The fine art of minor characters

Kathy Lamkin as “Desert Aire Manager” in the Coen brothers’ adaptation of  No Country for Old Men

Kathy Lamkin as “Desert Aire Manager” in the Coen brothers’ adaptation of No Country for Old Men

I just finished reading a fine novel called This Dark Road to Mercy, by North Carolina novelist Wiley Cash. It’s a worthwhile read, but as I was entering the homestretch last night I read a scene that got me thinking about the great but often untapped potential in minor, incidental characters in fiction—the kind of characters who appear for only one or two scenes and may not even have names.

The context:

This Dark Road to Mercy tells the story of Easter and Ruby Quillby, young girls living in a foster home in Gastonia, North Carolina after their mother overdoses. Their estranged father, failed minor league baseball player Wade Chesterfield, discovering some principle and responsibility late in life, decides that he should take them in even though he signed away his parental rights years ago. He convinces them to run away with him. They are pursued by two implacable men: Brady Weller, a disgraced former detective with Gastonia PD who now works as an ad litem advocate for the girls, and Pruitt, a bouncer on a mission to recover cash that Wade stole from his boss. Pruitt also has a personal score to settle with Wade.

The scene:

Having made a grisly discovery that indicates Pruitt is very close to catching them, Wade takes the girls to a convenience store and has Easter, the older of the two, go inside to get the bathroom key so he can change clothes. Here’s the first appearance of the character(s) I want to look at:

The store was empty except for a fat blond-headed woman and a guy with a ponytail who were both standing behind the counter. When I walked in the woman was trying to light a cigarette, but she kept laughing at something the guy had said to her. I stood in front of the register until she’d lit her cigarette and tossed the lighter onto the counter.
“Can I help you?” she asked. The guy laughed again like he remembered what was so funny about what he’d said before I came in. He turned and walked back into a little office, and the woman watched him go. She looked at me again. “What do you need, baby?”
“I need to use the bathroom,” I said. “It’s locked.”
The woman reached under the counter and pulled out a long piece of wood with a key attached to the end of it. “Don’t leave this in there,” she said. “The door locks behind you.” I took the key and walked back to the bathroom.

Later, after Wade has changed, he sends Easter back inside to return the key.

The woman was alone behind the register when I went back into the store. I set the key on the counter.
“You okay?” she asked.
“I’m fine.”
“You were in there a long time,” she said. “I almost came looking for you.”
“I’m sick,” I said. “Sorry.”
“I hope you feel better,” she said.
“Thank you,” I said. “I hope so too.”

So far so good. A realistically rendered but mundane series of exchanges. Anyone who has grown up in the South has had this interaction, right down to the “baby” (or perhaps “honey” in other circumstances, as “baby” is reserved for children).

But then the scene I’m about to describe came along and I appreciated the craft Cash had put into these characters. Pruitt, following not long after, snookers a cop into revealing the likely place he can find Wade and reaches the same convenience store. He goes inside to pursue his own investigation and we meet these employees again:

The closest gas station had a pay phone in the corner of the parking lot. The girl’s picture was somewhere in the glove compartment, and my hands riffled through the papers looking for the same face that had been stapled to the cafeteria wall back in Gastonia.
Inside the station, a skinny kid with a ponytail and an older woman stood behind the counter and stared while the picture was unfolded on the counter in front of them. My finger pointed down at the photo. “Have you seen this girl?”
The kid with the ponytail took his eyes off the photo and looked at me, but the woman put on a pair of glasses that hung from a string around her neck and stretched her neck until her face was close to the picture. She took her glasses off and looked up. “And who are you?” she asked.
“It doesn’t matter. Have you seen this kid or not?”
“It certainly does matter,” the woman said, leaning her hip into the counter and folding her arms across her chest. “Are you the police, or are you just some kind of weirdo?”
“Police.”
“Well,” she said. “I’d like to see a badge.”
Both the kid’s and the woman’s eyes followed my hand as it reached for my back pocket. They waited, expecting to see a badge, but instead they saw five twenties laid out on the counter. “Have you seen her or not.”
The kid looked at me, and then he looked down at the money. He reached out and scooped it up and folded it into his pocket. “She was in here,” he said. “It wasn’t even twenty minutes ago.”
“Damn it, Cody,” the woman said. She smacked his arm.
Cody raised his finger and pointed out the door behind me. “They went across the street.”

And away we go.

For comparison’s sake:

The scene reminded me, upon reflection, of a favorite from Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, another cat-and-mouse story of pursuit across the margins of the South. In this passage, the ruthless cartel hitman Anton Chigurh has just finished searching protagonist Llewelyn Moss’s trailer. He suspects Moss has fled but, just to be sure, decides to get more information. He stops at the trailer park office. McCarthy:

He drove down and parked in front of the office and went in. Yessir, the woman said.
I’m looking for Llewelyn Moss.
She studied him. Did you go up to his trailer?
Yes I did.
Well I’d say he’s at work. Did you want to leave a message?
Where does he work?
Sir I aint at liberty to give out no information about our residents.
Chigurh looked around at the little plywood office. He looked at the woman.
Where does he work.
Sir?
I said where does he work.
Did you not hear me? We cant give out no information.
A toilet flushed somewhere. A doorlatch clicked. Chigurh looked at the woman again. Then he went out and got in the Ramcharger and left.

All stories have minor characters, so what makes these stand out? Why do they feel like real people—one can certainly imagine these being distant cousins, or maybe attending the same women’s Bible study—when so many authors’ minor characters are flat, interchangeable, and immediately forgotten?

