Sunday, November 7, 2010

Bit Players

Two weekends ago, I took my daughter and her best friend to Toronto to see Wicked, the musical they'd both been dreaming of seeing since the first time they'd stumbled across clips of the Broadway performance on YouTube a year ago. To make it extra-special for them both, I got us tickets for a private box, with polished brass railings and real chairs and curtains to shut ourselves off from the rest of the theatre. The girls, at the front of the box, had a marvellous view of the stage. Unfortunately for me, the designers of the set for Wicked, gifted though they were, had elected to hang their speakers, not to the side of the stage, but within the proscenium arch, so whenever the lead actors moved upstage left I lost sight of them.
After a while I stopped minding so much, though, because I had noticed a curious thing: when my view of the main scene was blocked, all the actors who were playing at the fringes of the scene came into sudden, sharper focus.

Which set me musing on the role of minor characters in fiction who, like those actors downstage right in Wicked, tend to go about their business in the shadows just beyond the spotlight.

If not for them, the fictional worlds we create would be so much less interesting. How could we write something set in a village without any villagers? Or write a scene in a restaurant without any servers or customers? Cameos, bit parts and walk-ons add life to a story.

And sometimes they add even more. I learned this long ago while writing Mariana, when a very minor character – a woman by the name of Mrs. Hutherson – showed up early on with a plate of Bath buns to welcome my heroine to the village, resisted my attempts to write her out again, established herself as the housekeeper up at the manor house, and proceeded to change the whole course of the story.

Still, any lesson learned can always be forgotten, so I'm grateful to that inconvenient speaker in the set design of Wicked, because it helped me to rediscover just how vital every player is, upon the stage.

Who is your favourite minor character?

(And don't forget to come back Thursday. Julie will be posting).


  1. That is tough question and the first secondary character that came to mind was Becky from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and I don't know why as I haven't read the book in soooooooooooo long.

    Minor characters have definitely changed the course of several books for me and one managed to stay in my mind for so long he got his own...Mark was the third man in August Rock and he became the hero in A Cornish House.

    I loved Wicked when i saw a few years ago...

  2. I'm thinking Leopold, Duke of Villiers from Eloisa James' Duchess series.

    He didn't even have a first name at the beginning, but he went through everyone else's story like an impeccably-dressed, acidic catalyst/godfather, becoming more and more important until he earned subplots and then a whole book of his own.

    I adore him.

  3. It's amazing how some of the secondary characters try to take over, isn't it - happens with mine all the time and it's great fun.

    For me, the ultimate one has to be Jacob in the Twilight books. Although Edward is supposed to be the hero, Jacob was the one that stood out right from the start and I couldn't believe that Bella didn't see it too! The author told us time and time again how handsome and wonderful Edward was, but on the page, it was Jacob who shone. (I know, there are whole camps on either side - this is just my opinion).

    Another secondary character, who thankfully has evolved into a main one in subsequent books, was Seth in Melissa Marr's "Wicked Lovely". In that first book, he was just the heroine's friend/boy friend, but he completely stole the show. I can't wait to see how the author finishes the series off and what will happen to Seth.

    Georgette Heyer was also a master at creating wonderful secondary characters - Lord Dolphinton in "Cotillion" has to be the best one for me, but I've probably mentioned that before as it's one of my favourite books :)

  4. It's so fun reading everyone's favourites (though some are a little more centre-stage in the books than others :-).

    And always interesting to see how very minor characters can grow into the spotlight as a series progresses.

    I think of Mr. Satterthwaite, who pops up from time to time in Agatha Christie's mysteries. I always loved the way she described him in "Murder in Three Acts" as: "a determined but pleasant snob, always included in the more important house parties and social functions — the words 'and Mr. Satterthwaite' appeared invariably at the tail of a list of guests."

    I could see him so clearly, just from that. She really could paint minor characters with a wonderful economy of words.