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All Characters, Great and Small.

Outside books, we avoid colorful characters.
…Mason Cooley

Scribe smallCharacters drive fiction. As Faulkner said, we create them, then “just run along after them and put down what they say and do.”

Today I thought to talk not about heroes and villains – the archetypes that form the moral (or immoral) heart of a tale – but about the supporting and cameo players who are like diamond chips, reflecting all about them.

More than short stories, novels lend themselves to these flashes of light and color. The scope of a novel, even if not epic, almost demands supernumeraries as flesh upon bones. Think of the multitudes inhabiting Shakespeare, Dickens, Hugo, Austen, and Twain – each so alive you could pick them out in Grand Central Station at rush hour.dickens

“Hamlet”’s gravedigger, the porter in “Macbeth,” Bumble the Beadle, Wilkins Micawber, Mr. and Mrs. Palmer, Azelma Threnardier, Sid Sawyer, Mrs. Loftus – you could populate a kingdom with them and never be bored. (Some might say that Huck Finn was a minor character in Tom Sawyer but so full of life that he just demanded his own story.)

So how is it that, in a line or turn of phrase, the reader knows these characters like a member of their own family? They are not simple placeholders. They are blood and sinew imbued with humor, malice, courage, and pathos, and each, in their small way, moves the story forward. If there is a trick to this it is in treating them with the same deference we do our heroes and villains. Don’t make them cardboard cutouts or stereotypes. Give them histories, kids and exes, quirks and foibles.

minor characters

Does the reader need to know all this? No, but we do. And when we do, when we see the cabby or the neighbor or the goblin in a teller’s cage at Gringotts clearly, then we can pick one or two of those specifics, bring them to the fore and we’re suddenly dealing with individuals. Mustardseed is not Moth; and Isis and Charmian, while both handmaids, are not pod people.


No matter how long such characters are on the page, they will live and breathe. They will get big movie stars clambering to play them.

They will be remembered.

This is a work of fiction. All the characters in it, human and otherwise, are imaginary, excepting only certain of the fairy folk, whom it might be unwise to offend by casting doubts on their existence. Or lack thereof.
…Neil Gaiman

Frances and the fairies