September 10, 2013

Introducing minor but important characters

Dear M,

Writing a story or a novel isn't easy. It appears to be, but it isn't. The easier it appears, the more difficult it must have been.

A story doesn't come easily to a person. When it appears, it is a thread or a vague idea. Expanding it into a story from that vague nothingness takes skill, patience, energy and a helluva lot of persistence. The author takes days and months to polish it out and polish it out and polish it out until it appears to flow through the pages. Until it appears as though it was written in an hour or so, quickly and effortlessly. Except it isn't.

Just as effortlessly, a talented writer introduces minor characters into the story, introducing them at an early stage, prodding them around gently without drawing too much attention to them, but just enough so that we know they exist, and we are probably curious at their presence, and we may also wonder deep inside as to their significance. In other words, just enough for us to notice them, and just enough for them to capture a corner of our attention. Perfect - until they return with a bang and make the story spin on its axis.

A perfect example is Ben in Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca - when you first read the story, you do not even suspect that the "idiot" has any importance at all, except making Winter a little uneasy in her new surroundings. For that matter, everything in Manderley makes her uneasy, so we aren't concerned. You know Ben is harmless because Winter says so. Soon you realise that Ben is a little delicate and fragile, you are afraid he might fall and hurt himself. He lets slip a few things that make you sit up and notice. Then comes his crucial appearance where his evidence - or the absence of it - makes everyone's head turn.
A very minor character, who holds the plot in his quivering hands.
A very talented writer, who gently and carefully unveils important parts of the story without the reader noticing that a major unveiling is in progress.


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