Story Circle: Creating Minor Characters In A Short Story
(from the movie "Gladiator", ©2000 Dream Works and Universal Pictures)
One of the things we haven't done yet is discuss the art and practice of storytelling.
Its an important part of Green Wizardry, the ability to teach using stories but very few people are natural story tellers. Like athletes, story telling is a skill you learn by doing. You practice and practice again, until you get better.
This first post will be about characterization.
Characterization is the art of creating people in your story.
Science fiction and fantasy, as well as the niche we most deal with here on Green Wizards, "Climate Fiction" (aka Cli-Fi) which is the stories set in a "World in Decline", all create fantastic worlds which are at once interesting and at other times sad. And yet, the most amazing world is just an empty landscape without people. Believable people that the reader cares for and wants to read more of are important to any story. Your job as the writer is to populate your world, but populate it with character that make it interesting.
More specifically to the subject of characterization, in this post we will focus not on creating the major characters in a short story, but the background ones.
The "Role" And Then The "Character".
In a short story, EVERY WORD MATTERS!
A novel, like a football stadium, has room to spread out. 150-200 pages and almost a 100 thousand words and you have the luxury to waste time and words. In writing a short story, you don't have this luxury. At best you might get 3000 words to tell your tale. Every word you waste expanding on a minor character unnecessarily is a word you can't use to move your story forward.
For a beginning writer, trying to get a publisher to buy their story, excess length isn't a selling point. Especially now in the age of tight margins and short advertising. We writers learn to care about our characters and while that is good, it can distract us. Honestly, that which does not move your story forward is a distraction. With a novel you can waste words fluffing out a minor character. For short story writers, you don't have that. The secret is to pack as much information into the shortest time on the page.
To do this you need to first decide on what that character's "Role" is in the story, and THEN decide what kind of character will fill it.
A good writer understands that the occasional background characters in their story are of the utmost importance. They are the ones that sell the sword, who pour the drink, who casually tell the clue that their entire story hinges on BUT background characters have a short screen time. That is they are on, then gone.
Before you begin writing a story, you should have some idea of the way the tale will be told. You should have an idea of the beginning, middle and end that you want your characters to travel.
Here is one of my own stories, which was published in the second "After Oil Anthology".
The original idea I had was of a boy who wanted to give his mother a special birthday present.
I wanted to set it in my Collapse World of St Louis of 2040, where there has been a economic collapse, a military coup and a stark division between the Haves and the Have Nots. In that World there is a Summer where there is wide spread civil strife, just before a US Army General takes over the government. I knew that there had been many people uprooted and at the point of the story in time, there was some stability but the vast majority of people were just hanging on, finding any work they could.
That is a mistake many writers do, focus on the issues of the World rather than the issues of their characters. A son wanting to give his mother a really special birthday present IS THE STORY!
It just happens to be set in my Collapsed World of St Louis. That it is, makes the story unique and interesting but I can't forget that at its heart its about giving a present. Too many writers lose focus and want to make their stories an exploration of their skill at world building. That leads to poor stories. We may enjoy the creation of a unique World but we CARE about the creation of interesting characters and their Lives.
I was working the Northern area of downtown St Louis, off of Hall Street, and took an Saturday morning to just drive around to see what was in the area. Its a depressed industrial area with many closed up buildings and such. I came across this building:
This is wonderfully typical architecture for St Louis, the brick building. It also have some real character in its design. One of the things in my Collapse World of St Louis was that General Arnold, the defacto dictator of the US had been popular at the start. One policy he had decreed was that people could "squat" an abandoned building and if they kept it up over a period of time, they could file for ownership. The "American Brake Company" building then became a co-op of poor people, with the lead character Ben and his mother residing there.
Such a young man, having grown up in a society that had little money would have learned to barter. How then to barter your way to a birthday gift?
In this case, I used what many writers do, a reverse succession of events. That is, start at the end of the story and work the action backwards.
