Saturday, January 8, 2011

Incidental Characters and Walk-Ons

Incidental characters are like walk-ons in a play—they enter, perform some brief action, and then exit. Walk-ons aren't in the story long enough to develop character or, in many cases, to have names.  But the reader must be able to distinguish one from another, so the writer often gives them physical characteristics or mannerisms that can be described in a few words for a quick reference.

For example, the hero might be stuck in a grocery store line behind a bubbly girl who's chatting with the cashier, a tall, thin fellow. After the reader has "seen" them, if the hero is talking or thinking about them, he might begin referring to them as Bubbles and Stretch. This gives the reader a much better picture than repeating the girl and the boy. It also helps the reader identify them, especially when the walk-ons are the same sex: the first girl with a phone, the second girl with a yellow bag, the girl at the cash register, the girl in the line. 

Give these characters some feature that can be described simply: one might have impossibly red hair (the red queen), another might wear a hat (blue hat) or have brown eyes. An lumpy-looking, deeply tanned character might remind the point-of-view character of a twice-baked potato and become “the potato” in future references.

Limit these names to characters who are involved in enough action that they need to be distinguishable and whose names would not naturally be given. Too much of a good thing isn't always wonderful.

If this sounds like a lecture, it's because it is. :) It's from one of my classes. I love to hear what you think. Any ideas or suggestions? Examples, good or bad?


Sandy Cody said...

Bubbles and Stretch. I love it. I'm going to remember this for my retirement community series. I need to have a lot of characters coming and going to make the setting authentic and it would be helpful to have my protag remember them by descriptive nicknames. Sometimes I give them a line or maybe half a line that she overhears and it sets her mind in a new direction. Thanks!

Ellis Vidler said...

Good idea, Sandy. It's especially hard when there are several characters, but some distinguishing feature helps keep them separate. I love the one I'm working on now--I have an ex-boxer nicknamed Jelly (for jelly brains). I tried to kill him off but couldn't do it.

Peg Brantley said...

Great advice, Ellis. Incidental characters, who aren't even secondary, make a story feel real. Otherwise, it's either a stranded-on-a-desert-island story, or a world populated by narcissists.

I just finished reading Debbi Mack's new book, LEAST WANTED, and the protag is an attorney. Because a couple of other, incidental clients and their attorneys were brought in from time to time, I could really believe the attorney had a real job.

You rock!

Terry Shames said...

Liked your post, but have a funny story. I named an incidental character Chub, thinking that was an unusual name. Another writer in my group gave us his story to read. Yep, one of his characters: Chub. Two days later picked up a new book by Sophie Littlefield. Sigh. There was Chub!

Donis Casey said...

When wrote The Sky Took HIm, I needed a family lawyer who was incidental to the action, so as I was writing I just called him "lawyer", intending to give him a name later. But when the time came, I discovered that he already had a name - Mr. Lawyer. So the family ended up with a lawyer called Mr. Lawyer, which amused them no end.
I usually keep a "bible" of side and walk-on characters. I write their particulars in a notebook for reference, so that I don't have to keep going back to discover what I said about them earlier.

Ellis Vidler said...

Terry, that's always the way, isn't it? You think you have something unique and suddenly it's everywhere. Chub seems different to me.
Donis, I like that--Mr. Lawyer. A little quirk to add interest.
Peg, I have one of Debbie's that's next on my list. I don't remember the name, bought in a spree when I got my new Kindle, but I liked the excerpts I read. Incidental characters with a touch of personality (in moderation, of course ) make a story richer.
I like the way they pop in when you least expect them--open a door and surprise! There they are.

Msmstry said...

Ellis, as a voracious reader, I appreciate your idea of giving descriptive nicknames to incidental characters—especially if they reappear several chapters later.

I'm totally at odds with the current trend of giving the protagonist a "posse" of followers, fully describing each of them, and then using only their names later in the book. I really want to get to know the protagonist and a supporting cast, but six extra interchangeable characters—forget it!

Ellis Vidler said...

Msmstry, I have to agree! I put down a book by a well-known author whom I usually love because of all the indistinguishable characters--14 in the first chapter. I had no idea who anyone was and kept trying to find where each was introduced. I gave up.