By Douglas Owen
Hey, lean close. Yes, I have a secret for you. No, don’t think it’s something you can do without. This secret will help you pop your story into a full 3D cinematic blockbuster with surround sound and special effects. And it is something really easy to do. It’s called making the little people memorable.
In the past, I’ve talked about making the main character believable. They cannot be perfect, rich, a God when it comes to attracting the opposite sex, and the person everyone they meet wants to sleep with. No, they have to have flaws. This makes them human, so the reader can relate to them.
But what about those other characters in your writing? Are they just paper cut-outs to fill a few words and forget? Hell no, they need to pop! Something should be there about them. Why? Because the world is full of strange people, and they are the ones that make it go around.
Here are a few things that can make your secondary characters a little more memorable, and thus make the work livelier:
Facial Quirk: The face is the part of the person we look at most. Put something there to draw your main character’s eye. Just like in Uncle Buck, when John Candy sat with the Vice Principle and stared at the mole. Something that makes the character different than the rest will stick out, especially in comedy. Think of it as a focal point. Candy mixed words to point out the tumor and put a whole generation on the floor laughing.
Unfortunately, another actor tried to copy Candy’s humor, to a less-successful degree. So, if you think the fellow Canadian Mike Myers invented such a gag, you really are missing out. Rent Uncle Buck and watch a master at work. The quirk is very entertaining.
Speech: Everyone has a certain way of speaking. It could be the inflection used, a monotone, or the use of a special word. When used, such a little thing can make a minor character special enough to stick in someone’s mind. Imagine what a reader thinks when they remember even the minor characters. But that is not the best part. What will their friends think when such little things are talked about? They will say the work is great and even name the minor characters, for they were real to them. That is a stroke of genius.
This can all be obtained by using speech. The lady could say the word ‘yes’ after every section of dialogue, or even after every sentence (but only if they are not fully returning characters). Remember, that ‘less is more’ always works for writing.
Try it out. Find a work where the writer uses a certain word for a character and see if it sticks in your mind.
Shape: One thing that helps someone stick out is their shape. Skinny, tall, squat, fat, bulky, trim. They all describe how a person looks and drive a person to remember them. How many people do you remember just talking to on the phone? And if there is a picture of them as well? That character will stick in your mind forever.
Dress: The Austin Powers’ movies show a swinging 60s spy transplanted into the world of 2005. The character has a way of dressing that sticks out. Then the minor characters also have a way of dressing that sticks out. The character Fat Bastard wore a kilt and full Scottish regalia. This made the minor character more (I want to say ‘believable,’ but I just can’t make myself say it) outstanding. The same goes for other characters in the movie(s) and, if you take this good advice, your next bestseller.
Behaviour: How many of you watched Sons of Anarchy? There was a character called Chucky Marstein, who constantly grabbed himself. So much so, that a rival gang cut off half his fingers. How many of you who watched the show remember that? Behavior issues make a character more memorable, more believable, and more human.
Everyone has a bad habit that they would like to alleviate. They are ashamed of, or totally oblivious to it. Either way, exploit it in your writing and the once one-dimensional characters will pop off the page.
Accents and Such: Some minor characters can have slurred speech, or the inability to pronounce the letter “T”. Don’t actually write it, but put such information in the narrative. Let the reader come across it and hear the voice in their head. You’ll have to make sure the dialogue is tagged properly or it could interrupt the reader’s rhythm, but the effect is spectacular.
Soon the reader will find something about that character that is endearing and unforgettable. This pulls the reader into the work.
Physical Oddity: On vacation one year, I was stuck in an elevator with a person who suffered from restless leg syndrome. Don’t think that’s not going to be used in one novel.
Yes, we can get all sorts of ideas from people around us. Everyday life is your buffet, and it is up to you to fill your plate. Take the time to note things. Do you carry a cell phone? Most have a record function. Use it when you see something that could make a great character flaw.
Years ago I went to school with a person suffering from cerebral palsy. It is not an easy thing for someone to live with, but just imagine one of your minor characters dealing with it. The impact it would have on your main character. The way they treat that person would unlock so much about them. Do they help or laugh? What are their feelings about that person? Then think of what your antagonist would be like.
To sum up, look at real life in order to build minor characters. Every character that leaves a mark on your reader is another tick toward the bestseller. When you look at it, every character in a bestseller has something about them that makes them unforgettable. Use that knowledge to write the next masterpiece.