The Writer's Edge (Sample Copy)

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©2015 by Mike Foley

Last summer, I had dinner with a buddy who asked me about a former girlfriend, a woman I haven't seen in more than 30 years. "I don't know anything about her," I said. "She was actually a minor player on my stage."
What I meant was that we dated briefly, but it never went anywhere and our paths haven't crossed since. When you add it all up, she simply wasn't a very important part of my life.
But that got me thinking about the "minor players" in writing, the characters who only show up once in a while in a novel or short story (or even nonfiction). Why are they there at all? Are they important or are they simply thrown in to serve a quick purpose in the storytelling? Do we even need these minor players? All good questions.
In most cases, I shy away from anything that is "thrown in" to a story or piece of writing. Such things rarely work and often weaken the affected scene. So the first thing to ask yourself about a minor character is - "Will they move the writing along in some way?" A receptionist who leads your main character along a hallway to an important meeting may not be very interesting, but she gets the character where he needs to go. On the other hand, a minor player may actually have a larger role in a story, interacting regularly with the viewpoint character, even if they don't share the stage for a significant amount of time.
Readers may never get into a minor character's mind or delve deeply into his/her life, but that person can still affect the story in a variety of ways. In order to see how this works, let's assume our main character is a female police detective name Jennifer. The minor character in this story will be a man named Sammy, the owner of Greco's, a small coffee house near the police station. Jennifer buys coffee there every morning and her encounters with Sammy, however brief, can have a profound impact on the story. Let's take a look.

1. Definition - Regular scenes with the minor player can help define the viewpoint character in deeper way. That helps readers understand the main character and his/her opinions and motives. For example, Jennifer and Sammy may interact this way:

     Sammy had the coffee ready-a double caramel latte, extra hot. She never knew how he kept it so warm, especially since her arrival time varied, but it was always ready, just the way she liked it. Jennifer adored the way it burned her mouth, reminding her it was morning and she had work to do.
     "You're the best," she told him.
     "And you're sort of boring, you know?" He took her money, shaking his head. "Don't you ever want to order anything different?"
     "Hey, it's the only comfort I have in the morning. Would you deny me that?"

The rather simple scene about the coffee tells the readers plenty about Jennifer-how she likes her coffee, the things that comfort her, her habit of always going to this particular coffee house, and how she feels about Sammy. These things may or may not have a bearing on the main story, but readers get to know her in a deeper way.

2. Information - During the story, Jennifer may be stumped by a lack of evidence or information in the case she's working on. And Sammy may be just the one to give her the information she needs.

     The shop was empty this evening and Sammy seemed surprised to see her. His eyes were harder now, more penetrating and less friendly than they were on most mornings. Even his smiled seemed forced.
     "So you're not going home tonight?" he asked. " Why the overtime?"
     "Paperwork," she explained. "When you have nothing else to go on, you close the case."
     "Maybe you just need some help."
     "Tell that to McGuire."
     "You could have told him yourself ten minutes ago."
     Jennifer hesitated, her stomach tightening. "He was here?"
     Sammy nodded. "Every day this week. Meets some guy. Big money, I think. You know, fancy suits and all. What can I get you?"
     She ordered coffee, gazing aback at the street. If McGuire had been to busy to see her, why was he hanging out here at Greco's?

The information about a fellow officer takes the story in a new direction and keeps the mystery moving, thanks to the casual information provided by Sammy.

3. Subplot - A minor character may even provide a subplot for the readers, especially in longer works, where a subplot is more appropriate. For example, Sammy may have an ongoing issue or problem that continues to interest Jennifer.

     "How're the pups?" she asked as she paid for the coffee. Sammy had been breeding Chows and fighting with his landlord about it.
     "They're amazing," he said. "Smart as whips, every one of them. But they still whimper a lot, you know. That gets Muriel all pissed off."
     Jennifer nodded. "Hard to keep puppies quiet."
     "Tell me about it. Hey, you wouldn't want to take them for a while, would you? Just a couple of weeks or so?"
     "Forget it." She had a picture of Arthur at the front door, yelling about dogs. He'd probably even raise the rent for good measure.
     "Come on," Sammy pleaded. "They're cute."
     She took her latte and smiled. "You'll figure something out."

Now that readers know about Sammy's problem, they'll be interested to see how he solves it, how the problem with the puppies will work out. And they'll remain interested, whether Jennifer winds up taking them or not.

4. Plot - In fiction, the minor character may be involved at a critical stage of the story, actually helping to move the plot along. In our example, Jennifer may want to revisit the coffee house to learn more about McGuire's meetings with the mystery man.. It might read this way:

     The following morning, Jennifer hurried to Greco's, anxious to ask Sammy about McGuire. But Sammy wasn't there. Instead, a young teenage girl rushed here and there behind the counter, trying to keep up. Her red hair was tied back, revealing several piercings in each ear. It was still early morning and she was already sweating.
     "Sammy called in sick last night," she told Jennifer. "Can you believe that?"
     Now that same chill hit the back of Jennifer's neck. Sammy hated missing work, enough that he would never turn the busy morning rush over to a teen worker. And why would he call in the night before?
     "Dammit," she said under her breath. McGuire had beaten her again and if Sammy was hurt, she'd never forgive herself.

Sammy's absence moves the plot along by bringing the danger into another area of Jennifer's life. In this case, he serves to build the tension as Jennifer moves closer to solving the crime.

5. Nonfiction - Although most of the examples above focus on fiction , minor players can also show up in nonfiction, helping to move the article along. If Sammy were a real person, the writer might want to take readers back to the coffee house more than once and allow his opinions to guide the story.

     So were these clandestine deals even real? If no one in the Brockton office actually saw anything, could the charges be valid at all? Maybe, maybe not. It was clear that Brockton CEO Mark Thomas visited Greco's regularly. Maybe Sammy Crenshaw had seen something.
     That's when it all came together. Thomas did buy coffee there twice a day and as Crenshaw readily admitted, the CEO was rarely alone.
     "He met a bunch of people here," the owner explained. "Seemed like a different person every time. Sometimes they argued. Sometimes they exchanged envelopes or packages. All very weird."

In this example, the relatively minor person in the coffee house actually points the nonfiction investigation in a new direction, opening up new possibilities for the story.
The power of a minor player can also be ongoing. For example, readers of a mystery series may grow fond of a character who appears regularly from book to book. And in that case, the character becomes an even better tool for the writer to use.
Best of luck with your writing.

Mike Foley is editor of Dream Merchant Magazine and author of more than 700 published stories and articles. Since 1986, he has operated the Writer's Review critique service for aspiring writers of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Contact Mike for information on how to obtain a professional critique of your writing.