Supporting characters

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Make supporting characters interesting

Wednesday, I went to north central Arkansas to teach a professional development class and on the way up, I listened to an audio version of T is for Trespass by Sue Grafton, the 20th Kinsey Millhone mystery.
T is for Trespass by Sue Grafton

At one point the detective calls a college to do a background check on a suspect. The supporting character here was the clerk at the college, and writing the scene was made more difficult because it was just a phone conversation. How do you characterize a minor supporting character when you only present them in one phone conversation?

Husky voice. Nasal voice. In short, the character’s voice. That’s about it, right?

CommonColdInstead, Grafton gives the character a cold, and now, she is sneezing, blowing her nose, and she’s grumpy, all of which adds an extra layer of interest and conflict to an otherwise straightforward request for information.

The grouchy clerk tells Millhone it will take five business days to get the information, that is, five days after Millhone shows up with the signed employment application giving permission to release the information. Millhone is aggravated, but dutifully trots down to the college to show the application, only to find that clerk has gone home early because she felt so bad. Of course, that’s great for our heroine, because she innocently tells the new clerk that the information was supposed to be waiting for her. The new clerk retrieves the information in less than ten minutes.

The college clerk is a minor supporting character, but the quick characterization of a grumpy woman with a cold kept the story moving with a minor, but appropriate conflict that provided a nice plot twist when the information was retrieved fast, instead of slow.

Do you have minor characters who are cardboard cut-outs? Here are 4 quick ways to characterize better. For an extra challenge, while you’re sharpening your minor characters, look for a minor plot twist, too!

  1. Ailments. Give them a cold. Or a broken arm. Or some other physical ailment that affects their speech, method of moving around, etc.
  2. Role. Give the character an unusual family role, such as great uncle, the black sheep of the family, the third wife, or the last of fourteen children.
  3. Job. Unusual jobs abound in the world: fireworks expert, laser welder, test kitchen for ways to cook rice, strawberry farmer, tarantula scientist, a person who cares for plants in skyscraper offices, or an Amish wife.
  4. Facial features. The human eye can perceive slight differences in faces, so that each of the billions of people on earth looks unique. Work to find ways to describe faces in unique ways. Use metaphors, find the one details that stands out, or exaggerate a feature.

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