At a recent Allied Authors of Wisconsin meeting, I was thrilled to receive unanimously positive feedback on a particular character in the chapter I read.
The only problem is all that praise went to a pretty minor character.
Who appears in just one scene in the entire novel.
He doesn’t even have a name.
In other circumstances, the characterization I conveyed through slang-sprinkled dialogue, eclectic surroundings, and a coffee mug bearing an exquisitely coarse quotation would have been a successful foray in introducing a notable newcomer to the story. However, because this anonymous Irish store clerk makes such a powerful impression and arguably robs the point-of-view character of the focus he deserves, I must reevaluate my approach.
This isn’t the first time I invented a person when little more than an extra body would have sufficed. In the second book of The Renegade Chronicles, I needed someone to deliver news to a protagonist. Enter Baxter Lawler, an irreverent knight of the realm who’s more likely to wield a tankard of ale than a broadsword on any given day. I had so much fun with Baxter that his walk-on part evolved into a sort of subplot.
Generally, it’s a good thing when a character casts a shadow—when he or she breaks free from the shackles of two measly dimensions—but if a relatively insignificant character steals the spotlight from a leading man or lady, then a writer risks misdirecting the reader’s attention.
So what to do with my all-too-charming employee of Jimmy’s Secondhand Treasures?
The easy answer is to diminish some of the details surrounding him and/or reducing the size of the scene in which he appears. In other words, I must make him less interesting. That would demote him to a more utilitarian role and reduce the chance of setting him up as a red herring for the reader.
Or if I think this guy has the potential, I can bring him back for subsequent scenes and perhaps even make him an integral component of the plot. Why, if I thought this pawn shop employee had real star quality, he might even get his own novel. Or here’s an even more extreme case: Bean, a background character in Orson Scott Card’s award-winning Ender’s Game, got his own spinoff series, which, I would argue, is even better than the books that focused on Ender’s life.
Sadly, the nameless Irishman will not likely reappear in The Soul Sleep Cycle, but it’s never a bad idea to have an attention-hungry character in one’s back pocket for future projects. He might even get a name if Jimmy’s Secondhand Treasures becomes a pivotal place in some novel down the road.
Then again, it’s not always a good thing for a would-be nobody to get noticed by the author. Just ask Sir Lawler, who instead of happily disappearing into oblivion after providing a little exposition, ultimately spent a couple of chapters getting tortured by goblins before losing his mind and then his life.
Bottom line: If a character deserves the reader’s attention, develop away! But if he or she is the equivalent of a movie extra, it’s kinder to keep him or her out of the true stars’ way.