assumed he would have a recurring role. That night, they set the bar much higher for me. Every one of the people who appeared in my book needed to have a backstory that was hinted at, a presence that was tangible. Though it meant revising, it hardly seemed a challenge it was so much fun.
Writing this now, processing what the other three women of my group have taught me, I suppose it's somehow misleading to use the term "minor character." For the truth of the story, each needs to fill the proverbial waiting room.
Tuesday, October 02, 2007