As readers, we are all familiar with the sparkling bit character. The hero goes down to his corner newsstand and chats with the colorful owner, often a wounded vet. The author supplies a paragraph or two of interesting background, to frame their conversation(s), and that’s it. Leroy, or whatever name is used for the owner, is finished. In any subsequent appearance, Leroy offers the same type of neighborhood commentary, or forgot to shave again, or whatever other touchstone was used the first time around.
A good novel is filled with characters bustling about with their singular purposes. Each minor character is vibrant—because the author bothers to stop. She looks beyond merely how that lesser character supports a major character. She thinks through what life plan that character has. She makes a list of steps that the character takes during the course of the novel, the same as with a major character.
That way you can slip in casual references to these steps whenever you like. The hero stops in to ask Leroy about a fight in a local bar, and Leroy was actually there when it happened—because he’s trying to help an old friend with his chronic gambling. If you want the minor agenda to have a plot purpose, plan to have the loan shark to whom the gambling friend owes money tie in with the hero’s plot line later. Yet you may find that continuing to provide glimpses of an interesting life has rewards all of its own. Through the assorted snatches a reader may come to admire Leroy for being such a gruff humanitarian. You’ve added warmth to the novel, in this case, with very little effort.
Exercise: The problem with devising a scenario that is too elaborate is that the minor character can compete for the reader’s attention, detracting from a major player. Yet if you’ve created an interesting premise, you can emphasize only as much as you like. A page of coverage here and there might culminate with a payoff scene a few pages long. If all of Leroy’s scenes come early in a chapter, you still have the rest of the chapter in which the protagonist can dominate.
“I love the tradition of Dickens, where even the most minor walk-on characters are twitching and particular and alive.”
Copyright @ 2016, John Paine