From Caricature to Character

As novelists, we work hard to breathe life into our main characters. We even work hard to breathe life into our secondary characters.

But what about the minor characters?

The ones that make brief cameos. Perhaps for a scene or two or three. The ones that have no significant impact on the story. The ones that are simply filler.

Like the hostess who sits your protagonist at the restaurant.

Or the police officer who pulls your hero over for speeding.

Or the delivery guy who brings your heroine flowers. 

Or the doctor who delivers the hard news to your main character. 

I don’t know about you, but I find it incredibly tempting to throw a stereotype on the page and leave it at that. 

Especially after all the energy I expend at making my important characters dimensional.

Recently, however, I’ve been challenged. To avoid the easy cliche and bring these characters to life. 

While speaking with my editor last week, she said something like this: If it’s easy for a reader to replace the minor character with an actor or an actress or a character from a movie or a TV show, then you haven’t made the character your own. 

Even though this is one of the more minor revisions I have to address, it’s still worth some thought.

How do I make these minor characters my own? How do I change them from caricatures to characters?

Here’s what I’ve come up with:

Give them a problem.

Give them a desire.

Neither of which will be addressed in the novel.

Both of which will determine the character’s personality, actions, and speech.

Giving these characters a problem and a desire will make them more than filler.

This gives them a life of their own, apart from the story.

Just like everyone we come in contact with in our day-to-day lives. They might not play a big role in our personal narrative. We may never know they they are the way they are and why they act the way they act. But they are just as real and complex and needy and problematic as you and me.

Let’s Talk: How much time do you spend on minor characters? How do you bring them to life?

I’m vlogging on Jennifer Slattery’s blog today about adoption and the importance of “getting in over your head”. One randomly selected reader who leaves a comment will win a signed copy of my debut novel. If you already have a copy, think free gift for somebody you know! 

11 thoughts on “From Caricature to Character

  1. […] — Katie Ganshert, quote from From Caricature to Character […]

  2. And just so’s ya know…ALL my characters are *Major* characters.

    I crack myself up!

  3. okay, just b/c i’m curious….why would you not address their problem or desire? even if it was only in a roundabout way….but why not complete the arc a bit? (now, unless you’re going for a series, then, i totally get it.)

    1. Katie Ganshert

      I’m talking about really minor characters. Like a waitress or check out clerk at a grocery store. You might not even know their name in the novel. But knowing a little bit about them helps dictate their actions/personality….instead of just throwing in a archetype/cliche.

  4. Oohh, that’s a great tip! I’m one who probably spends more time on her secondary characters than she should. I’ve had editors and critiquers say I could tone it down a bit. They’re fun, but the reader doesn’t need to know that much. So, I’m working on finding that balance 🙂

  5. Haven’t ever given it much thought, but I like what you’ve come up with. It’s kind of like when I come across a grumpy cashier at Walmart. While my first reaction is to be offended that he/she is being rude, I try to remind myself I’m not walking in their shoes, and ask myself: What’s their home life like? What problems are they facing? etc… I suppose thinking that way would also help bring those minor characters to life.

  6. Great ideas, Katie! One of my beta readers pointed out that one of my characters WAS indeed a caricature…that was exactly the word she used. Hmmm…you’ve got me thinking!

  7. So, so good. My CP pointed out recently that one of the guys in my new book IS Michel from Gilmore Girls. I re-read the scenes and realized I’d completely stolen the guy and stuck him in my own book. Oops. So, yes, he needs some work…but I haven’t known how to shape him…so I love your tips! This is perfect…ideas are pinging. Thanks, Katie!!

  8. A number of my minor characters have turned into major ones in a sequel or series mate book. As I first write them, I may not do much with them, but by the time I’ve finished that first draft, I’ve noodled around with them and in editing, I give them quirks and problems, and a main role in the next book. ;o)

  9. One of my minors stayed silent in a pivotal scene, then walks through what seemed to be a predictable moment. Our heroine has just been saved from dying alone in a hospital dungeon and her rescuers were accompanied by a burly policeman. I set him up to seem like a background extra until we’re confronted by the sight of the man who gave permission to lock her up.
    The nameless policeman, we think, is there for security, until he is face to face with a doctor. Then I let the “extra” do what the reader is (going to be ) itching to do, I have the silent extra rage at the doctor and punch his lights out.
    I let the reader live the cathartic moment when the collective rage needs to come out. Then off we go, on out merry way, tra la la…
    Minor characters are like paintings on a wall. Sometimes you don’t even notice them, but you would notice a blank wall more than you’d notice one solitary painting.

  10. Such good advice/reminder! I like to give my minor characters some off-the-wall trait or quirky detail to their appearance. Just one detail that paints an image in the reader’s head. This is something I do during a later draft unless it just comes to me when I’m first writing the scene (which almost NEVER happens).


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