Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Technical Topics -- Building Minor Characters

Someone asks,

I want to expand the role of a minor character.  I want to make him a villain.
How do I make him more real?

Lots of ways to approach this.

First off,  you get to use all the tricks you used in building your major characters
on the small fry.
Give him something to believe in; give him a problem to solve; give him an interesting and complicated past; give him something that makes him hurt; something that he delights in, give him something he wants very very much, give him some small oddities of appearance, action, movement or belief.

That's pretty basic character building.

Here's four more approaches that might be useful:

-- What does he sound like in dialog?
Consider cadence of speech.  Word choice.  Accent.  Big words or small ones. Modern slang or precise, scholarly finicky. Long sentences or short. Concrete terms or figurative. Metaphoric language or literal.

But it's not just the words.  It's the delivery.  It's how he speaks.  What are the customs of his dialog.
Does he rush to agree with what other folks say? Does he interrupt? Does he respond to what has been said or go off on a tangent? Does he wait before replying, or jump into speech immediatly. Does he stay silent and carefully watch others?

Compare the dialog and delivery of Uriah Heep with that of Bill Sykes.  Look at the accompanying body language.  (Go ahead.  I'll wait . . . )

And moving right along.

-- What does your character do?  Nothing defines a character like what he does.   

A small behavior;
(he hides his meat under a pile of rice at the cafeteria line so he doesn't have to pay for it;)
reveals larger behaviors;
(he's an embezzler.)

The lovely young girl who casually stomps on a cricket, ('insects give me the creeps',) is not lovely inside.

What folks do stands up and shouts so loud about what they are, that we can't even hear them explain that they are not really like that but are something else altogether.

-- Minor characters, maybe especially villains, tend to have simple and consistent behavior.

But while the balance and pace of the story may demand this simplicity of character, it's worth remembering that no one is all of a piece.  We may not show the many depths to this villain bloke, but those many layers exist.   We know this, even if the reader doesn't.

-- And it's often useful to remember that every character is the hero of his own story.  How would he see things?

For some interesting comments on hero-age and villain-age, see the Wenchposting  here.


  1. Christine3:32 PM

    I can see in your writing your sympathy for the "villain" or even the "pseudo-quasi- villainous character" as I like to think of Lazarus as. He's obviously a very dangerous man who has done or ordered very bad things but he is no cartoon "bogey man." Every villain in your books has a very clear reason for acting as they do whether one agrees with it or not. My biggest pet peeve in novels is the crazy irrational villain who does bad things just to do them. The scariest villains are the ones who do awful things because they think they are "right."

  2. I find Maslow's hierarchy of needs useful in thinking about villains. It helps me figure out the deeper reason behind the 'why'.

    Loss is more important to humans than gain -- liberally interpreting Maslow.

    When folks do villainous stuff, I think it's apt to be for protection from some danger or loss -- real or imagined -- rather than from greed or desire or wanting stuff.

    So whenever I have a motivation I'm assessing, I try to ask myself 'What is it the character fears he might lose?' As well as, 'What does the character want?'

  3. Christine5:11 PM

    That is very interesting and reminds me of a history class back in my college years where the topic was Revolutions and how/why they occur. Apparently the Jacquerie of the Middle Ages is the only revolution begun by the truly destitute. The peasants were literally starving and being killed during the Hundred Years War and finally revolted. Every other revolution in history was created/fomented by the middle class. The impetus of the revolutions was not for mere existence but when the rising expectations of the middle class were not met. The theory was disappointment not life or death breeds revolutions. While the truly poor are certainly involved in the revolutions they are not the catalysts. Or so the theory goes. Disappointment is the ultimate call to arms.

  4. I have thought upon this 'revolutions arise from the middle-classes' theory and am inclined to agree. The 'dumb terror' on his hoe does not have the imagination, the intellectual resources, or the leisure to plot revolution, being wholly concerned with not starving to death.

    In Forbidden Rose, I tried to present this view through Maggie. She blames the (middle class) idealists for toppling everybody into the bloodbath, but also despises the greed and stupidity of her own class.

    I will say, however, that violent revolution is likely to accompany poor harvests, which argues that while the ideas and direction may come from the middle-class, the wave of rage that spills over the dam of convention may arise from below.

  5. Christine7:02 PM

    Yes it's amazing all the conditions that must come together for such significant movements in history, economic, cultural, political and envrironmental. When it all erupts it becomes the "perfect storm." I confess I love to sit and theorize and ponder these questions, why 15th century Florence produced such a burst of great art? Why do some revolutions succeed and some fail? Etc etc.

    I remember Maggie thinking about the louts in the tavern who start revolutions but don't worry about supporting the widows or paying the schoolmaster. Women, i think anyway, are far more practical than men being the ones who must make sure everyone is fed and provided for.

    I also enjoyed how Adrian, though English, immediately knew what happened with the Orangerie and the long simmering resentment of the local boys. It gave the viewpoint of the looters without having to introduce another character and told the reader immediately what Adrian's background had been for him to process that scene so quickly.

  6. I write in this period because the 'right' on the two sides -- British and French -- about balances. It's not 'good' against 'evil'; it's two concepts of good set against each other.

    In practical terms, it means I can have antagonists who are good and worthy people who happen to be on different sides. In Black Hawk, Justine and Adrian are such honorable antagonists.

    I have not yet been able to focus on Adrian's ideological choices. He has to come to terms with his sympathy for the radical ideals he's fighting against. I didn't have a good time to explore this in Black Hawk and I couldn't take the emotional balance away from Doyle and Maggie in FR.

    I do regret this. There's a scene that didn't make it into the Forbidden Rose manuscript because it was too strong, and it wasn't about the protagonists. Adrian sees a tumbril headed for the guillotine with a 14-year-old girl. It's at that moment he commits entirely to the British cause.

