Pawns in the Author’s Match

One problem that I encounter frequently with first-time novelists is their patchy use of minor characters. By and large, authors do understand that their protagonist should show up on a regular basis. Yet the supporting characters often are regarded as chess pieces to be moved in order to advance the plot or, worse, an author’s themes. 

This occurs for a variety of reasons. One stems from the organic nature of building a novel. When you first start off, you usually have only a broad idea of how the plot is going to turn out. As the story moves forward, you find that characters you like, or realize you are writing well about, become more important. But others remain on the level of plot functions—they move the plot forward. Sometimes they are better drawn (let’s say, adorned chess pieces) and move the plot forward several times. 

Another reason might be termed the totem character. That person exists in the novel to exemplify a particular thematic point. For example, in a novel about the Vietnam War era, a character might show up, shoot off his big toe in order to escape draft induction, and then drop out of the book. As a reader, how am I supposed to react to that? I do know that people injured themselves in order to avoid being shipped overseas. While vaguely horrified, I feel no emotion toward such a cameo character. 

A third reason originates from an author’s personal background. A common figure from our gloaming past is the bully. She rules her corner of the playground and woe betide anyone she selects for torment. Or, she shames the otherwise engaging heroine in a furtive act, such as smoking dope in high school. The bully can be carried on for hundreds of pages as a brooding malign presence, but if she has no other defining characteristics besides slobbering sadism, is the reader really going to care?

It is your job to assign dramatic weight. If someone is going to commit a significant act, give that job to a major supporting character. That character isn’t a pawn; because you give him regular coverage, he’s a knight. Better yet, align the character with the protagonist.  Have your heroine react to that blown-off toe. Luke, what the hell were you thinking? By the same token, give the bully insecurities. If I know he fears his father, I might want virtue to triumph—for the bully’s own good.  

Exercise: Examine your manuscript with an eye out for distractions. That’s what pawns often are: they distract attention that might be devoted to your protagonist. Could you pull a scattered incident more closely to your main characters? Could you elevate that pawn by providing more coverage before and after the incident so that we get to know that character—and care what happens to her? 

“Without heroes we're all plain people and don't know how far we can go.”             ―Bernard Malamud

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.