There’s a Japanese man in my neighborhood whom I have been running into every few weeks for the past four years. I always run into him in the morning as he’s walking through the alleyways. He moves slowly, his right side recovering from what I would guess was a stroke, and my assumption is that these walks are part of his daily routine to strengthen his body again. He drags his right foot a bit and holds his right arm in a way that indicates it has little strength and mobility.
He’s probably in his late 50’s. I don’t know his name. I don’t know where he lives. And over the past four years, his recovery has been noticeably slow. But every time I see him he always grins wide and booms, “Good morning!”
I’ve never heard more than those two words from him, but I get them every time. I can even see him preparing to say them, to belt the words out and watch them being received. He looks me in the face, grins, and shares his two words.
It’s a full, clear, wonderful sound that holds so much: resilience, good nature, gratitude, joy, promise. Every time I hear those words from him I give thanks for the day and for my mobile body (that hasn’t always been (and isn’t always) mobile).
This man has become a “minor character” in my life. When I do my metta yoga meditation and I get to “someone who embodies loving-kindness” I often think of him. Even though all I know of him is his warm, “Good morning” as he moves slowly along, taking in the day, he represents so much to me about human kindness and perseverance.
The minor characters in our lives have histories we can read in their actions, expressions, and words. Some people are pure background: blurs, maybe a glance, exit. Some we meet once on a bus and they stick in our minds. I recall an inebriated man who stumbled out the bus doors, fell to the ground, and then became belligerent when folks stopped to help him even though he was obviously injured. I wanted to know how he had gotten to that point in his life on that day.
The minor characters in our stories should have histories, too. Obviously we don’t spend as much time developing those histories as we do for our major characters, but our fictional worlds will have more dimension if the minor characters do as well. We don’t have to know everything about them, but we can hand them some fear, some loss, some hope, some love. We can give them quirky behaviours, use them for comic relief, or paint them as a reflection of our setting or our theme.
In my current WIP I have a minor character, a nameless man who the protagonist sees walking his mini poodle sometimes. His quirk is that his sweaters match his dog’s. I let the reader think he’s background until one scene, very early in the morning, when the protagonist has snuck out of her house, he helps her finish a detailed chalk scene she’s drawing on the sidewalk. Instead of him calling her parents, or chastising her, he wordlessly picks up some chalk and helps her finish the drawing. That act made me fall in love with him.
Pick any minor character in your story and set your timer for 5 minutes. Try any of the exercises below with them and see if it brings some new dimension. Don’t stop writing. Don’t edit. Just see what appears.
1) When MINOR CHARACTER steps out into the world each day, her biggest hope/fear is that . . .
2) When MINOR CHARACTER gets dressed each morning, she’s hoping that . . .
3) One of MINOR CHARACTER’s distinguishing behaviours is . . . which stems from . . .
Now that you know this character a little, perhaps you can discover something new about your protagonist through this minor character’s eyes? Set your timer for 5-7 minutes and, again without stopping, write:
When MINOR CHARACTER sees my protagonist, she assumes . . .
Have a great rest of your week!