Sunday, January 13, 2013

Casting a Novel~Scenery Characters

It is not enough to merely have a Main Character, a Villain, and some Helpers. A story needs Minor Characters as well. Besides Minor Characters, a story needs what I like to call Scenery Characters. Here’s why:

He walks in, buys a teddy bear, wishes the clerk a merry Christmas, and walks back out.

You have just laid eyes on a minor character. Not just any minor character, but a particularly minor character. He has one scene. One line. One purchase. And no name. Whenever—if ever—we feel the need to make a reference to him, we will simply call him ‘The guy who bought the teddy bear’. It’s a long title, sure enough, but there’s no reason to shorten it. After all, if we start calling him ‘Phil’, then how is anyone going to know who we’re talking about? Even if we added into the story that the clerk says ‘Have a nice day, Phil’, most recipients of the tale would miss or forget the introduction. So there’s no call to name him. He’s just a guy out buying a stuffed animal around the holidays.

But he is a necessary part of the story we are telling.

What if, after all, the Main Character has forgotten to get her little brother a gift until that very moment? The simple act of this strange man—named Phil—buying a teddy bear will remind her. Or what if the writer of the tale needs the MC to have a sudden childhood flashback? Think teddy bears. The memory itself doesn’t even have to include teddy bears, but the simple fact that teddy bears are a familiar item of childhood is enough.

I like to call this type of character a ‘Scenery Character’.

Now Phil is an exception to a general rule because, in the examples I have given above, he is needed to make a point. Many Scenery Characters are not so useful. We just need them to fill an empty street or coffee shop. We don’t know where they are walking to or what they are drinking in their steaming mugs, but they must be there or else MC and Co. are wandering about in an otherwise empty universe.

So, what if Phil’s purchase of a teddy has no effect on the story whatsoever? We might write:
Clarence turns away from Jesse for a moment, allowing his friend’s words to sink in before he replies. A man slips past them, holding a fluffy brown teddy bear in his arms. He makes his purchase and he and the store clerk trade ‘Merry Christmas’s before the man leaves with the little bear. Clarence at last refocuses on Jesse and sees her eyes waiting for his answer. “Well, then, we’ll have to do something about that, won’t we?” And the two set off with purpose.
In this case, Phil’s entry into the tale has no consequence whatsoever and is only useful for distracting the character and garnering impatience in the reader as we await Clarence’s story-changing answer to whatever it is Jesse has just told him.

Scenery Characters are important, some admittedly more so than others. Like with Phil, the Teddy Bear Buying Man.

Or like Captain Joe, my favorite obscurity in the film White Christmas. (This post, really, is a follow-up to my last one about favorite obscure characters.) Scenery Characters are very obscure. Unremarkable. Virtually invisible. Incredibly important.

There is no need for us to give a backstory on Phil when all we need him to do is purchase a cotton Kodiak. There is no need to give backstory to Captain Joe, either. They are what they are.

I don’t hold this as an absolute, but one can almost always make the case that there are at least two categories for ‘Scenery Characters’. In one, we have Phil. In the other, we have Captain Joe. Phil is the poster child for the term Scenery Character, while Joe falls more into the minor-minor-minor category of characters. Too minor to be labeled a Minor Character, and too major to be a cardboard prop.

So let’s look at Joe. He needs to be a slightly more authentic prop. He is present frequently enough that we feel justified in giving him a name and a title: Captain Joe. Joe has a lot more depth than ‘Phil’. Why? For one thing, his scenes are longer and his job more important. For another, he is the result of some ideal, yet subtle story-crafting. We don’t know if Captain Joe has a family, a home, a car. We aren’t told how old he is or what he likes to eat. We know very little about him at all, but we take him to be a good soldier, a man concerned with upholding the honor of his country, his leader, and his position. A good guy, but so far nothing special.

We find out that Joe has more character than we bargained for: He obviously cares for his leader, he has a somewhat reluctant and crooked smile, he sings along with everyone else at the end of the film, and he plays a major—if seldom noticed—role in the picturesque climax. Suddenly he has depth. Why? Because he cares. We do not necessarily need to care about him, it is enough that he cares about the characters of the story.

Consider this: your best friend has a teacher you have never met and know nothing of on a personal level. But that same teacher sends birthday cards to your friend, stops to talk with them, and admires your friend’s work. You will almost inevitably begin to like this teacher for the simple reason that they like your friend. Besides that, a Scenery Character who cares brings more to the table than a character who doesn’t know there’s anything to care about.

Like Phil. Phil walks in and out of one store. Does he purchase the bear because he cares for his five year-old son? Is it a get-well present for a coworker’s child? A little something sweet for his wife? A means for smuggling a baseball-sized ruby out of the country? We don’t know. Therefore, we don’t know what Phil cares about, or even if he cares about anything at all. What’s more important is that he has no reason to care for our story. He has no reason to car for our characters Clarence and Jesse. Does Phil need depth? Do we need to give him a gleaming white smile, a favorite football team, and a size 13 pair of blue Nike sneakers? No. We don’t. Because we don’t need him to care.

Captain Joe is written as a bit of ‘reader help’. You know those guys who would stand on the sidelines of live radio and television shows to prompt the audience? That is Captain Joe. He’s not so much of a prop as he is a prompt. We don’t even have to genuinely notice him caring in order for him to help us to care.

And Phil? Well, Phil is a member of that same audience. He claps when he’s supposed to and that is the extent of his usefulness. We needed to get some applause from somewhere and he contributed.

A single person clapping does not often inspire others to clap with them. A person whose job it is to get people to clap at the right time usually gets those people to clap at the right time. We may never notice either one. Both are important. The man directing the audience requires an audience to direct. A man in the audience needs a director and a bunch of other people just like himself to be the audience. His part is significantly smaller, but still important.

So when you are crafting your characters—whether you are writing Speculative or Suspense, Historical or Romance, remember your Scenery Characters. Your MC cannot walk through a forest without there being trees to make up the forest. You need the scenery for the scene itself to work. You need a group of Scenery Characters in which to insert your Main Character for us to care what that character does or does not do.

Every scene needs a focal point and every focal point needs a scene.
Likewise, every cast needs a lead and every lead needs a supporting cast.

What do you think about minor characters? Do your minor characters have depth and, if not, do they need it? Does your tale include both ‘props’ and ‘prompts’?

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