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Workshop:

Quick Stop for Semi-Important Characters

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.

Your turn:

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 character unbelievable. 

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 first appears.

"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 that?"

 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.

Your Turn:

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 flooding?

Step 3: Have the other characters react to his importance (or lack of it)

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.

Your Turn

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 moves on.

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.