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?


  1. Donald Westlake is one of my heroes when it comes to populating his books with interesting bystanders. I recommend his novel “Dancing Aztecs” to anyone wanting to learn how to write for a lot of reasons. One of them is his characters, minor, major, and walk-on. I always get the feeling that anyone you see in a Westlake novel is the main character of some other story who just happened to blunder into the wrong book for a minute, then headed back home.

    One example, from “Dancing Aztecs” is when the main protagonist is going through the address book of a stranger, calling people to try to find where the owner of the book is hiding. He makes a half dozen or so calls, and each one is a bit of microfiction, a little absurdist vignette.

    Westlake could have just written, “Jerry called the numbers in the address book and found Bobbie after forty-five minutes” and it would have conveyed all the information necessary to advance the plot, but instead he let the reader experience the process and created a half-dozen real feeling people, none of whom we will ever see again.

    1. THAT is my favorite Westlake book. IIRC, about page 52 there was a loooong paragraph about a Korean (?) student who was driven to insanity/breakdown trying to figure out the choices of the combinations of dishes at a Chinese restaurant.

      1. Yes, a Korean philosophy student who went into a cataleptic trance while studying the minute shadings of pork in the Goddess Of Heaven menu and had to be taken to Bellevue, whereupon he woke up in the emergency room, gave up philosophy, and is now brakeman on a cable car in San Fransisco.

        That’s just a random aside by the omniscient narrator, BTW, not even really a character.

      2. Interesting. That’s probably my least favorite Westlake book. I found the continually-moving POV to be irritating. I read it last year, after all of the Parker and Dortmunder series, and some of the other standalones. A Westlake binge, I guess.

    1. One of mine is a 14th Century European soldier in a unpublished book. He started as a spear carrier, and, as part of a guard detail, kept popping up.

      Will confess to stumbling upon what Dave wrote about today quite by accident. I needed to avoid “As you know, Bob,” info dumps, but the reader needed information. Like a blind hog finding an acorn, had no clue what I was doing. There were still one near infodump among main characters, and two outright infodumps, one with two characters who appear once and never again, and with some really minor characters.

      I tried to camouflage the info dumps in three ways. In the first, some main characters are trying to figure out what’s going on and float some theories about why the MacGuffin is important. None of them have the complete story, at least one has some brain fade, and one doesn’t understand why it’s important (and gives an excuse for the infodump). In another, two minor characters discuss their options as the protagonist overhears them. That conversation fills in the reader on some things going on off-stage. Used a similar method as former soldiers consider taking up arms without being ordered, at the risk of being labeled brigands.

      Do they work? Shrug. Felt most uneasy about the MacGuffin discussion. The other two felt more natural

  2. One of my favorite is a woman in Tolkein’s The Two Towers, who tells all sorts of rumors to whomever is in earshot. It’s humorous, and gives the reader a sense that there’s a world going on beyond the main characters.

    1. I’ll admit, it’s been a while since I read the LOTR trilogy, but wasn’t there also a bit part man in the Houses of Healing in ROTK who annoyed the life out Aragorn et al with his meanderings in regards to healing herbs and so on? (Aragorn wanted to get his hands on athelas, asked the guy about it, and got a tedious lecture on various plants, until even Aragorn nearly lost patience, and even made some extremely snarky remarks after they’d finally chased the man off to get the damn plant.) That guy was a hoot…and I’d almost totally forgotten about him until this blog post, and he suddenly came popping back into my head.

      1. Paraphrasing:

        “My lord has asked for athelas, or kingsflower, or as it is also called…”

        “I don’t care what you call it as long as you have some.”

      2. And later does a pitch-perfect imitation of the old f*** when one of the Bobbsey Twins (also known as the Took and Brandybuck Road Show) asks him if there’s any pipeweed in Minas Tirith.

        Aragorn’s sense of humor was one of the things I *really* missed in the movies…

        1. It was especially funny when we learn that the Hobbit who asked about pipeweed had some in his pack and Aragorn knew it. 😀

          1. This is true. There are a number things about the films that I actually ended up liking better than the books (but before y’all burn me at the stake for heresy, I still love the books, beginning to end!), but they did miss out on Aragorn’s snarking for the most part.

            (Thought to be fair, Tolkien’s humor tends to be pretty low key throughout, so I suppose it could be argued that it’s easily missed. Certainly, as a kid I missed it almost entirely, and so mistakenly thought the trilogy to be ‘mostly grim.’)

  3. Various denizens of inns and passers-by from Eddings’ Belgariad/Mallorean series. They always seemed to be able to fill the MCs in on scuttlebutt.

    I use lippy spiders:

    Sylvia Mynarski was lying on her back, her suit submerged in a side canal at right-angles to the Keisersgracht. She was tucked in under a boat moored to the stonework of the canal. It was a tight fit because the water was only seven feet deep there. With her was Valkyrie Skadi’s bus-sized giant spider, semi-autonomous railgun vehicle SARV-1. They had a fiber-optic hooked up between the suit and the spider, to keep from radiating energy. SARV-1 was busy telling Sylvia a story about Skadi’s adventures in Amsterdam.
    “Oh, she’s so clueless! She wanted to visit the big church on the Oudekerksplein, because it’s like 800 years old. But she doesn’t check what else is there, does she?” complained the spider. “No recon, not even a web search. She gets her social chassis all done up in a nice Chanel design dress and a fancy jacket, Gucci shoulder bag, the whole business because she thinks she’s going to church. Looks like a damn supermodel with a hot date.”
    “I know where this is going,” snickered Sylvia.
    “Right?” exclaimed the spider in exasperation. “What is the one thing that Amsterdam is famous for world-wide? But does she check first to see what neighborhood this church is in? Noooo, not Skadi.”

    1. I had two Jewish merchants discuss where they would go now that the mayor of the nearby market town had essentially shut it down, and it looked like the tolerant king of the realm would fall. At the end one raises his cup and says “Next year in Jerusalem,” possibly an anachronism for around 1300, but the other comments it’s long past Sedar, and the guy reveals he’s thinking of going to Jerusalem. The other guy asks if he trusts the sultan, and he replies he trusts him more than the potential new ruler.

      They talk freely, but in Hebrew and in low voices, in an inn’s dining hall, with only them and serving girl present. Natural, the serving girl happens to know Hebrew, which may be a bit much, but I established in the 2nd chapter that she knew Hebrew (girl has a flare for languages).

  4. The undead Roman champion Sextus Bassus from one chapter of Monster Hunter Siege is a great example of a memorable and fully-formed supporting character who appears briefly and makes a huge impression.

  5. Terry Pratchett had a horde of bit players who flitted from book to book. Drumknott the clerk, for instance.

  6. 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.

    That would be 1635: The Wars for the Rhine. To date, the only one I haven’t read; barely even started and was overwhelmed with the cast of characters (who all have horrible to read German names, of course). Ugh.

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