  7. With respect to minor characters, I'm often struck by the similarities between Lazarus and Corruthers. Jo, I think you (or one of your readers) have remarked on this.

    Both are ruthless, and I find myself questioning Corruthers's motives nearly as much as I do Lazarus's. I'm not much of a counter-revolutionary. While she's running a group of spies, with whom I sympathize, I can't help thinking of the violence on both sides of the equation. The violent and eventually random quality of the terror is highly visible and gruesome in its execution. But England was perpetrating violence just as, if not more, horrific. Much of it was exported to other countries against peoples with whom the populace had little sympathy and was, thus, largely invisible.

    It's hard for me not to sympathize with the French Revolution, at the same time that the aftermath once again demonstrates that violence begets violence. Corruthers and Lazarus are both the products of a corrupt system. Lazarus operates in England's illegal underworld, whereas Corruthers's actions are state-sanctioned. (You complicate this with other minor characters like Reams [sp?].) Both act in secrecy and both evoke unquestioning loyalty, if not always obedience, among their recruits.

    I'm pushing the analogy a little hard, and I'm certainly oversimplifying the history. As you point out, members of England's ruling classes opposed imperialism, just as people like Maggie were bravely committed to saving the victims of the Terror. And, as you say, you invite us to identify with those engaged in espionage on both sides. The richness of the complicated motives and conflicting (but maybe not so conflicting) ideals of the protagonists would be lessened without the careful fleshing out of the minor characters.

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  9. Hi Annie --

    As I said someplace or other up top, I like the French Revolutionary/Napoleonic conflict because the right and wrong are so evenly balanced. I find that struggle more interesting than one expressed as, 'he bad, me good'.

    This is not to criticize other works in the field. I'm looking at personal responsibility and moral choices with the background of a lovestory. Other folks are writing more straightforward lovestories. Those work better if you don't clog them up with complicated politics.

    Anyhow, none of these hierarchies I sketch out is a participative democracy. My characters who become senior are meant to have an edge to them -- Galba, Carruthers, Cummings, Reams, Lucille, (Oh, especially Lucille,) Lazarus, Soulier, Leblanc.

    Not so much Grey. Grey has the mindset of a good military officer. He was brought in by Galba to bring the Service back on track when it had been damaged by a bad Head of Section.

    Speaking generally, my 'senior' folks would need focused and cool calculation to get and hold their position.
    But there's this also. A good leader -- Carruthers, for instance -- takes the whole responsibility for many necessary and violent acts. Insofar as possible, he takes the entire guilt to himself and removes it from the shoulders of his subordinates.

    Example: when Carruthers see the danger of a young Hawker loose in Pars with too much information, she orders his death. She doesn't consult Doyle. This is not only because the death is necessary; it saves Doyle from having to give that order.

    I do this again in Black Hawk when Adrian takes a necessary guilt and removes responsibility from Pax. It's one of the ways I try to show WHY Adrian ends up as Head of Service.

    I do like to look at what power does to those who hold it. Power, as I see it, drives the intelligent and thoughtful man either
    to evil,
    (Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Who has more absolute power than the head of a secret spy organization or the head of a criminal mob?)
    or to the unrelenting pain a good man feels, making evil choices.
    That's one of the things I look at in Black Hawk -- that the folks who are leaders or will become leaders, take the guilt and responsibility of murder into their own hands.

  10. Jo, now I have to go back and reread your 3 published books with your post in mind -- it's a tough job, but someone has to do it. *g*

    Ah, Lucille. I'm expecting to learn more about her in Black Hawk -- but I'm not angling for hints. I don't see a way around her making an appearance, but I'm often wrong about these things.

  11. Lucille does show up in Black Hawk for a walk-on part. She's one of those not-entirely-benevolent characters.

  12. Christine5:35 PM

    Annie said "With respect to minor characters, I'm often struck by the similarities between Lazarus and Corruthers."

    I was never struck with the similarities between Lazarus and Carruthers. I would say Soulier and Catthuthers are very similar as both are willing to make decisions other characters involved in the game may not. Lazarus is completely out for his own personal gain, he is the king, judge and jury of his little realm. He is willing to deal with any government as long as there is a profit for him. Both Carruthers and Soulier will commit morally questionable or currupt acts for the good of their cause. Soulier is of course far more urbane and charming about it, but he is even willing to see his pet Annique prostituted for a time if the situation calls for
    it. Grey remarks flatly that the English would never do that but I wonder if it is only that Grey would never allow that. Surely Doyle wouldn't he's the biggest "softy" of the lot it seems. Even Adrian despite of the life he has led, or because
    of it is very protective of the ladies from a young age. He's given Grey and Doyle a piece of his mind when he has thought they were not doing a good job of taking care of their women. The others? I don't know if we know enough about them to say. Carruthers is a woman and women tend to be tougher (IMHO) on other women than some men could be. Galba is a bit of a mystery as well.

  13. It's a difficult question, isn't it? How we mix the good and bad in characters.

    Sometimes Good Guys have to be ruthless. They've made the decision to do what's necessary to achieve a good ending, rather than what's moral or kindly. Carruthers, Galba and Soulier are all spymasters of this type.

    Sometimes Bad Guys obey their own codes.

    Lazarus is a practical man, not a sadist or a brute. He won't do evil for the fun of it. He's always looking for a practical return.

    And . . . I think I've made Lazarus a bit unrealistic in a way. I think the poorer citizens of London and England were unquestioningly and enthusiastically patriotic. Lazarus reads and thinks and is acutely aware of the unfairness of the social hierarchy in which he lives. He has no liking for the nobility. He's not politically motivated for most of what he does, but if you asked, 'Would you like to see a revolution in England?' -- he would.