From Writer Unboxed: Spear Carriers
[S]pear carriers can be hard to handle without throwing off your readers’ sense of proportion. Truly anonymous strangers with no dialogue aren’t much of a problem. Though no one is going to think the waiter who brings your heroine lunch is going to turn out to be a key player in the plot, you often have to pay more attention to your background characters. How do you keep from calling more attention to them than they deserve?
Good question! I mean, you first have to decide how much of the reader’s attention this minor secondary character actually does deserve. After that, you have to try to nudge the reader into paying the right amount of attention to that character, from basically zero attention to both noticing and liking (or disliking) the character.
I’m currently editing a story in which one of the main characters, a king, meets with various bureaucrats, scientists, and courtiers who need to populate the palace but have no real impact on the story. The author’s first instinct was to not give them names, so readers wouldn’t think they were more important than they were.
Reasonable enough, except that the king would have known their names – he had been working with some of them for years. So in scenes from the king’s point of view, it felt inauthentic to refer to them as “the master of records” or “the chief guard.” They needed names and a sense of what the king thought of them – hints of personality and backstory. But not enough to distract from the main characters in the story. The palace needed to be staffed, not stuffed.…
Right! Sometimes it makes no sense not to give a character a name — failing to provide a name almost calls attention to the character. It depends, though! I mean, who’s read The Book of Atrix Wolfe by Patricia McKillip? Everyone, right? Remember how McKillip hardly names anyone the protagonist interacts with, and how she turns that into something important about the protagonist? I’m having trouble here because I don’t want to give that character’s name. She’s nameless to herself, and everyone else is nameless to her as well. It’s an amazing way to build that character’s strange, alienated sense of self and place.
Come to think of it, Susannah Clarke did something very similar in Piranesi, where she never gives the first-person protagonist’s name. Again, that’s an essential part of building the character and the world.
What a strange and effective technique! That wasn’t what I was thinking of when I saw this post. I just thought of it when considering when we name secondary characters, especially minor secondary characters, and when we don’t. That really is a puzzle.
This post offers a technique for handling minor characters that I haven’t seen explicitly detailed before:
Another way to get around the problem is to make all of your minor characters memorable. If even the waiters and the taxi drivers stand out in readers’ minds, then readers are less likely to assume they’re important than if only one or two of your minor characters are developed in more detail. Readers who know your methods will accept the sharply-drawn spear carriers and think nothing more of them.
Interesting! The author of the post points to Sue Graftan as an author who does this. I’ve read a couple of her books, but not recently. If I pick up another of hers now, I hope I notice this.
I probably name a good many very minor characters. Often it seems strange not to. Let me think. Okay, when Ryo met the other seven men of Esau’s file, only Laraut introduces himself to Ryo, and thus to the reader. I left the others nameless, at least right then. That was an accurate forecast of Laraut being a little more important to the story than the others later. More important to Ryo, actually. Later, I gave the names of Ryo’s family and friends, but often didn’t name other characters. A cousin, a great-uncle, references like that rather than names. Even though Ryo thinks of his mother as “my mother,” because she’s an important minor character, it would have felt really odd to me not to work in her name so the reader would know it.
Hmm. In Keraunani, I don’t believe I ever give the names of all the men of Esau’s file, even in the backstory timeline where those men are around. If they were more important to the story, of course they got names. Otherwise, no. Although once Esau addresses one of them by name. (“Pelas, what happened to you? Forget how to duck?”) The man to whom he’s speaking is completely unimportant to the story, but it would have been weird for Esau not to speak to him by name at that moment. That’s how that very minor character got a name.
And so on. I think if I went through and counted, there would be any number of characters like “a soldier” and “a young woman” and “a cousin” and so on. I think that when I name a character, it’s fairly obvious from the amount of detail given whether that character is going to be at all important. In fact, sometimes I set a character up to possibly be important later, and then that doesn’t happen, and I go back and strip some of the detail out of the story. So I think that’s how I handle minor characters — by adjusting the amount of detail with a fairly conscious eye toward their story importance.
I will add, sometimes I have a real desire to build up a character you all have barely met. I don’t mean characters like Esau. Not only do I have a clear idea of what he’s like, the reader probably does too, just from what we’ve seen of him in Tuyo. I mean much more minor characters than that. For example, remember Talon Commander Sigaur Talat? You may well not remember him at all, even though you’ve met him at least once. He appeared briefly at the beginning of Tarashana and had a slightly bigger role in Nikoles. Anybody remember that he’s missing a hand? Anybody wonder how that happened? I actually have a good idea about that. Maybe someday I’ll work that as a detail into a novel, or write a story in which we see how that happened, or something. I haven’t found a chance to do that yet, even though you’ll meet Talat again in Karaunani.
Same thing with any other series. For example, I have a story in mind about Bea Stanton, the pilot that Ethan hired in Copper Mountain when he suddenly needed a plane. I put in more detail about her and then had to take some of it out because it didn’t enhance the book. But I still left in a little, because the thing is, I know quite a lot about Bea. Maybe someday you will too.