Two standout traits:

Look back at these two passages and see how Cash and McCarthy craft these characters. A few things stand out to me:

First and foremost—the language they use. McCarthy’s trailer park manager is informal but, when Chigurh presses her, adopts a terse, official tone (“aint at liberty” is a wonderfully suggestive blend of everyday dialect and the language of pronouncement). She gives as good as she gets and—remarkably—is the only person in the novel to resist Chigurh and live.

The gas station cashier in Cash’s book is more fully developed and we also benefit from a binocular view of her—we see her in two different situations, which gives her depth. With Easter she is informal and sweet in the way of Southern ladies to children. She freely expresses concern and wishes Easter well. She uses simple interrogative or declarative sentences (“And who are you?” and “It certainly does matter” and “I’d like to see a badge”) and pushes back against every move Pruitt makes. She has him sized up the moment he enters the store and tries to ice him out.

Which brings me to the second thing that stands out—body language. As much or as little as each author gives us, you can see these characters. McCarthy’s woman gets no direct physical description but we do read this: “She studied him.” This comes before she has even spoken a word. If you’re paying attention, you know Chigurh is in trouble the moment you read that line. (A side note: Where would the South be without the obstructive middle aged ladies who act as our gatekeepers?) This one line of action gives us all we need to know to understand what she’s about to do.

Cash includes more detail. The cashier is fat, blonde, smokes, and is old enough not just to use reading glasses but to wear them around her neck. The telling bit of body language comes when Pruitt shows her his stolen photo of Easter: “the woman put on a pair of glasses that hung from a string around her neck and stretched her neck until her face was close to the picture. She took her glasses off and looked up.” Cash does something subtle here, suggesting her slow, drawn out movements (notice the repetition of “neck”) which heighten the message she’s transmitting: sarcastic dismissal. She’s not going to cooperate.

So Cash and McCarthy present us with a pair of nicely drawn minor characters. So what?

The use of minor characters:

There’s a few important things I think writers can take away from these examples. In no particular order, here are some of the uses I see of the well-realized minor character:

  • Characterizing the major characters—Cash’s gas station cashiers offer a particularly fine example, and it all comes down to perspective. We see these characters two ways—first, Easter, a young girl, sees them as “a fat blond-headed woman and a guy with a ponytail,” the kinds of attributes a kid would notice. Pruitt, when he arrives, thinks of them dismissively as “a skinny kid with a ponytail and an older woman.” At this point in the novel we’re already two-thirds of the way in, but Cash is still characterizing his narrators by showing us how they perceive the same minor characters differently.

  • Obstructing the major characters—I’ve already used the word obstructive in this post, and intentionally so. No real-life plan or story proceeds on a perfectly straight line, just jokes and Reader’s Digest anecdotes. Things get in the way. Most of the great action movies excel at throwing physical obstacles in front of their heroes: in The Guns of Navarone the commando team’s explosives are sabotaged, Ethan Hunt’s team in Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol deal with repeated equipment failure, and in Raiders of the Lost Ark Indy has to travel, avoid assassination, disguise himself and sneak into a Nazi camp, knock down walls, steal a horse, chase and take over a truck, and fight or kill snakes, a giant airplane mechanic, and a host of other enemies before he can get the Ark. What Cash and McCarthy offer us here are character-driven versions of those obstacles, which complicate and intensify the plot—even if only for a few pages or lines—and, again, reveal things about the major characters who encounter them.

  • Making the world feel real—I’ve slowly developed a loathing for the term world-building and I’m not fond of the word realistic any more; what I prefer to emphasize is truth or at least truthfulness. Introducing well-realized minor characters makes your story feel true. Because of their speech, their gestures, the shifts in their attitudes that reveal their priorities, the ladies in This Dark Road to Mercy and No Country for Old Men seem to have their own lives that we, along with the characters, have blundered into. We get the sense that we’re just seeing a slice of them. And the upshot for the main characters—and the rest of the story—is that such minor characters make it feel like they have a more spacious world to move around in.

  • Surprising the reader—A lot of fiction features obliging minor characters who show up just to convey information to or do things for the main characters. When an antagonist like Pruitt or Chigurh is suddenly stopped and has to reckon with an unexpected obstacle—especially one so unassuming—it should be a jolt to the reader as well. Running across someone like the cashier or the trailer park manager is a nice surprise.

There are plenty of other reasons to give minor characters a bit of depth, to make them feel real or true, but these are a few good ones to start with.

A final thought on method—and a bit of a warning:

Cash and McCarthy brought these characters to life through the details they selected to present us. John Gardner, in The Art of Fiction, writes that “vivid detail is the life blood of fiction.” Elsewhere in the same book he writes of “closely observed detail,” “concrete detail,” “authenticating detail,” and warns against “insufficient detail.”

This is not to advocate the Victor Hugo kitchen sink style, including everything. Note the adjectives: vivid, closely observed, concrete, authenticating detail. Carefully, precisely chosen from life. We do not need every gesture a character makes, just the ones that show us what we need, the ones that tell us who this person is in the two or three pages in which we get to know them. (See again that Ciardi line about poetry being “the art of knowing what to leave out.”)

Read both of these books if you haven’t. I’ve just dwelt at a little length on two minor characters. But these minor characters are excellent case studies of what a good, careful, purposeful writer can do with material that not everyone takes the time to develop.