Walk On . . . and Touch My Heart
Giving your minor characters their fifteen minutes of fame
by Candace Calvert
Of course, your hero and/or heroine get the spotlight, the big speaking parts. As they should. You’re writing from their point of view. Very likely there are secondary characters in your story too, the aforementioned “major players” in a main character’s life. Absolutely, spend your time on them; make them genuine and loveable (or convincingly despicable). But don’t forget to include a few tertiary—minor-- characters in your story as well. And please don’t fashion them out of cardboard. They need to breathe, too. Do that and bit-players can go a long way toward showing your readers the kind of stuff your main characters are made from.
In my newest release, Rescue Team, two of these minor characters are an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s and her beloved plastic doll, Nancy Rae. Yes, a plastic doll. In this scene snippet, we see our rugged search and rescue hero Wes Tanner having tea with these two characters.
“Yes, ma’am,” Wes told Amelia Braxton, hoping his finger wasn’t permanently stuck in the handle of the dainty flowered cup. “Best tea I’ve ever had.”
The elderly woman’s barely visible brows rose and he hurried to amend his compliment. He turned to Nancy Rae, sitting on the porch swing wearing a cherry-print dress and something that looked like an old Pilgrim hat. Only faint scratches gave evidence to her near-miss with the business end of a shotgun. “Thank you, too, Miss Nancy,” Wes said, fairly sure that Hershey, wriggling beside him in hopes of a cookie, would laugh out loud if he could. “It was very nice of you to invite me to tea.”
Amelia giggled. “She thinks you have beautiful eyes. So do I. And good manners.” She peered at Wes through lenses finely dusted with powdered sugar. “Your mother did a fine job of raising you up. Manners, Sunday school, music lessons. Yes indeed. . . . But we hardly see Lee Ann these days. You must tell her to come by for tea. We miss her.”
“I’ll do that.” Wes promised, wondering if anyone really did—miss his mother. Twenty-seven years was a long time.
For me, Wes Tanner’s willingness to sip tea and make polite conversation with these rather quirky characters says “hero” in a very special way.
But even a brief, non-verbal encounter with a minor character can give readers new insight. Or foreshadow events to come. Like here, where Rescue Team’s heroine nurse Kate Callison reacts strongly to a stranger she sees on her drive home from a rugged hospital shift.
. . . She braked, waited for two bearded cyclists—one in tie dye, the other in a faded purple “Keep Austin Weird” T-shirt—to weave through traffic. Then she rounded the next corner, and—
Oh . . . Kate’s heart cramped. The mother. Standing on the busy corner with a long scarf draped over her hair. And that sign with the beautiful baby’s face. Need money for my baby’s funeral. The light from a single candle flickered on the face and downcast eyes of what could have been a likeness of the grieving Madonna.
Kate’s foot found the brake; she reached for her purse and heard the sudden blare of car horns behind her. Then she drove on, all thoughts of dinner extinguished. All she wanted was to get home and close the door, blot everything out: that poor woman on the street corner, the girl in shadows this morning, the tearful triage nurse . . . and a baby born on the bathroom floor.
Sometimes, if you allow your Muse to take the lead, these colorful minor characters may simply walk into your office and whisper, “Pssst, I’m in this story too.” This has happened to me many times during the creation of my Mercy Hospital and Grace Medical series. I’ve been privileged to meet a rag-tag collection of characters who were nowhere in my synopses and yet served as important catalysts in the unfolding stories. These quirky bit-players have included an elderly goldfish named Elmer Fudd, a wise and loveable former rodeo clown, the owners of seaside bait & bakery shop, a hospital janitor with PTSD, and a one-eyed miniature donkey. I’m grateful to each and every one.
I will caution you that minor characters have a strong tendency to try and shanghai your story. They love the unexpected limelight. Rein them in gently but firmly. But please do give them a chance at their fifteen minutes of fame. These characters may very well enhance your story, touch your readers’ hearts . . . and even become a friend.
That wise and loveable rodeo clown from Trauma Plan is still hanging around my office.
Thank you for hosting me, Julia. It was a pleasure to meet The Writer’s Alley readers!
Just a note: This is an excellent summer read! It held my attention until the very end and the characters are so likeable.
Thanks so much, Candace!
Questions: Have you made room for walk-on characters in your stories? Were you taken by surprise by their unplanned appearance?
AND A GIVEAWAY:
Answer Candace's question in the comments and include your email address to be entered for a copy of RESCUE TEAM!!!