Developing Ben and his mother's backstory, I decided that they had had a period of homelessness. Which would mean that they would want a home, a place that was theirs. The idea of having Elisabeth, the mother, a student of the oceans, was a lucky accident of a morning's drive and a National Public Radio segment on Jacques Cousteau. If you notice the short blurb of description on Elisabeth, you might realize that I made her his great grand daughter.
He had never been to an ocean but his mother Elisabeth had told all him about it. She’d grown up on board the French ship her great grandfather had used to explore the World’s oceans making documentaries and doing research. That was before carbon had collapsed the ocean's ecology.
So the idea that a aquarium with actual fish would represent a real Home to them sprang to my mind.
How then to get fish in a world of collapse?
Well you need someone who deals in fish. Specifically a pet store owner or a aquaculture specialist. Lets be honest, exotic pets like fish, or others are the sign of plentiful times. Even dogs and cats that can't forage and find food on their own, might end up in the pot of hungry people. Aquaculture, that is growing fish along with your garden is something we have discussed as a viable way to raise food in a Collapsing World. So we have our first Role.
Ben's Mothers Aquarium = Fish Dealer
We want fish from a fish dealer BUT what would a fish dealer want? If I was around fish 24/7 I can't think of anything I would want more than a good steak dinner. So we need some one who has access to steak, like a chef at a restaurant. Given that good beef will be a luxury item in a World of Collapse, its going to be a high end restaurant. So we have our second Role.
Fish Dealer's Steak Dinner = High End Chef
How do you get a expensive steak dinner out of a chef?
There too, a lucky accident. An online article I had read while writing the story talked about how some high end restaurants were growing their own greens and vegetable on their roofs. That an enterprising young man might make a few dollars helping to seed, water and care for such a garden is easily imagined. Connection made but what to offer the chef?
In my first accepted short story in the "After Oils" series "Small Town Justice", I had established that the Elite in my Collapsing World had elevated obesity into a socially desirable trait in people. Fat was in. Mentioned in that first story was a popular movie of that time, "Heavy Weapon", a parody of the "Lethal Weapon" series.
Originally it was the owner of the restaurant, but consider, would such a person deal with or even know the poor people tending his garden? I decided instead to have the person the head chef, and his younger brother one of Ben's classmates. What then would a head chef need? Well to impress a woman you ask to marry...
So roses and music.
"So I want to ask her to marry me, but it has to be very special."
Barry's uncle Kevin was on the rooftop of "Longhorn", the upscale restaurant he was head chef to, not far from Downtown. Its specialty was Canadian beef. Climate change had made the Canadian heartland a lush prairie of grass and Canadian beef was some of the best. And some of the most expensive. The owner, Rico Angeleros, whose family had huge ranches in Saskatchewan stood next to him, both men looking over the container garden on the roof of the restaurant. The produce going into the meals served to Percenters and the wannabes who dined there. Meals were not cheap.
"She's got this whole fantasy after seeing "Heavy Weapon - Reloaded". Roses, a band, some woman singing..." Kevin sighed. "Where am I getting roses?"
"You're screwed son," he said.
"Maybe I can help?" Ben said.
So Third and Fourth Roles require a musician and roses.
I decided to have musician be local and more importantly show that the absence of local law gave rise to gangs. Roses gave me trouble until I hit upon Ben's teacher and a old woman with a flower garden.
High End Chef = Roses + Musicians
Now originally I had no mention of the Rebels, who are fighting the current military dictatorship, in this story but writers like to interconnect their Universes. Since Ben needed electronic supplies and his mother's gift was a multimeter (I have one myself so I know its usefulness), the idea he could get the needed water pump from his teacher was a good fit. I could have had the instructor just give him the equipment but when the original story came in well below the word count limit, I decided I could work in a sub plot of the Rebels. How to do that though. We had been discussing how the Ham Radio network might be something to strive to keep working. Its a robust tech and there is alot of operators and equipment out there. Its old tech involving glass tubes which can be hand made but its a specialty skill, not everyone could have the equipment or expertise to make them.
So what did I come up with?
