Posted by: J. Thomas Ross | April 20, 2016

Mindful Observation: the Key to Minor Characters

When I was a child, I went through a time when I often complained of boredom to friends and family. Like most children, I had reached a stage when I expected other people or things to entertain me. Adults respond to this stage by either caving in and entertaining or providing things to entertain children or by helping children learn to entertain themselves.

In my case, my parents told me that if I felt bored, it was my own fault. As you might guess, I found that response more frustrating than helpful, but it did cause me to think. Eventually I figured out that boredom came from within rather than without. In other words, I didn’t need to suffer from it if I didn’t want to. If I put in the effort, I could always find something to occupy my mind, to interest me.

After that, whenever in a potentially boring situation, I chose to look for the interesting or unusual, to find something that aroused my curiosity, or to allow my imagination to take flight. I suspect storytellers, writers, musicians, and artists of all types — as well as readers — find it easier to avoid boredom by engaging their imaginations than other people. We’re called daydreamers for a reason. Daydreaming is not time wasted, as some people may think, but time well-spent exercising the creative part of the brain.

In the busyness of life, we writers need to grab whatever time we can to engage our imaginations. Long car rides provide one opportunity for me to set my mind to working out plot tangles or spawning new ideas and characters. Waiting in lines at the store or theater or waiting in doctors’ offices also offers a prime time for the imagination to blossom, although since the advent of the smartphone, it’s become effortless to occupy time without depending upon the imagination (unless you forgot to charge the battery). You can text friends and family, read and send email, check Facebook and Twitter, or look things up on the internet. That’s both a gain and a loss, and I admit to spending time in waiting rooms doing those very things — but not always.

Yesterday’s time in a doctor’s waiting room got me thinking about this topic. After finishing the inevitable paperwork, I opted to leave my phone in my purse and occupy my time with observation. A couple months ago I wrote a post about sparking inspiration and creativity through mindful awareness of your place in space, which emphasized how paying attention to and appreciating the details in your surroundings can help you chose the salient features that will bring the setting in your story to life. In the same way, studying the people around you can help you create unique, believable characters who will capture readers’ imaginations and emotions.

Most writers put time into developing distinctive, well-rounded major characters, but successful authors also create minor characters who are memorable individuals, not cardboard cutouts. When critiquing, I too often run across such lifeless minor characters. As a reader, I feel that if a minor character is important enough to include in the story, I should be able to picture that character as an unmistakable individual, especially if he interacts with or has a conversation with the main character(s).

Giving minor characters individuality adds depth and reality to a story. Yet, because these characters do have only a limited role in the story, the essence of that individuality must be established in a few sentences. Going overboard in the description of a minor character will make that character seem more important than she really is, and that can lead to a vague dissatisfaction in the reader. Like poetry, a good description of a minor character distills the character’s essence into a few, well-chosen words. Ideally, those words will allow the reader to perceive that much has been left unsaid.

When choosing the specific details to make your minor character come alive for your readers, you need to keep in mind both the minor character’s role or purpose (why he or she is included in your story) and the personality of your narrator. If your narrator is a woman who owns 200 pairs of shoes, for instance, she would not fail to notice the minor female character’s footwear, while a young unmarried male narrator would likely pay more attention to that character’s figure. In other words, you need to have some justification for the particular details you use. What would your narrator notice?

Avoid cliched details. Don’t mention ordinary details such as size or clothing unless the character’s exceptional height, unusually short stature, skeletal thinness, or rumpled, holey clothes make her stand out. Include details that hint at the character’s personality or job, and try not to focus only on visual impressions. Too much perfume or sweaty exercise clothing can also make a vivid impression.

Practice makes creating minor characters easier, and a good time to do this is the next time you have to wait in a line or a waiting room. Pick out a person you can observe unobtrusively and list three things that immediately strike you about that person, things that distinguish that person from others.

For instance, when I walked into the waiting room yesterday, the first person I noticed was the receptionist. Let’s look at a few ways I could describe her.

A young woman looked up when I stopped at the reception desk.

This is the kind of cardboard description inexperienced writers too often use. They don’t go beyond one basic characteristic that gives the reader little to distinguish the new character from any other young woman, with the result that the scene feels flat and means less to the reader than it should. More details — specific details — are needed to make this character live.

A long-haired young woman wearing bright red lipstick looked up when I stopped at the reception desk.

This is better. Can you see how adding two details — long hair and red lipstick — gives a clearer picture of the receptionist? Mentioning color especially increases the vibrancy of the reader’s mental image. Yet, this description still does not give quite enough specific detail to make the receptionist completely come to life.

The young receptionist wore her thick, waist-length, brown hair pulled back from her face and fastened behind her head. She had pale skin and full lips colored with bright red lipstick. When I stopped at the desk, she looked up and smiled with both lips and eyes.

Here, the more specific details of the receptionist’s hair, skin, and lips create a vivid image of her appearance. In addition, the fact that she smiles with lips and eyes hints at her personality. This is a character we can picture interacting with the narrator, and that will make the subsequent scene truly come alive.

Of course, we all know that appearances and first impressions can be deceiving, and you don’t want to make your story too predictable. The minor character doesn’t have to speak and behave the way we expect. Conversation may reveal that the seemingly friendly receptionist is actually curt or impatient or not at all helpful. After all, little surprises add spice to a narrative.

Try mindful observation of people you don’t know. What kind of interesting minor characters can you create?

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