Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Majoring in Minors

By Amy

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.


Sustenance Scout said...

The proverbial waiting room; THANK YOU for referring to that woman who filled the room. I'll think of her often as I'm writing. I just read a passage to a class from my first book and couldn't help but confess that I loved the minor character in the scene with my protagonist. Come to think of it, I adore most of my minor characters, maybe because they don't carry such heavy responsibility as the pro and are free to be themselves. Hmmmm. LOTS of food for thought here. Thanks Amy! K.

Lisa said...

Yes, thank you for the woman who filled the room. I find myself going back to layer more onto my draft and I'd been focusing lately on setting, but arguably, minor characters can be a part of setting. This is exactly the prompt I needed today. Thank you.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

SS, how do you do it all writing, teaching living? I'm not sure there's much I can impart to you.

Lisa, yes, and the converse as well: setting can be a character unto itself. Think of Cold Mountain in the novel of the same name, or the mighty ocean in Old Man and the Sea. No minor characters them.


Larramie said...

Amy, in sharing your lesson on the importance of minor characters, I realized how much they meant to this reader. For example, describing a scene with a woman who fills the waiting room puts me there with her far better than detailing the description of the waiting room.

Although The Writers' Group main focus is on writing, you're also providing insight into good reading. Thank you all.

kristen spina said...

Always so much to think about, so many pieces to this puzzle that somehow comes together to tell a story.

As always, I am grateful for the reminder. And now I'm off to read and see if my minors are, in fact, major enough.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Larramie, as always so refreshing to see your daisies here. Good reading and good writing. I like clever writers who make me inhabit a setting with ease.

Kristen, it is a puzzle, isn't it? I actually compare it to baking (because I adore sweets) and it's a matter of adding the proper ingredients in the proper amount. Chemistry, I think.


Anonymous said...

This is a major post. We obsess so much over our MC's, we tend to forget the others around them have had a life too.
Amy, as I flesh out my characters in Revisions, this post shall be on my desk. Thanks.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Usman, you are too kind with your compliments. Thank you!