Ben barters with his instructor for the equipment for a functional aquarium by doing a delivery for the Rebels, then finds a musician and some one with roses, to barter with a steak chef for a dinner, then barters with a agriculturist for the fish he wants for his mother by getting them a steak dinner.
Who do we need then?
High End Chef
Grower of Roses
You Have The Role, Now Pick a Types of Character
Google the term, "How to create memorable characters" and you will see dozens of articles and tutorials on how to make your lead character stand out. Writers want great memorable heroes. They want to create "Conans", they want to create "Harry Potters", they want to create "Luke Skywalkers", when in fact its not the major characters that make good stories, its the characters that are in the shadows who really make a story great.
Not so many sites discuss the issues of how to do the same for the characters on the side lines. Why? Because background characters are boring to many people.
They shouldn't be.
Consider the opening photo, from the movie "Gladiator", and the background character seated center, the Germanic barbarian warrior, now slave and gladiator Hagan. In the scene pictured, he takes a bite from a stew, thought poisoned. He is memorable for getting across a host of emotions and information, with just a fake death and a laugh. Hagan isn't boring.
Watch the scene here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YRfcpiWZWKk
And more than that, background characters are hugely important to novels, and doubly so for short stories.
What would Sherlock Holmes be without not Doctor Watson, who himself is a major character, but the minor character of his landlady Mrs. Hudson?
Not only was her first-floor flat invaded at all hours by throngs of singular and often undesirable characters but her remarkable lodger showed an eccentricity and irregularity in his life which must have sorely tried her patience. His incredible untidiness, his addiction to music at strange hours, his occasional revolver practice within doors, his weird and often malodorous scientific experiments, and the atmosphere of violence and danger which hung around him made him the very worst tenant in London. On the other hand, his payments were princely. I have no doubt that the house might have been purchased at the price which Holmes paid for his rooms during the years that I was with him. The landlady stood in the deepest awe of him and never dared to interfere with him, however outrageous his proceedings might seem. She was fond of him, too, for he had a remarkable gentleness and courtesy in his dealings with women.
(from "The Adventure of the Dying Detective", Arthur Doyle ©2004)
Of course, that passage was within a novel. Notice how the author has the luxury of length, its not something short story writers have. You might have shortened this for a short story as:
Mrs. Hudson, the landlady of Sherlock Holmes, was a long-suffering woman. His many outrageous antics, weird habits and the air of danger that hung about his presence were barely compensated by the princely sums he voluntarily paid as rent. Still he was always a gentlemen to her."
I break down characters into four categories, "Walk Ons", "Minors", "Sidekicks" and "Primes".
"Prime" characters are just that, the hero and villain of the story, the major players that the story revolves around. "Sidekicks" are the slightly less important but still relevant characters that help guide and resolve the story. They don't have to be in a relationship with a Prime character. They can be major characters that the Primes interact with. Think "King Who Commands The Hero" or "Evil Demon The Villain Worships". Still the main action is not on them.
In "A Fish Tale" the only Prime character is Ben. While you could classify his mother as a Sidekick, notice she is only named once.
I would actual rate all of the other characters, including her as "Minors" or "Walk Ons".
"A Fish Tale" is actually a very good short story to use as a example of secondary character development. There is a ton of characters and I couldn't spend much time with any of them. Each had to get on stage, say their part and then get off.
"Minor" characters who have a few lines or two to further the story. They often have names given to them, and reveal a little bit of backstory. "Walk Ons" are just that. They are the cookie cutter cardboard people that sit in the background and are usually denoted by their job. Driver, cook, maid. It is these last two types of characters we will discuss today since the difference between them can come down to the need to save a few hundred words of page length, via cutting them out of the story or seriously cutting their part back.
How Much Screen Time?
The first and most simple question about characters in a short story is how much "screen time" do they get?
The way I picture this is to imagine, any of the dozens and dozens of restaurant scenes I've seen in movies and television past. People sitting at the counter of a small breakfast joint on either side of our hero and his sidekick, are almost cardboard images, just filling out the decor. We can almost spend no time on them, except for a line or two to develop the look of the place.
