Quick Stop for Semi-Important
By Lazette Gifford
Copyright © 2008 by Lazette Gifford, All Rights Reserved
Sometimes a writer needs a special character to fill a specific spot in
their story -- a character who may have an important roll to play, but
who is not going to be around long enough to be considered one of the
major characters. He (or she) needs something quick to bring him to the
forefront of the story and make him real to the reader. You don't want
to invest pages of pre-work material on the development and motivations
for someone who might only meet your main characters once. And, more
importantly, you are not going to have room to bring those aspects into
play in the story.
However, you don't want this particular character to be a ubiquitous
'red shirt' or spear holder either. So what characteristics are
important -- both physical and mental -- to make this character real for
the few paragraphs that he appears on the page?
Step 1: Make him different
If you your main character has a bald head and tattoos on his face,
create the newcomer with long flowing hair and scar-less -- or the
opposite, of course, can work as well. This can also work for both men
and women in the right situation -- don't be afraid to do something
unusual to make this sort of character stand out in the crowd for the
short time they will be present. Look for opposite descriptions that
will make the reader immediately realize 'this is a different' person:
tall and lithe versus short and squat, pale versus dark, etc. From the
moment this character is spotted by the reader, give the newcomer a tag
that will set him apart from the rest of the crowd.
As he neared the edge of the wall, Peren saw the EmWa king -- a
short, stocky man with a full, dark beard that covered most of his
face and transitioned into his equally scraggly hair without a break
break. The king looked at Peren and his five tall, pale-skinned
companions with the kind of disdain that made Peren think this
meeting would not work out well.
Take a look at a main character from one of your own stories and see
what sort of opposite character you could create to take the attention
of the reader for a few crucial paragraphs. Remember that, if the story
supports it, this character can be outlandish in some ways. In fact,
this is a good exercise to see how far you can go without making the
Step 2: Make him loud and loquacious
Another way to help a character stand out from the crowd is to give him
lines of the sort you might otherwise have saved up for your main
characters, or make him hog the scene to himself. Remember, he is only
going to be around for a couple pages, so let him make the most of it.
Let him talk a great deal (if that is possible within the structures of
the story). This can be especially helpful if he gives your main
character information that later proves to be more important than it
"We would ha' been here yesterday, but the damned Menta River
flooded early this year," King Eagle said, shaking his head so that
the beard bounced from side-to-side. He had not stopped talking
from the moment they were introduced and all the way into the
village tavern, where people turned and stared at the strangers,
obviously worried. "Damned nuisance. We had to climb through the
Varda Pass -- damned cold place, and all but one of the way stations
are snowed in and empty this year. Doesn't this tavern have any
decent ale? Not the weak northern water you people call ale -- the
real stuff. It'll take your breath away, it will, with a single
sip. I could drink this all day and never get drunk. What use is
King Eagle took another long swill of the ale and Peren leaned
forward, ready to ask questions, but the man began talking again
even before he put the goblet back down. "I hate the snow. Nothing
good comes from it. You'll freeze your ass off if you aren't
careful. Or something far more important, eh, northerner?" the king
said, jabbing at Peren with a stubby finger and laughing. He drank
more ale and talked more. "Damned bad winter, even in the south
this year. Nothing right, you know. So? So? What is it you want
from me, Peren of the Northlands? Do you think I came here to
listen to myself talk?"
Actually, that was exactly what Peren had begun to think.
Take your character from the first exercise and start him talking -- but
somewhere in the midst of the trivialities, hide an important piece of
knowledge. Just for example, What might have been important in the
dialogue above? My thought was that it was the part about the Menta
River flooding early this year. When you consider it against the rest
of the information, it is somewhat out of place, since the rest is about
how hard and cold of a winter it is. Why, then would the river be
Step 3: Have the other characters react to his importance (or lack of
How others, especially those who do not have a direct connection to the
main characters (like people in a crowd) react to the presence of
someone can also help to single him out as someone to watch. This can
work in two opposite ways -- people treat the newcomer with uncommon
deference, or they purposely ignore or are rude to the newcomer. Either
reaction can help the reader focus on the character.
The tavern door opened again, sending another cold draft through the
common room while the fire in the hearth blazed brighter, as though
in defiance of the wind. Snow scuttled in ahead of the woman
wrapped in a long dark cloak who came through the door.
And if everyone in the room had not gone suddenly silent, and even
King Eagle's eyes grown wide with surprise (or worry), Peren
wouldn't have considered the figure anyone more than a local
villager. However, seeing the way everyone else reacted to her
entrance sent a new chill through him, even before the woman turned
in their direction.
This time, try your hand at writing two different scenes, using the same
set of characters. In the first, draw attention to the new character
specifically because he or she draws attention. In the second scene,
present a character who draws the reader's attention by the way the
others do not notice, or purposely turn away from, the character.
Your Turn Once More
Use all three methods to
create a memorable character in 200 words or less.
Some of this will seem obvious to many of you, of course. However,
these are often the sort of things we save for our on-going characters,
and forget that sometimes the lesser people need a little more attention
as well. If the character is going to give some important information
-- even if that information is not apparent at first -- make him
memorable. This is so that later, when that information is again
presented, the reader is not left going 'Who? When?' but has a clear
vision of the scene.
Remember that you are trying to get the reader to focus quickly on the
character and let that character be more important than a piece of the
background for a page or two -- and then disappear again as the story
Then, two hundred pages later when your main character realizes he
learned something important from the EmWa King, your readers will not be
left trying to remember who that was, or flittering back through the
book trying to find the scene.