Minor Characters

Minor characters are sneaky.  They are necessary to the story but they aren’t supposed to take over.  The problem comes when one or more of them do exactly that.  So what to do?

Depends.  There are two kinds of minor characters.  You need to know which category your minor character belongs to before you can decide what to do about it.

The first category is that in which the minor characters flesh out the story, make it deeper, stronger and better. But if that character could be written out of the story without changing the story itself, then that particular character isn’t essential.  Rein them in, keep them under control.  Do it!

The second category is that in which the minor character is essential but isn’t the character that the story is about.  Same question applies.  Could you write that character out without changing the story?  If the answer is ‘no’ then you should think long and hard before you rein in that character.

Because your story just might be better for enlarging that character’s place and letting him or her take over a larger chunk of the action.

I’m thinking about this because, in my book Spirit Legend that’s going to be featured in a Book Blast starting the 8th of April (drum roll, please) a minor character took over and became a major player.  I didn’t know it was happening until after the book was finished.  It was the reviews that made it very clear that the character of the spirit in the lake was pivotal and important.  Reviewers used words like  ‘charming.’  ‘interesting.’  and ‘endearing.’  And the spirit only came into existence as a device to hang a story on.  Until it took over and I let it run riot because I couldn’t figure out how to rein it in.

Now that I’m deep into Wolf Legend, the same thing is happening to the character of the psychic wolf pup Snowball.  She was supposed to be an afterthought.  She now has a starring role and I’m glad to say that this time around I’m smart enough to recognize what’s happening and run with it.

So expect to see a lot of Snowball in Wolf Legend.  And I’m looking forward to seeing whichever of your minor characters take over and run with your story when you publish your next piece.

THE MOST IMPORTANT TIP OF ALL

I learned this tip while still a teenager.  I studied ballet from one of the country’s (perhaps the world’s) best technicians.  She was so good that professional dancers of all kinds who were in Chicago for a gig took whatever classes she could fit them into for the duration of their stay.  They weren’t good enough to be in the advanced classes, so they always ended up in the intermediate classes, the ones I was in.

We students couldn’t help noticing that, almost without exception, they were really bad dancers, much worse than us, and we weren’t even advanced students.  They were so bad that eventually we asked our teacher how they could call themselves professionals when they were terrible.  We expected her to shake her head and say that it was ndeed hard to understand.  Wrong!!!  Instead, she verbally tore into us until we were cowering and chastened and wished we’d never said anything.

They could call themselves professionals, she said, because that’s just what they were.  Professionals.  And we weren’t.  They might not have much inborn talent but they used what talent they had in such a way as to create something that people who worked hard for their money would willingly spend some of it to enjoy whatever those professionals had to offer.  And, between peformances, they worked on their craft and honed it.  Whether they were in the mood or not.  Whether they felt good or not.  Whether they were busy with other things or not.  Because that’s what professionals do.

She cowed us so thoroughly that I never forgot her words.

When I decided to become a professional writer, I knew I had some small amount of talent but it was her words that gave me the courage to quit my day job and go for it.  Because, thanks to that lecture, I knew that inborn ability is only one component of a successful creative career.  And not the most important one.

I knew that if I took what talent I had and worked at writing as hard as I’d work at any job or profession, I could make it as a writer.  And so can you.

THE ANVIL MOMENT

I love the anvil moment because it makes writing so much easier.  It takes care of all those inconvenient and messy problems that character arcs create.

What’s the anvil moment?  And what does it have to do with character arcs?  I’m glad you asked.  But first, do you know what a character arc is?  Just in case you don’t, I’ll explain, and it’s really quite simple.  And, at the same time, complicated.  Because the character arc is the change that takes place in your main character (and sometimes other characters) during the course of your story.  Without that change, few readers will think any story was worth reading.  But how do you show the change happening?

For some writers, it’s easy.  I’m not that kind of writer.  I hate character arcs.

I used to try to ease my characters towards what they would be at the end of the story. Problem was it didn’t work.  They got confused… and I got confused… until disaster befell us all and I threw the whole thing in the trash can and started over from the beginning because it was beyond hope.

Then I learned about the anvil moment.  The  moment when… like an anvil hitting someone over the head so hard that it couldn’t be ignored no matter how much that person wished to ignore it… the change happened and it  happened fast.  In one scene.  Usually in one moment in that scene.  Perhaps in just a few sentences, with no fuss and no mess but enough fanfare that even readers who weren’t paying attention got the message that the character had changed and would follow a different path from that moment forward.

You’ve seen movies and read books that have anvil moments.  In Shindler’s List, it’s when Shindler sees the body of the little girl in the red coat and, afterwards, makes it his mission to save as many Jews as possible. To make sure the audience couldn’t possibly miss the moment, everything in the movie was in black and white except the red coat.   It was a real anvil moment.   Or any romance in which the heroine doesn’t realize she’s in love with the hero until he heads out to save the day, or the country, or the world, or the universe, and she realizes she can’t stand the thought of his not returning.  It’s immediate, major, and changes the direction of the story.

One hint.  Choose your anvil moment well.  Make it when events have been building so the change makes sense and then fit it into the context of the scene.  Spend time on that scene because it’ll be pivotal.  Then relax and stop worrying about character arcs because you can do them with the best writers in the field if you make use of the anvil moment.