Posted by: J. Thomas Ross | November 13, 2012

Using Cameo Characters

Last week, late afternoon — I sat in a hospital room in Philadelphia … blowing my nose, coughing, and waiting. Although doctors, nurses, anesthesiologists, and other hospital staff had darted in and out through the morning and early afternoon, I was alone, passing the time while my husband underwent a non-invasive procedure that should leave him with more energy and less required medication. I wasn’t nervous or worried, just tired and sick with a miserable cold. My husband had caught the cold first and was into his second week of fighting it. We’d feared the doctors might decide to delay the procedure, which my husband had wanted to have done for months, but since he had no chest congestion or fever, there was no need to postpone it.

Waiting time, like driving time, can be productive thinking time … or non-productive stressing time. Since I felt certain that everything would go well, I avoided the latter. Instead, with the fuzzy detachment of a head as stuffed as a Thanksgiving turkey, I pondered the events of the previous two weeks. They had been trying, to put it mildly. In their Author Chronicles‘ posts the past two weeks, both Gwen Huber and Kerry Gans referred to the effects of superstorm Sandy’s battering of NJ, NY and PA, the Northeast, and parts of the Midwest. I felt incredibly lucky that our house had no damage, no toppled trees, and had lost power for only one day. Next, my husband and I had the closing on the cabin we were buying near our grandchildren in NC, which for various reasons, we weren’t sure would happen until the day before it was scheduled. Then came the colds — not just ordinary colds, but really bad colds. So naturally a northeaster would blow in and coat the ground with snow on the evening before my husband and I had to drive to Philadelphia. Isn’t that how life goes?

I had no complaints, though. While things might have gone more smoothly, all in all, we were fortunate. I was just reflecting on the vagaries of life. Outside the hospital, people zipped to work or home, to stores or appointments, going about their normal, everyday activities. Inside, monitors beeped while patients and families, doctors and hospital staff struggled to overcome patients’ health problems.

An aide — a stocky young man wearing green scrubs and sporting buzz-cut, dark brown hair — came in to ask if I needed anything. He’d flitted in and out earlier to check on us while my husband and I waited, making his a familiar face in an unfamiliar place. The aide stopped by a second time to make sure I had a coupon for the parking garage and a third time to tell me that the procedure was finished and the doctor would be in to speak with me soon. The last time I saw him, he told me what room my husband had been moved into and how to find it — much appreciated information in the labyrinthine hospital.

That aide made important cameo appearances in my life that day. I don’t remember his name, nor the names of the nurse who ordered an extra dinner for me without being asked or the janitor who led me to the correct elevators or of any of the others with whom I had brief but important encounters that day. Despite the briefness of our contact, the people I met in the hospital made the day smoother, brighter, and less nerve-wracking. Their personalities and caring attitudes made a difference in my life by adding a much appreciated warmth to my experience of the place and the day.

Of course, the people who make cameo appearances in life aren’t always pleasant or helpful, but either way, the encounters with them have an effect on us and become part of the rich tapestry of life.

Fiction and narrative non-fiction also contain encounters with cameo characters whose brief presence can affect main or secondary characters and add a richness and depth to the tale. Or those cameo characters can be boring, featureless stick figures whose presence adds nothing and may even detract from the story.

In life, we have no control over which people make cameo appearances in a particular situation or place. As writers, however, we have total control and, if a cameo character is important enough to include in the narrative, we ought to avoid making that character a place holder and make full use of him/her to add dimension and life and reality to the story.

So — how is a writer to do that?

1.  Give the cameo character more than one purpose.

A cameo character often appears for a mundane reason. If a main character were to enter a hospital and see no one in the lobby, that would be highly unusual. A hospital lobby would have a receptionist, visitors, and perhaps security personnel, so for the sake of making the setting resemble reality, a writer needs to include them. But instead of merely making these cameo characters part of the scenery, give one or more of them an additional purpose in the scene, a purpose that enhances some element of the story. For instance, the main character’s reaction to the people in the lobby could reveal an aspect of her personality or her state of mind. Or the receptionist and security guard could add conflict to the scene by denying the main character entrance. Or their friendliness or glowering glares could help establish the atmosphere or mood of the scene.

Make your cameo characters more than just part of the scenery.

2. Give the cameo character a distinctive appearance.

Distinctive is the key word here. Even though the cameo character’s time in the scene is brief, the reader needs enough specific description to visualize the character, to make that character seem like a real person instead of a cardboard nonentity who doesn’t even make it as a two-dimensional stereotype. If the main character notices or interacts with a cameo character, that character ought to be more than a “tall police officer” or a “blond clerk.”

Pick out two or three distinctive details of the cameo character’s appearance. These might be unique physical traits that make the cameo character a distinct individual — like droopy eyelids, a face full of freckles, and a shaved head. Or the details could be things that your main character would especially notice, so that the description reveals not only something about the cameo character but also about the main character. For example, if your main character is fashion-conscious, she would notice the cameo character’s clothing and how it’s worn. If your main character is concerned about getting older, he would notice age indicators like graying hair and wrinkles.

Make your cameo characters vivid individuals that the reader can visualize.

3. Give the cameo character unique trait, a quirk, or an attitude that reveals the character’s personality or background.

The main character’s interaction with a cameo character — who might be helpful, bored, preoccupied, incompetent, snippy, sarcastic, harried, etc. — will have an effect on the main character or the story. Therefore, while a cameo character will not have the depth or complexity of a major character, the writer needs to take the time to flesh out cameo characters so that they come across as real people.

Every character in a narrative, no matter how brief his or her appearance, should be well-rounded and well-known to the writer. Take the time to write out a couple paragraphs about each cameo character and the character’s background. Has the hospital receptionist worked there long? Is this a full or part-time job? Does he like the job or is he doing it because he needs the money? Does he like his coworkers? Does he have a family? Does he live nearby? Does he own a house or rent an apartment? What does he enjoy doing outside of work? What are his weaknesses, fears, problems, or health issues? Is he optimistic, cheerful, grumpy, snippy, impatient, exhausted, overworked? Little of this information will actually appear in the manuscript, but the reader will sense the authenticity of the character when the writer knows him well.

Make your cameo characters real people with distinct personalities.

Does your story have cameo characters?
Are you making the most of them?


  1. In my NaNoWriMo novel, I have a character like this!

    She’s a former foster parent of the protagonist, although he’s really, really embarrassed about her, since she exemplifies “eccentric rich person with too much time”.

    Her role is to characterize the setting, foil off the silent and reserved protagonist, and create some tension of the “I-don’t-want-to-run-into-someone-I-know-since-I-have-a-mission-to-do” kind of way.


  2. By the way, I hope your husband is doing well!


    • Thanks! He’s feeling better and better each day.


  3. A good reminder about giving those cameo characters their own distinct personalities, even if “on camera” for just a moment.

    A great movie example of this came role is the hotel clerk in The Graduate as he converses back and forth with Dustin Hoffman who is embarrassed and nervous to get a room to go meet Mr. Robinson in the hotel room. See it here:


  4. What a lovely piece. Good writers learn so much from the way life works! Wishing your husband a speedy recovery.


  5. […] 23. Using Cameo Characters […]


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