In September, I went to Bloody Scotland for the first time (I’m not being offensive by the way – Bloody Scotland is a crime writing festival held in Stirling). It was a fantastic experience and I’d recommend that fans of crime fiction book up for next year.
The first panel I attended was Alex Gray‘s New Crimes featuring Ian Skewis (author of ‘A Murder of Crows‘), Felicia Yap (writer of ‘Yesterday‘), Rob Ewing (whose debut novel is ‘The Last of Us‘) and, last but not least, the author of ‘Two O’Clock Boy‘, Mark Hill. The panel was really interesting and each reader read an excerpt of their debut novel as well as answering questions from Alex and the audience.
Mark Hill has kindly agreed to share his thoughts on minor characters today. Thanks to Mark for sharing his thoughts on this subject.
Guest Post: Mark Hill on Minor Characters.
Pull up a chair, authors, and let’s talk about those characters in your books who never get enough attention. They’re usually ignored by readers and reviewers, who prefer to concentrate all their praise on the terrific narrative arc of your awesome protagonist and their battle with the evil antagonist.
I’m talking about the little people, that supporting cast of characters who appear all too briefly in your book. They may be a witness to a crime, a lawyer guy, or the newsagent who sells your protag a packet of Revels. They appear for a scene or two, perhaps, and then… they’re gone forever.
Your minor characters get a few fleeting paragraphs to register in the consciousness of the reader, but by the end of the book, let’s face it, they’re usually long forgotten. It’s not their fault, they did their job. In the big scheme of things, they’re just not that important.
But those minor characters deserve your love and attention just as much as your main cast. It’s easy to write them as shallow stereotypes, but they deserve personalities all of their own, and feelings, and depth of character. Give them their moment in the sun.
For example, I used to do a lot of script reports for new writers. I read hundreds of scripts, perhaps thousands. Films scripts, TV scripts, play scripts. If old ladies appeared in those scripts they’d often be described as having white hair and wearing a cardigan. They were the most generic old ladies ever. They’d invariably call everybody ‘dear’ a lot. As in ‘hello, dear,’ ‘yes, dear’ and ‘would you like a cup of tea, dear?’
Because if an old lady appeared, you could bet your life that a cup of tea would be sure to follow. Now I love tea as much as the next fellow– milk, no sugar, since you’re asking – but I often wondered what would happen if instead of clutching a teapot the old lady would appear with a crack-pipe… or a DVD of extreme porn… or sporting a purple Mohican hairstyle.
In my crime debut Two O’Clock Boy, there’s not a teapot in sight. I’ve got a couple of senior citizens, but they’re tricky and ferocious characters – and I hope counter-intuitive. Myra Drake is an eighty something with an acid tongue and the predatory eye of a vulture. True, Harry Crowley does lean on a walking stick – a typical prop for an old person – but he uses it to slyly manipulate the people around him into thinking he’s more frail than he actually is.
Treat them with love and care, and you never know when your supporting characters will become the breakout stars of your next novel. Take our old friend Hannibal Lecter…
Thomas Harris practically reinvented the serial killer thriller with Red Dragon. Banged up in a small cell, Hannibal appeared briefly. But his watchful, enigmatic presence dominated the narrative.
Up until then serial killers had tended to be grubby little men banging nails into cages in basements. Lecter was different. He was a high-functioning polymath, a lover of fine wine, opera and art – a man who hid his true nature behind a veneer of immaculate taste and sophistication. He also ate people. Harris took the serial killer out of the basement and put him in the penthouse. With that one minor character he flipped the reader’s expectations – and hit gold.
Lecter didn’t get many pages – but by the time Silence Of The Lambs came along, he was the leading man. Now, practically every fictional serial killer is a smarmy know-all with a penchant for turning murder into high-art.
So when you’re thinking about the minor characters in your crime novel, take a moment to consider how you can make them shine. Use all those god-given powers you have to make shit up, all your skills of description and dialogue and storytelling, to give them that tweak that will turn them from ‘Walk-On Part A’ to ‘Charismatic Scene-Stealer.’
But just do me a favour: don’t offer them a cup of tea.