Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been reading the classic book Ginger Pye with my children. It’s a Newbery Medal winner, written by Eleanor Estes in 1950. Of course there are some dated fiction techniques, things that we modern writers can’t emulate if we hope to have a publishable book.
But one thing that Estes does really well is that she makes her minor characters memorable. As the story unfolded, I couldn’t keep from studying the brilliant way she handled those ancillaries.
So often writers have the tendency to put a lot of attention and care into shaping major characters. And we neglect our minors who then end up resembling cardboard cutouts. At the opposite extreme, we can try too hard to bring our minors to life and allow them to take over the story altogether.
How can we find a balance when creating our secondary characters? Here are just a few techniques I use:
1. Find a unique name.
In Ginger Pye, Estes uses names like Uncle Bennie (for a 3 year old child who happens to be the uncle to the hero & heroine), Sam Doody, and Mrs. Speedy. The names aren’t overdone, but they’re still unique enough that combined with other elements can help set the characters apart.
In The Doctor’s Lady, one of my favorite minor characters is named Black Squire. What initial impression does Black Squire create? Does he sound like a good guy or bad guy? Names can evoke an initial impression, that may or may not be true. But they help solidify the character in our reader’s mind.
2. Give them tags.
In Ginger Pye, Sam Doody’s tag is that he’s really tall. Estes describes him by saying, “Every time any little boy or girl met him they always asked him how the air was up there.” And later in the book, when Sam Doody is helping to look for the stolen puppy, he promises to look over all the tall fences for the dog. The tallness tag helps to make Sam Doody memorable whenever he appears. We aren’t left wondering who he was.
Tags are unique descriptions that we use almost every time that person shows up on the stage. And when planning our minor characters tags, we should search beyond the cliché and ordinary for actions, speech patterns, characteristics, physical descriptions that identify the character.
3. Place them on stage strategically.
In Ginger Pye, Estes skillfully plants Uncle Bennie (the blankie-loving three-year-old) at various points in the book. At the end, he’s the character who helps find the missing dog. He’s placed in the story with his squeaky cart in such a way that when he finds the dog it makes logical sense.
When our minor characters show up on stage, they need to serve a purpose within the scene in some way in the short term, but we also need to keep the long term vision for why they’re there. In what ways are they helping to bring about the conclusion of the story?
4. Give them levels of importance.
We’ll have some minor characters that may only make an appearance once or twice and won’t be worth the time to describe. And then we’ll have other minor characters that we can use for a variety of purposes.
Before adding a new minor character, I try to evaluate if another character who is already on the stage can do the “job” first. When we have too many miscellaneous people standing around, they can clutter up and detract from what’s happening. The fewer the characters, the more memorable we can make each one.
The key is finding a way, like Estes did, to imprint an image of our secondary characters onto reader minds that’s clear and memorable, but not more vibrant than our hero and heroines.
How about you? How memorable are you making your minor characters? What is one of the most memorable minor characters you’ve read about lately? What made that character stand out?
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Wednesday 9/28: I'm over on Writer Interrupted chatting about how I handle all the many interruptions in my writing career.
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