Thursday, April 15, 2010

Guest Blog - Creating Three Dimensional Minor Characters

My guest this month is the successful and talented historical romance author, Laurie Alice Eakes, who will share some fascinating ideas on making your minor characters stand out in your novels. And if you leave a comment, you will be entered for a chance to receive one of Laurie's books!

Many years ago, I attended my first writer’s conference. The workshop leaders ranged throughout the genre spectrum, and did I ever learn—about the market, about point of view, and that my characters were two-dimensional.


As little as I knew about the craft, I understood that was bad. So I set out to learn. I read psychology books and self-help books and books on creating characters. Yet the one point that sticks in my mind above all when talking characterization, which I learned at that conference in less than five minutes. I learned enough that when I asked writer friends what topic I should cover here, they suggested I discuss creating three-dimensional secondary characters because it was a definite strength of mine.

At that conference, a presenter talked about another author, Martin Cruz Smith. I knew Smith’s work, had read his wonderful Russian detective novels, so I sat up and listened. The teacher pointed out how Smith had something this simple to say about a one-time character, “She had a red slash for a mouth.” That’s all we got about that woman. Though out of context, the image struck me in vivid detail. I knew the sort of person who would have a red slash for a mouth—cruel, bitter, angry, hard. Surely writing three-dimensional minor characters couldn’t be that easy.

Let me insert here that I’m not talking about the supporting cast to the hero and heroine, the best friend or mom, boss or mentor, who show up in numerous scenes throughout the book, the major secondary characters. Creating those characters goes right along with creating your primary characters—with full goal, motivation, and conflict charts, require the hours of filling out a 36 part questionnaire, and the other accessories of character building.

What I’m referring to here are those characters who have small roles that are crucial to the story, despite their small stage presence.

As I began to develop my craft, I discovered creating realistic characters, who may have no more than a hundred words of dialogue and often less, takes some thought. There are few words to reach a stage where even those people who walk on, deliver a line, and walk off again come to life with a trait—a one-line description that is unique and vivid.

A unique, yet vivid characteristic is one technique. We can’t copy the red slash for a mouth, and the world abounds in descriptive phrases. The man who looks like he stepped off of the pages of an Eddie Bauer catalog. The hostess in a purple satin ball gown and matching turban. Make it fit your time period and setting and the image you wish to convey. What would you think of a guy who dressed all Eddie Bauer? Or a woman who would wear purple satin?

Physical description is only one way to present a secondary character. In my first book, Family Guardian, where my heroine is a perfumer and into scents, she recognizes an odd person by his mildewy odor. What kind a person smells like mildew? Does it evoke an image in your mind?

Then people have a manner of speaking. In Lady of the Mist, my release out next year from Revell, a character mentioned periodically throughout the story finally has on-stage presence for about two pages at the most.

“So this is the brave young lady.” A hearty British voice rang through the room.

In one of my favorite Georgette Heyer novels, Devil’s Cub, the hero’s valet goes into a monologue about the physical flaws of all his previous employers. After about three lines, one knows just the sort of person he is and is in hysterics over his fussiness and perfectionism. We know him, though he really plays no other role in the story beyond that scene.

Do you see a pattern here?

Let me give you a

hint—five senses. Employ them to make a minor character work as a real person. Though if any of you can figure out how to use taste in this regard, I’d love to hear it.

A further way to make minor characters human is through their actions. Again in Lady of the Mist, the heroine meets the hero’s uncle for the first time and is so nervous she forgets where to place her feet so as not to topple over when she curtsies.

In most fiction, the characters drive the story. That means every person who walks across the stage needs to be three-dimensional,regardless of how small the role. Pinpointing the impression you want to evoke in the reader and then using the senses and/or actions to convey that impression, will give you minor characters who nonetheless stand up and proclaim their right to live amongst the major players of the story and set your manuscript apart from the hordes.

Award-winning author Laurie Alice Eakes does not remember a time when books did not play a part in her life; thus, no one was surprised when she decided to be a writer. Her first hardcover was an October, 2006 Regency historical from Avalon Books and won the National Readers Choice Award for Best Regency, as well as being a finalist for Best First Book. After selling her first book in the inspirational market, she also wrote articles and essays for Christian publications. A brief hiatus in publishing climaxed with her selling thirteen books in thirteen months, to publishers such as Barbour, Avalon, and Baker/Revell.

She is an active member of RWA and ACFW, and started the Avalon Authors group blog. A graduate of the Seton Hill University Master of Arts Degree in Writing Popular Fiction, And a Bachelor of Arts graduate in English and French from Asbury College, she is an experienced speaker, and has made presentations at local and national RWA conferences, as well as local universities and libraries.

Until recently, she lived in Northern Virginia, then her husband’s law career took them and their dogs and cats, to southern Texas, where she writes full-time and enjoys the beach whenever possible.

Her book may be found HERE.

Leave a comment for a chance to win one of her novels. Void where prohibited. US residents only, please. Chance of winning depends on number of entries received.


Cheryl F. {The Lucky Ladybug} said...

I enjoyed reading the interview and would love to read one of her novels :) *Thanks* for the giveaway!

Sally said...

So even my Cristina, my cameo-brief housekeeper, needs that extra dimension of "an odd aura of lemon oil and fresh-baked bread" maybe?
Interesting subject, Laurie Alice, something I hadn't given any thought to!

Carla Gade said...

This was an excellent post! I appreciate Lauries attention to detail and her advice about creating 3-D secondary characters. I think it makes a big impact on a book. When I see these characters who are flat I don't even want to read about them and skip over them. They should all earn their keep.

I'd love to win a copy of one of Laurie's novels.

Diana said...

Laurie Alice once again you give away a terrific piece of writing advice. Thank you enter me please for the book.
dlbrandmeyer @

Sherry Ann Miller said...

Thanks for the insights into making three-dimensional minor characters. I once had an English professor who drilled into her class members the idea of the five senses, so much so that when I read the comments Laurie Alice Eakes, I could hear my old mentor say, "I can't taste it yet."
Good job! I'd love to receive on of Laurie's novels.

Martha W. Rogers said...

Great piece, Laurie Alice. I have a few characters who could use a little more of what you describe. Thanks. Martha

Tina Dee Books said...

I love Laurie Alice's writing and writing advice. She's a wonder with historical knowledge and sensory details and it makes her stories alive to me--I'm living in them when I read her stories.

Thanks for always sharing Laurie Alice! You have such a giving heart with all those wonderful details.

Laurie Alice Eakes said...

Thank you all for your kind words. So many taught me along my writing journey that I wish to pass my knowledge on to others.