As an author, you shouldn’t pass up too many opportunities to heighten the reading experience for your loyal fans – to tug at their emotions. If you really want to keep them glued to the page, give them something to sink their hearts and souls into as often as possible.
One of the places where many writers fail to achieve this is in their portrayal of minor characters. Indeed, I would almost argue that the word “minor” is inappropriate, as every single character should be critical to the advancement of the story, or they should not be at all.
When I wrote my psychological thriller, Forgive Me, Alex, I needed to incorporate some murder victims. After all, one cannot have a serial killer without some serial killees. (Hey, I think I just made up a word!) In truth, these characters’ sole raison d’etre was to advance the character of the serial killer, and the ultimate conflict between protagonist and antagonist. Yet why would readers even care about these “minor” characters, or invest themselves in the gruesome acts of a serial killer, if I gave them no reason to do so?
They wouldn’t, of course.
So I needed to provide enough details about even these “minor” characters to elicit some empathy on the part of readers. It was important to keep it short and sweet, yet to provide some reason for readers even to care about the character.
The more readers care, the greater their emotional experience while glued to your book. And so, when I needed to set up a character for no other reason than to kill her off, to make her a victim of my nasty antagonist, here’s how I did it:
The gentle breeze and mild temperature made a walk in the park the perfect distraction for Lindsey Merkham, but she chose the cemetery in lieu of the park. She did so because the cemetery sat conveniently at the corner of North Main Street and Cary Road, across the street from her apartment.
It contained several crisscrossing paths perfect for continuous power walking, her preferred method of exercise and, judging by her slender build, an effective one. She normally exercised right after work and before dinner, when she wasn’t too weighed-down or too lazy for her walks.
On this night, she was out late.
Lindsey stood five-feet-six-inches tall, with short, bright red-orange hair, and a figure that more resembled a young boy than an adult woman. The unfortunate birthmark on her right cheek, and the ski jump at the end of her nose, further heightened her insecurities.
Men rarely lined up at her doorstep.
Thus, she chose to take a late walk through the cemetery, a perfectly reasonable way to kill another uneventful Friday night. She’d snuggle later with her loyal kitty, Puffer, and read a good book.
Did I draw on some clichés there? Sure. With little time in which to build reader empathy, I needed to use proven, time-tested methods. While I typically recommend against dropping clichés into a manuscript, this is one of those rare instances where it might actually be useful.
The key is to give readers a reason to care in as short a segment as possible (after all, this is a “minor” character).
As the scene progresses, and the serial killer attacks, I insert a line here, a thought there, from Lindsey, further building on what I established in those six short paragraphs. The intensity builds, right along with our empathy/sympathy for Lindsey, right up until that penultimate moment when she must, alas, meet her demise. I give readers a little something to sink their teeth into – a reason to care for, to feel sorry for, even to shed a tear for, this “minor” character.
Thus, readers engage in a scene that might otherwise just seem gratuitously graphic. Real life situations require real life characters. If you fail to bring even a “minor” victim into the light of reality, you give readers no reason to care, no reason to invest their selves emotionally in a scene that’s important to the overall story.
Create a character list that includes every single character in your book. I use Microsoft Excel because it’s easily sorted (I do so alphabetically by character name). You want some key details listed for each character.
Column A: Character Name – Be sure not to create any two names that are close in alliteration. Every name should sound unique, so as to prevent reader confusion. This is particularly critical with “minor” characters. So don’t have a Harry, Larry, and Barry, for example. The potential for readers to get lost is too great. Name them Harry, Ben, and Steve, and readers will have an easier time keeping them separate.
Column B: Character Role – List the character’s primary role in the story. Using my own book as an example, I used Protagonist, Antagonist, Protagonist’s Girlfriend in 1978, FBI Agent in charge of investigation, Algonquin Chief of Police, etc.
Column C: Character Relationships – If your characters interact in a key way throughout your story, list those relationships here. As an example, for my protagonist Tony Hooper, I listed: Alex Hooper’s big brother; Diana Gregario’s boyfriend; Frank Willow’s surrogate grandson; and a few more.
Column D: Character Speech Mannerisms – If your characters have a unique voice – and I hope they do – list here some of the things that make their voices unique. Whenever possible, draw clear distinctions between characters to help readers subconsciously, and automatically, identify a character/narrator. As an example, I listed that Tony Hooper, the protagonist, always said “perhaps,” and never “maybe.” I listed that Mitchell Norton, the antagonist, always said “maybe,” and never “perhaps.” It’s subtle, but with about ten other key differences in voice, I was able to provide readers a series of instantaneous “triggers” to identify these characters. I also gave them certain favorite phrases. For example, Mitchell Norton likes to throw around, “Fuck a rubber duck!” Obviously, I did not allow any other character to use that phrase; it was all Mitchell’s.
Column E: Misc. Character Identifiers – Place here whatever strikes your fancy. It can be anything from their physical descriptions to their socio-political views, from the clothes they wear to the foods they eat, from their favorite TV show to the music they prefer to listen to, etc. The keys are to keep them: A) Unique; B) Relevant; C) Something you can use to heighten readers’ emotional involvement with that character, when appropriate.
AND OF COURSE….
Be sure to provide your beta reader(s) and editor(s) this list, when it’s their turn to review your work.