Excerpt from Jane Eyre
Bringing Minor Characters to Life
In some ways, minor characters are like settings: they’re background “filler,” used to flesh out your story world and provide interactions for your protagonist. However, wielded with a deft hand, minor characters offer the possibility of being so much more. As we’ve already discussed in Chapter 6, they can be a mirror in which the protagonist compares and contrasts her own strengths and weaknesses. But they can also provide everything from comic relief to conflict to communication. A minor character can appear throughout the story, as does Rochester, or only once, a does our unnamed post lady in this scene.
Whatever the importance or length of their roles, minor characters should never be taken for granted. If you’re going to raise your story into a convincing facsimile of realism and, as a result, suspend your readers’ disbelief, every minor character needs to be treated just a seriously as the protagonist. Brontë’s postal lady appears only once. She is given a grand total of five paragraphs and one line of dialogue and isn’t even introduced by name. Brontë tells readers just three things about her: she’s old, she wears glasses, and she wears mittens. But these details are more than enough to give readers the paints they need to finish the character’s portrait. Let’s take a closer look at how Brontë accomplished this:
1. The length of the description indicates the character’s role in the story.
A more prominent character would deserve a much more complete description, but any more than we find here would have given readers an incorrect sense of the postal lady’s importance within the story.
2. The details are vivid and specific.
The old woman’s spectacles are “horn” and her mittens are “black.” Because textures and colors immediately establish visual images in the readers’ imagination, they can be extremely efficient adjectives
3. The “rule of three” achieves a sense of balance.
The human brain, whether through inherent tendency or just ingrained association, finds a sense of wholeness in lists of three. The result is a catalog of details that presents a rounded picture without lapsing into a “grocery list.”
4. The readers are trusted to fill in the blanks.
Say “apple,” and readers see a shiny red apple with a green leaf and a friendly worm. Say “nerd,” and they see a guy in black glasses and a loaded pocket protector. Readers don’t need much to be able to visualize a character. Less description is often more.
5. The character acts uniquely and realistically.
When the old woman peers and fumbles, and then stares at the letter for five minutes before “suspiciously” handing it over, she becomes a personage in her own right. She’s the heroine of her own story, whatever it may be, and she acts like it.