Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Importance of "minor" Characters

Some of you may recognize today's blogpost. I posted it way back in March at SFWP's blog:

It's an admittedly long post, but it sums up something about writing fiction that's near and dear to me. Here it is:

I recently reread James Dickey's disturbing but wonderful novel Deliverance. For whatever reason, the novel inspires me to get up every morning and write. Dickey's language casts a spell of some kind over me. It's straightforward and clear and extremely precise. Also, from what I hear it took him several years to write the novel, and that's reassuring. Hearing stories about how long it took some writers to write great novels is simply inspiring. Novelists need to be in it for the long haul. When you think about how badly you wrote on any given day—maybe you struggled to get 2 or 3 even remotely passable sentences scribbled down—it's always nice to remind yourself that some great novels took a long time to write. I can imagine that Dickey spent many, many days poring over the words on the page and not getting anything accomplished—and probably feeling miserable about it.

But somehow, he did finally manage it. And what resulted was a great book.

Anyway, what I want to write about is one brief element from Deliverance. You see, one of the things I've discovered is that it's quite a challenge to write new and secondary characters into a novel: characters who leap (or enter) into the story for a brief snatch of time and then exit again, never to be seen or heard from again. Their role in the story is to bring out some important element of the main character(s) in a way that is A) dramatic and B) interesting. The dramatic part is extremely important. It's one thing to say such and such a character likes to listen to music, for example, it's another thing entirely to see the character listening to music, rapt. By seeing the character dramatically portrayed in scene, readers gain a far greater understanding of who he or she is.

But it can be difficult to find a situation for your characters that honestly and significantly presents readers with a deeper understanding of the complexity of his or her character. Novels can be long and meandering, but, as with any story, there should be no excess scenemaking for the pure glory of scenemaking. In other words, nothing should be in your novel (or for that matter, story) that doesn't in some way assist in shedding greater light on your characters or the story they are wandering around in. Remember: they are not aimlessly wandering around.

And that leads me to this one truly fantastic moment in Deliverance. In the edition of the book I own, this moment occurs on page 58. Here's the set-up: There are four principal characters in this novel—four men who go on a canoe trip in the backcountry of Georgia (perhaps you've seen the movie)—and before they get to the river, they stop at a Texaco station in the town of Oree. One of the men, Drew, plays the guitar. When the old man who works the gas station sees that guitar he gets excited and brings a boy named Lonnie out of the station. Lonnie is a banjo player. This is how he's described:An albino boy with pink eyes like a white rabbit's; one of them stared off at a furious and complicated angle. That was the eye he looked at us with,with his face set in another direction. The sane, rational eye was fixed onsomething that wasn't there, somewhere in the dust of the road.

When I first read that paragraph it struck me—and still does—as a pitch-perfect demonstration of how to vividly portray a character in as few words as possible. Following John Gardner, I believe that any character mentioned in a story should have some definitive appearance—something for readers to visualize. (I don't mean to suggest reams and reams of lengthy description of what they're wearing, how tall they are, etc. I mean only something to give us an idea that the character is full-bodied, three dimensional.) And Dickey's description here is quite a visual; we recognize this oddly-shaped character, even if we've never seen his like before. If you saw this Lonnie walking down the street, you would take a second glance. What makes it so good, in my view, is how it gives readers a sense of the creepy and the strange. In doing so—and this is why the description is significant—it adds to the backwater mystique that makes the world these four men have entered seem dangerous, and when you read this book, you'll see that's clearly Dickey's intention. The description of Lonnie adds layers of depth to the overall narrative, as well as heightens the tension and drive of the book: this is a scarier place than what these men anticipated when they set out on their trip. Readers feel it, and they see it. And we know something bad is gonna happen to somebody.

Why does this matter? Well, for one thing writers always want to make their stuff interesting for readers, in some way. Description is one good way to do that. Everybody knows what fog looks like, right? You can possibly get away with telling readers, "Dawn broke and there was fog." Readers would know what you mean. But it's boring and they wouldn't necessarily learn anything different about fog or how a certain character sees it, and that's what makes literature interesting: you can present a unique vision of life. Try this instead: "Dawn broke. A cold, heavy fog settled in like a furry coat." Neither image is particularly brilliant, but the second at least attempts to describe a little more vividly what the fog looks like and how it feels. And that to me is the writer's job. Highlight as interestingly as you possibly can the mysterious elements that comprise the world we all live in. (You want readers to gasp: Ah, you're right. It does feel like that.)

For the second thing, it points out that even secondary, once-seen-and-then-gone characters can (and must) play a significant role in the narrative—that they should not just be plopped down in the story as a means to an end or to simply fill space between action A and action B. It's an easy temptation to make these characters comic fodder, on the one hand, or flat "devices" on the other—designed to make your novel denser, or to give it the appearance of something larger. But, as the passage from Deliverance makes clear, even the "smallest" characters, whose time in your novel is short, should be granted the same qualities of humanity that your main characters receive. When you honor even the smallest details of your work, you make the whole work stronger bit by bit.

Do you have any similar examples from your own reading?

1 comment:

Serena said...

minor characters should play a role, but recently I discovered that sometimes minor characters can get too much of a role in a novel, like with Run by Ann Patchett, and I found it distracting.