A to Z Challenge 2013

Monday, January 11, 2010

Is This Character Secondary?

I recently finished reading Stephen King's book Under The Dome. One thing that struck me about the book was the sheer number of secondary characters. The book centers on a small town that has become surrounded by an (mostly) impenetrable dome. King takes great pains however, to talk about a huge number of the town's inhabitants. It's dizzying how many people become part of the story and have a name.

I use name as a separator because this is how I classify characters (one of the ways anyway). Let's face it; if the character doesn't even rate a name in your story, are they really that important?

For example, if I'm writing a story set in a city in current times, is there a possibility that I'll have to include a convenience store clerk? Possibly. Is this person a secondary character or someone lesser? And at what point do secondary characters become merely background description?

I bring this up because in the aforementioned tome, there are literally dozens of characters with names. There are so many in fact, that there were times when I wasn't quite sure who was who. It got me to thinking about my own writing and when an appropriate time is to name someone as opposed to merely describing them. Look at the sentences below:

Harry pushed through the door with a heavy laundry bag over one shoulder. He nodded at the owner in the corner, a disheveled man with a half finished cigarette planted between cracked lips. Looking for an available washer, Harry sighed in resignation; someday he really needed to buy one of his own. It would make Sundays much easier to deal with.

In the passage above, I merely reference the owner with only the slightest of description. He's part of the background, so to speak. Now read this alternate version:

Harry pushed through the door with a heavy laundry bag over one shoulder. He nodded at Sam in the corner. Sam must be upwards of ninety, Harry figured. Sam was the owner of this dingy place and had been for at least the last sixty years. The half finished cigarette between his cracked lips was just as dirty as the man's clothes. Looking around for an available washer, Harry sighed in resignation; someday he really needed to buy one of his own. It would make Sundays much easier to deal with.

I tried to keep excessive description out of it so that the passages are fairly similar. In the second one, I have named the character and provided a bit more detail on him. Is he still merely background or did he just get catapulted into secondary character status?

King does this with many of the characters in Under The Dome. He gives enough information to get a good idea about the character, but their usefulness if you will for furthering the story is meager at best. Is this a bad way to do things? Well, I can tell you that there were times when it made for difficult reading because I couldn't remember why a particular person was in the story (or who they were with regards to the story).

This is the point when one should question whether the character is really necessary or if they should stay minimized in the background. I heard somewhere (probably from one of you fellow writers) that if a character doesn't help move the story along, they don't belong there. I agree with that with respect to named characters. If they are prominent enough to warrant a name, they must be prominent enough for the story, right? But I do think there are times when background characters are okay too, particularly for descriptive purposes.

How do you deal with secondary characters in your writing? Do you name everyone or do you have those subtle shadows that are only mentioned in passing?


Lost Wanderer said...

First, I don't think it should be compared directly in reference to another book because every book is different and every writer has his own style. Also, it depends on the story too. I have never read Under the Dome, but if it's a story more about a theme, as oppose to one person's journey, then minor character probably add to the character of the town and the dome or whatever.

Personally, I don't have a rule, but I just put a name where it feels most natural. Especially if that character will show up again in the book. For example, if Harry is going to go in the store quite a few times then I would give the clerk a name.

Without knowing the context of your story, just judging by your two versions, I like first one better.

Galen Kindley--Author said...

Thought provoking post and one I'm not sure has a clear-cut answer. My style has evolved into...in general...less is better. I try to find good middle ground and not go beyond that. So, if a story needs five characters, I'll do five, or maybe four. (Ha.) Some characters, however, like Sam above, are useful to communicate information about surroundings, or perhaps set a tone. They're really more props, than characters. In that sense, too, however, I don't like to overdo them.

See, I told you this would be tough to answer. I just rambled and said nothing. Sigh. Thanks for listening.

Best Regards, Galen.
Imagineering Fiction Blog

writtenwyrdd said...

I find that a character who is names is, more often than not, going to be involved in moving the plot along somehow, regardless of their prevalence in the story. So if you have dialog with a waitress and her name comes up, that's sort of a signal tot he reader that, at least in this scene, she has some useful function that's not just background description.

I don't claim this is always true, but it seems to be a general rule in books I've read. A character who isn't named can also be more important to a scene than just background, of course. But the name is like a big arrow saying "pay attention here" to the reader.

Anita said...

I looove secondary characters in reading. And I don't think they necessarily need to move things along. I think they just need to add something. Have you read THE BOOK THEIF? Awesome secondary characters there.

Christine Fonseca said...

You make great points in this...I like secondary characters and subplots that involve them...they can add dimension. And yes, I think it is very possible to go overboard. The name is not as relevant to me regarding my decision as to whether or not it is a secondary character of part of the setting (as many characters are)...So, I guess it all just depends on genre, pacing, storyline, etc...

I know - no help!

Eric said...

Wanderer - I see what you're saying. In this particular book, it's seems to be a mixture of one person's journey as well as a theme. It was kind of weird to read at times for me.

Galen - Thanks for the input. It's not really rambling, but good discussion. I like what you're saying about the people being props rather than actual characters. Good point.

writtenwyrd - I see your point, but I often wonder (in my own writing) whether a character needs the big arrow saying pay attention here or if they can be just part of the background. It's like if I make them a focus (even if it's minor), am I detracting to much from the main storyline? It's something I struggle with from time to time. Thanks for the input though.

Anita - I haven't read that book but now I'll have to look it up. I would like to get more experience with secondary characters, particularly so I can write better in this area.

Christine - LOL, of course you're helpful. Any observations can be a good thing. It's true what you say about them adding dimension, which is where I struggle. It's like the fine line between adding dimension and detracting from the main flow of the story.

Nishant said...

I think they just need to add something. Have you read THE BOOK THEIF? Awesome secondary characters there.

Work from home India