Friday, July 20, 2012

No Small Parts

As I reported last time, I'm re-reading my own books as I think through my new series and work on revamping my web site. I made a discovery the other day. I realized that I seem to have a habit of having a "walk-on" character appear and then later re-appear to play a role in the resolution of the story.

As I re-read, I am recalling how these characters "came to me" as I was imagining a scene. They were there, complete in every respect. My protagonist, Lizzie, or another character that she was observing had a passing exchange with the "walk-on" character. Then the scene moved on. These characters were there to provide information, local color, and/or allow Lizzie to make an observation about herself or someone else. Later, they walked back into a scene -- surprise! I say "surprise" because I'm pretty sure I never expected to see them again. But somehow they burrowed their way into my subconscious.

And this raises a tricky writing problem -- how not to make a character a stereotype while at the same time not making him or her so memorable that readers think you're giving them a "pay attention" nudge. I noticed that in both cases (in the two books) when a walk-on character later reappeared, I had given him or her a name and distinguishing characteristics. One character wore a wool scarf around his neck and was in the habit of calling out a military command. Another character, in a book set in England, had a Southern accent and red hair. There was another time when a character would have been remembered if she had shown up again. But I did not give that character a name, apparently recognizing in my subconscious that her deep melancholy limited her usefulness.

I am fascinated to discover this about my own writing because my first non-fiction book was about the history of black characters in crime and detective fiction. I discussed the stereotyping of walk-on and minor characters (blacks and other racial/ethnic) in Golden Age classic detective fiction and hard-boiled detective fiction. So maybe that awareness of stereotypes is one of the reasons that I give my walk-on and minor characters slots in my subconscious. Or maybe that happens with many writers. No small parts -- we may need to pull even the briefly seen character out for later use in the book.


Hannah Dennison said...

How fascinating Frankie! I'm now determined to reread my books and see if I have walk-on characters, too.

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