The Incidental Character in Your Novel Requires a Deft Brush Stroke
Three Types of Characters
In your novel, the stars on center stage are the main characters. Next in line are secondary characters. These secondary personalities interact with main characters to complicate the plot and make the major player’s life either glorious or miserable.
But then those in an even lesser role, who command even less of the spotlight, are the incidental characters. The incidental character in your novel breezes in and out of a scene almost unnoticed—the mechanic at the garage, the waitress at the restaurant, the nurse at the hospital, the receptionist at the office, or the clerk at the hotel.
It takes a skilled author to make these background stage hands appear vibrant and alive. How can that be accomplished?
Understand Their Purpose
A good beginning is to grasp the purpose of adding such personalities to your story. It’s not just to take up space and fill the page. The purpose of incidental characters is to more fully authenticate the setting or add to the mood. Or both. Because they are just that—incidental to the story—they need a soft brush stroke, but with a vivid color.
That nurse or mechanic should never upstage either the main or the secondary characters. (If he tries to do so, fire him. Remove him from the story, expound upon his characteristics, and use him in your next novel. He’s too good a treasure to discard!)
No Need for Character Introspection
It’s best not to give introspection to the incidental character—even in a novel of multiple viewpoints. (Not saying it is never done, but for a beginning novelist, it could lead to a nowhere rabbit trail, wasting valuable time.) Keep in mind that the reader has no need to examine this character’s inner thoughts. It will add nothing to the plot.
To Name or Not to Name
Whether or not to name your incidental character will be your judgment call. The best advice is to leave her nameless and let actions describe her. Naming the incidental character could end up as page clutter. Try it both ways and see which feels best as you read the section aloud.
Here's an example:
A twenty-something children’s photographer slouched against the wall at the entrance of her so-called shop in the discount store. Stubby fingers with chewed nails swiftly punched in texts on her iPhone as the popping of her gum heralded her presence over the din of passersby.
If your main character is in a hurry to get her toddler’s photo taken, she will give pause before she uses this photographer. Notice how, without assigning this character a name or divulging inner thoughts, her presence can be vividly seen—and heard.
An Actual Example
This excerpt is from novel #6 in my Classic Collection, Lingering Dreams. Kirsten Nicholson, daughter of a successful Oklahoma rancher, has been sent into town to pick up the newcomer to the ranch, Enrique Delaire, at the bus stop. The bus stop has an adjoining diner. Here she encounters a girl at the bus ticket counter.
After standing there wondering what to do, she [Kirsten] stepped over to the ticket counter and asked the girl sitting there, “Excuse me, has the bus from Albuquerque come in?”
The round-faced girl barely glanced up from the magazine she was reading. “Fifteen minutes ago,” she said into the magazine.
Kirsten paused. She knew most every person in this small burg, but this girl was new. “Did a dark-haired boy get off?” Kirsten had no idea how old. “About twelve or thirteen years old?” she added.
The girl took a large bite of candy bar, looked up at Kirsten, then jerked her head in the direction of the diner. “Probably in there,” and went back to her reading.
Now more than ever, Kirsten wished she were back in her room finishing the letter to Dan. At the door of the small diner she studied the people in the booths and at the counter. She felt silly and out of place.
Can you picture the girl at the ticket counter? A quick glance, but fairly vivid, right?
Never Let Them Go to Waste
Now you can see what can be done when you pay close attention to small details. Never allow these incidental characters to go to waste by simply slipping them in and out of the novel. Put them to work by allowing them to heighten the mood and intensify the atmosphere of your story.
One more note. Don’t forget that you will find these characters everywhere! Keep your eyes open, your attention alert, and your notebook ready.
Meanwhile, keep on writing...
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