The little cabbages..
Hear about the e-book of a fight between vampires for dominance in the story world? It’s about who gets to be the bit or the byte players. Ow. Stop hitting me. Cease with the carp. I repent (at least for now).
Most of us remember – and work on writing well – the main character/s in stories. It’s the lesser characters that tend to be neglected – both by writers and the memory of readers. This is not necessarily a bad thing as the bit-players have an awful habit of being so cool they morph into having a larger part than you planned, maybe even nudging the main character off-stage, and ruining your well-planned book.
Of course, some ruins have a certain charm… possibly more than the original buildings or books.
Anyway, let us go back to enter players various / rude artisnals / heralds / officers / two gardeners / keeper / messenger / groom and other attendants. It’s a rare book (or play) that can do without them. Yet in practice they’re usually so near invisible you could use them for PC minority tokens and readers wouldn’t notice (neither would the token counters – but that is because they only skim until offended. And don’t buy the book either.).
You’re running a fine balance here. A balance between ‘oh look, squirrel’ and the cardboard bit-player whose only relevance was to carry the spear, deliver the message, act as someone for dialogue to be directed at, etc. If a doorpost could do those jobs there’d be no need for the bit player. And yet…
You see it’s a trick of sorts. I suspect that many a great writer does it without meaning to, but as I am neither one of the good nor great, I am observant, and study these things. You see like speech tags, bit players are the writer’s invisible hand. You can learn to use them with intent, too.
Firstly they act as ways of carrying additional information to the reader that, if carried by the main characters, would be like a red flag to the readers. Saying ‘notice me, notice me.’ And, um, we ARE in the process, often, of misleading the reader in such a way that our surprise denouement is both a surprise… and feels both plausible and logical. That’s why techniques like the unreliable narrator are used. Comments between James, the second footman at Dashett House, and Cricken, the butler… carry the information, the same information, to the reader’s head as if it were said by the lead characters. BUT the reader knows those facts, but is much less prone to notice that they’ve been fed information about the erratic behavior of Lord ‘Chuffy’ Wivenroe. Trust me on this – I have been doing it for years, and people just don’t notice – but the information sticks, especially if presented with little ‘bubbles’ of character development about the bit player – which also stop them being ‘cardboard cutouts’.
Secondly, what those idiosyncratic bubbles of character development in minor characters do – without the reader realizing it, is to add, what for want of better words, I call texture and depth. It’s rather like the taking the same picture and printing it onto good-quality art paper or a sheet of A4. It’s the same picture (or story) – but the art paper will be picked as ‘better’ almost every time. Ask the viewer – or reader – ‘why?’ and they mostly won’t be able to tell you.
Yet, as I said, it’s a balancing act. Too much and the main characters are drowned. The reader, who just wanted to be entertained has trouble separating Lord Chuffy problems with his wealthy Aunt Honoria from the intricacies of second footman James’s relationship with his widowed mother and his hopeful and inventive younger brother. Too little and the book just feels flat and unreal without the reader being able to say why.
So: How to achieve that balance? Hells teeth, do you want me to write the book for as well? Look, it’s a case of proportions. None at all, in any character that has ‘a speaking part’ is too little. BUT a minor bit player that occurs throughout a book – say the butler – who if you counted them up, appears in 20 scenes (but as a minor player, often without saying anything of particular relevance, out of the 100 scenes in the book) – you are in the danger zone if you make them particularly ‘interesting’. On the other hand, a character who pops up once – and the reader knows it’s a one-off, gets more leeway. One of my personal favorites was a bit-player- an unnamed serving maid – I used in SHADOW OF THE LION that I used to carry the plot-essential bit of information that the demon was being ‘sicced’ onto its victims by means of stolen items of their clothing (as well as several other foreshadow hints).
From my original draft:
She curtseyed hastily, nearly dropping the bundle she bore. “Pardon your honors, the students say you are the ones who saved M’lord Calenti?”
Manfred bowed. “We are, signorina.”
“Ooh! From demons seventeen feet tall with horns and lots of teeth, and dancing naked witches with six breasts—like dogs, and I heard the whole building was destroyed, and Legions of Cherubim, too, not that I understand why fat baby angels can fight well, but Father Pietro always tells us they do, then there were those with trumpets and the whole city shook and the winged lion itself stirred in the piazza, and there was a rain of blood…”her eyes sparkled as she tilted her head, quizzical for more juicy details.
Even Manfred was gobstopped. “Er. No… It wasn’t quite like that…”
Well, if they weren’t going to oblige, she’d help out. “And poor Lord Calenti, him so handsome and all, he fought like a tiger before he got so burned by the devils, they burned the clothes right off his back with their pitchforks and I don’t know why they say that because surely it must have got the clothes in the front, but that would have got his privates, or at least showed us his smalls and such elegant knitted smalls.” She giggled coyly. “Not that a girl like me would know anything about that.”
Er,” Erik began.
That was quite enough interruption! “So when Signora Elena said she needed someone to take m’lord his best nightshirt, because he was too sick to move, and Silvia and Maria were both too scared to come for fear of demons, and all the boys at the Accademia ogling them, and I don’t know why she’d be afraid because Maria’s been walking out with that rough Samarro boy – and what’s a few noble students compared to that – I said I would take it. Only then the Signora couldn’t find it and I’ve had to bring him his second best and it hasn’t got nearly such nice embroidery, and now I don’t know where to find him and none of these students want to tell me.”
They probably couldn’t get a word in edgeways, thought Erik.
Now – let’s face it, she’d be exhausting to read as anything more than a once off, brief part. The long disjointed sentences are intentional… and you’ve met her. Well – I have. Couldn’t get away fast enough! But – as a bit-part character, occurring once – that was fine.
And that sort of the point I was trying to make.
Now – any minor characters – bit-part players – that stick with you?