Now the waitress has a little more time on scene but how much effort we put into her character depends on what her role is in the story and whether any interaction with her furthers the story. We can all I think come up with several typical waitresses, the old hard worn women with an attitude and a cigarette hanging from her lips, to the motherly type who recommends a slice of pie for desert, to the dangerously beautiful one, behind the counter sharpening her fingernails and smiling. Every one of these suggests more and tempts us to explore how they got there and their personal story BUT if it doesn't further the Main Story, avoid these distractions.
This brings up the second question about characters, how important is the scene they are in to telling the story?
As with the breakfast example before, can you begin the scene in your story later? If your intent is to have your hero meet someone and discuss things over a breakfast, can you forgo the words it takes to set the scene at breakfast, to a point after the breakfast and onto the street outside? Your reader can fill in the atmosphere of the assumption that hero and villain sat down and had a breakfast together, if the conversation with the villain's threat comes as they are on the street outside.
"That was actually good," Damien said as they stood outside the Diner.
"Yes, the cook makes the best omelets." Lucifer said. It was beginning to lightly snow and the Prince of Evil took gloves from a pocket of his coat. "I like the way he has with hot spices."
Damien looked at the gloves. They were pale leather, almost the color of human skin. A shiver ran up his back.
Lucifer chuckled softly, as if sensing Damien's thought.
"You will think about my offer to trade the Book for your companion's Lives?" he asked.
Then Lucifer was gone.
That short scene was just over one hundred words, where a more drawn out scene over breakfast could have run four or five hundred. You don't get much length in a short story, use every word with care. I use this technique in "A Fish Tale" a lot to cut out time and action that doesn't contribute to the story, instead focusing just on the brief bits that do.
Third, can you move the important story hint from this character and add it to another?
Perhaps you want your hero to walk through the local Marketplace, and while they do accidentally meet someone, who has a piece of the puzzle of the story. You are likely to spend a few hundred words setting the picture of the Marketplace. Of the sounds, of the smells, of the sights. Can you afford that? What if instead, you gave that hint to perhaps the inn keeper where the hero is staying? That character has an obvious reason to speak to the hero and a off topic comment might develop into the hint they need, with a lot less words used.
One of the holes to my narrative was just what Ben could barter the musician with? It made sense that if the musician was a gang member, their guitar might be missing a string or two. That the Rebel Adams might have one among the junk in her home (all witches are pack rats lol) fit nicely.
We all have come across the classic hero and the classic villain in stories we have read. Be it Luke or Darth, be it Flash or Ming, archetypes have a huge advantage for short story writer.
Introducing a minor character in a short story who fits an archetype allows us to save words. Archetypes have traits, fears, attitudes and motivations that are pre-loaded into your reader. You don't have to waste words justifying their actions. This can be very useful sometimes.
The saucy barmaid, the helpful shopkeeper, the greedy loan shark, the honorable soldier, the corrupt politician. Or the grumpy old woman with a shotgun, like Mrs Adams. I don't have to spend a bit of word length for you to picture her as a grey haired, short woman wearing old clothing and slippers for you to see her.
This isn't to say. that cookie cutter characters are always the way to go. If the story you have in your mind for you character requires your villain to be different, to have a back story and motivations unlike the stereotypical one seen a thousand times then take the time to explain their motivation. Just don't make them usual for the sake of being unusual. What do I mean by that? Just because your Ming has a strange backstory for why he wants to rule the Galaxy that you find interesting and unique, it might not be worth the effort to voice it.
Unless Ming's earlier job as a janitor, which has lead to him wanting the "Clean Up the World!
Villains are villains, lol.
Comic book one dimensional villains sometimes work fine. You have to ask yourself how this furthers your story. Readers are quite willing to accept a retelling of a classic tale if you have a fresh and unique new prospective on the story. That means you can use characters that are typical and familiar, and still succeed in a good story that's different.
