By DeAnna Knippling
Let's say you're writing a book. Hard to imagine, especially during National Novel Writing Month, but bear with me here.
You have a minor character--a witness in a courtroom. How do you write your description?
If you're running on autopilot, you write something like this: "He was tall--about 5' 11"--with blond hair and blue eyes, looking relatively fit." Which sounds like a police report. Or a checklist: gender, height, hair/eye color (i.e., race), weight.
This gets boring after a while, both as a writer and as a reader, because every single minor character becomes a checklist. Male/female, tall/short, dark/light coloring, heavy/average/skinny. What else is there to say? Lots of things.
But what? And how can you do it without building an entire, time-consuming character dossier? Or without sounding repetitive?
I have three steps for you:
1. Decide what the constraints are of your story. Is it a serious mystery or a black comedy? Is the story about family, love, adventure, what?
2. Pick three unique traits for your minor character that don't go outside the constraints of your story. (This means only one character can be "tall," too.)
3. Hint at each of the traits three times.
The first step should be pretty obvious: you might not want to build a class-clown, sassy old deaf lady witness in the middle of a serious courtroom drama; you might run your story off the rails.
However, there's a neat implication to this first step. If you know the themes of your story, like "Sometimes you have to take justice into your own hands," you can build a witness who emphasizes your theme, just by the way you describe them. I'll get to that later.
The second step is more complex. At its easiest, you can just pick any three things that fit within the context of your story. The things can be physical traits, habits, philosophies, interests--anything. Your witness could be a) from Texas, b) a lover of classical music, and c) dry-skinned, all of which would fit within the context of a serious courtroom drama. A caution--you can pick physical traits, but you want to stay away from physical clues (like wearing a ten-gallon hat or a Texas drawl) at this phase. You want something easy to figure out from obvious clues; you don't want the clues themselves yet.
The third step is the fun part. As you write, include clues for each of the three traits, three times, in three different ways. For our witness, you could say that he has a ten-gallon hat that he carries with him, a Texas drawl, and a certain graciousness toward the ladies (including the judge). And he hums to himself, smiles at a lawyer's bad pun about Bach, and is nodding in time to someone else's tapped foot. And he scratches his arm, has a tube of flowery-smelling lotion in his pocket, and chews on the peeling skin of his lips, almost as though he were nervous.
What you don't want to do, by the way, is list all three clues pointing toward the same trait together. You want to mix them up: Gerald Kinnerly swore himself in with a proud, drawling 'Amen' on the Bible, then climbed up to the witness's stand and chewed on his lips while the defense lawyer flipped through some papers. After a while, [the main character] realized he was humming to himself. For a moment she couldn't place it--but then it came to her. Beethoven's "Ode to Joy."
You can do one or two clues at a time, too. You just have to use each trait three times.
Why three things? Why three times?
It comes down to the human brain: one, we tend to get confused if there are too many moving parts, and two, we tend to create patterns (even if none exist).
Why three things? If a minor character has three different traits, there are seven ways to combine them (for our purposes, the order doesn't matter): one trait at a time (A, B, C), two traits at a time (AB, BC, AC), and all three of them together (ABC). With two traits, there are three ways to combine them, and with one, only one way. With four traits, there are fifteen ways to combine them. And five traits, thirty-one ways to combine them.
We don't want complexity in a minor character--we want interesting. Three traits, with seven ways to combine them is interesting, because we can remember, on average, about seven things in our short-term memories: thus, phone numbers are seven digits long, aside from the area code. Two things is too easy; four things, too complex. Three is just right.
"Three things" is a handy rule of thumb for describing anything, actually: stick with three things at any given time...unless you want to hide a clue. Then go for five or more things, and put the clue somewhere in the middle. Most readers will remember the first two things and the last one or two things. Want an example? Read a description of a murder scene in a mystery. There will be more than three things described; somewhere in the middle of the description will be the important clue. Especially watch for lists of things all in the same paragraph or sentence: She had one of those Jaime Lee Curtis bodies, with long, brass nails, and bronzed lips that drifted, ever so slightly, to the left when she talked, with a tiny Victorian hat pinned to her head, a leather bodice, and boots that were tipped with steel at the toe and at the very ends of the three-inch heels.
Catch the murder weapon? Probably not, until I pointed out there was one.
Why three times? The first number that we tend to see patterns in...is three. Like Ian Fleming said, "Once is an accident. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action." When something happens once in our lives--like getting hit by lightning--we call it a miracle, a tragedy, or just something completely random. When it happens twice, we're on the fence; it might have been coincidence...we tend to group that kind of thing as "luck."
But when it happens three times, we see a pattern, and we start coming up with explanations for it. If your buddy gets hit by lightning three times, well. They must have an overcharged human electrical system or something. It doesn't really matter if the explanation is true or not--once we "see" a pattern, we invent a reason for it. Scientists have to fight against jumping to conclusions from apparent patterns; we, as writers, might as well use that tendency to our advantage.
Why not more than three times? You can, but with caution. Once we see a pattern, if the pattern keeps repeating, we either get annoyed at it, mock it, or tune it out. Let's say we know someone who gets struck by lightning every six weeks, like clockwork. We stop thinking of it as interesting, instead seeing it as something that we can take for granted. And if the reader can take a single word in your book for granted--why write it? The reader is paying you to be interesting! And how often is this minor character going to show up, anyway? Is it really a minor character?
Now...there are reasons to break a rule of three for a character. Once you have a reader's expectations set with a pattern (three things), then you can mess with the pattern. Want to hide a murderer, but not so deep that a reader will never figure it out? Set up a pattern of three traits/three times, just like you would any other minor character, and then have them do one thing that clearly violates the pattern you've set up.
The subtlety of subtext.
Among writers, subtext is generally used as "the real subject of a conversation." For example, your characters are ostensibly arguing about whether to plant tomatoes or potatoes next spring, but they're really arguing about whether to stay married. However, that's a limited view of subtext. For writers, subtext is any underlying theme, used in any part of writing.
For our purposes, if you know your theme (some writers would rather have it emerge organically; if so, you can use the same technique while editing to make sure you didn't go off-theme while you're editing), you can build it into the three traits for minor characters.
Let's say your theme is "The justice system is broken." Three traits we could pick for our witness could be a) is rich, b) hates the defendant, and c) feels bulletproof because of her Mafioso brother-in-law.
When you build subtext into your minor characters using character traits, you can be really obvious or really subtle--whatever fits your style. Just remember that overusing subtext can make your story feel like a rant, for better or worse. For a more toned-down character, you might want a) is rich, b) has bad memories of going through the justice system as a teen, and c) is somewhat rude to everyone, as a defensive mechanism.
In the end...
Minor characters are a minor tool, and you don't want to spend all day drafting out the backstories of every hairdresser, dog-walker, and butler in your story.
You first want to make sure your minor characters don't derail the story. Second, you want to make sure they're interesting. Third, you want to repeat the themes of your story, as appropriate.
So grab three character traits that won't derail your story, that might even reflect your theme, and run with them: but don't run too far, or you'll end up with a minor character that spins off into another book.
Wait a minute...
Her reason for writing is to entertain by celebrating her family’s tradition of dry yet merry wit, and to help ease the suffering of lack of self-confidence, having suffered it many years herself. She also likes to poke around and ask difficult questions, because she hates it when people assume something must be so.
For more kicks in the writerly pants, see her blog atwww.deannaknippling.com or her ebook How to Fail & Keep on Writing, available at Smashwords, B&N, Amazon, and OmniLit.