(from the movie "Rocky", ©1976 MGM)
Consider the classic movie "Rocky" and Burgess Meredith's iconic Irish boxing coach Mickey. From the first moment he shows up on screen, the people watching the movie know exactly who his is, his manners and likes, and accepts his actions. A writer can use the assumptions that a reader has when presented with a Archetype to their advantage to cut down on the words needed to further the story.
Flipping Archetype Expectations
This applies more to "Sidekicks" but can be used with success on minor characters. Basically you introduce a character that implies a certain Archetype, then flip it into a different one.
Who can forget the classic example of this from the second "Star Wars" movie, when Luke first meets Yoda. He first comes across as a dim witted swamp dweller, then suddenly revealing himself as a wise and powerful Jedi, Yoda shows how you can flip Archetypes with a brevity of words and actions, something a short story writer can use.
I did something similar by giving the Rebels code names from the American Revolution. The reader has some preconceptions about the Founding Fathers, and once you get the implications, the name of the military dictator, Arnold, gives the reader a secret that they know they know.
Dual archetypes have the advantage that both are iconic and known, and yet give the reader something interesting. Don't over use it and don't spend too much time on it.
Don't Waste Words In Print, Waste Them In Your Mind.
All of the characters we make deserve some deep background, its just we can't always include it in the story. Even though, its useful to know each character fully. It can often give you hints ant the way the character will react, and sometimes give you little tidbits which will make your story more interesting.
Take the case of the musician in "A Fish Tale".
Kenny Nine Fingers laughed. Ben and he had a friendly game of insults going.
The 11th Street Warlords lieutenant was sitting on the steps of the building plucking at his old guitar. It was missing 2 strings so he had to improvise his tune. His girlfriend "Just Mary" was softly singing to the beat while cleaning her fingernails with an icepick. She was a member of the Sisterhood of Death, an all-girl gang off of 9th Street. The Co-Op was at the border of the two gang's territories and neutral ground. The Co-Op hired them both as security.
If tales were true it was Just Mary who had bitten Kenny's little finger off in a fight between the gangs several years back. Hence Ben’s insult. Even given his lack of strings and digit Kenny was very good. And Just Mary, who was to Ben, a dark, and scary little bit of a Goth girl, had a voice everyone thought amazing.
That little bit of detail expands the story and firmly roots the characters in the reader's mind. You don't have to have every character a special trait. After all, many people are really just normal but knowing that allows you to temporarily "wear their skin" when you write their part.
I usually do a short biography on each of my characters before I write about them. I subdivide this bio into four main categories.
- The Body:
What are the character's physical traits? Height, weight, hair color, body build? If you had to describe the type, how would you?
- The Mind:
Are they smart or kind of simple? Educated or unable to read? Sharp of wit or dull as a bent tack? The mental skills of a character can define how they interact with others.
- The Culture:
Culture is different from Family in that a person can be a Patriot yet still hate their kin. What is the World they grew up in like. Nationalistic or Decadent. Puratian or Hedonistic. Religious or not? How a person's culture deals with personal relationships will affect how the character does. And if they are from a different culture from the norm, also.
- The Family:
Like them or not, our Family affects the way we interact with others. Only child or first in a huge herd? Abusive parent or loving home? Our relationships with our Family forms the basis for how we treat strangers later.
None of this has to be very detailed, not long. Most of my bios only take up a short page or so. Still doing this allows you to picture the character in your mind when they appear in your story and can often clue you into unexpected twists and hidden avenues of a story's plot and development.
The singer Just Mary had an abusive Father. Kenny defended her after she bit his finger off and his gang had captured her, winning her release to return to her gang. That they had been among the most outspoken for peace between their gangs when the Co-op had approached them. That Just Mary seduced Kenny, not the other way around. That she scares him too.
None of this makes it way into the story and yet knowing that allows me to write a better character..
The plot of your story is important.
The story that you tell is what will grab your reader's interest and make them enjoy your tale.
And yet without good characters, especially the back ground ones, your story will be flat and uninteresting.
Create good characters and they will reward you with a good story.