6. The Hierarchy

NOT ALL CHARACTERS ARE CREATED EQUAL.

In earlier Chapters we’ve talked about major and minor characters, without defining the terms. You must know – and let your readers know – which characters are most important to the story, so they’ll know which are worth following and caring about, and which will quickly disappear.

It’s hard to measure the exact importance of a character – importance doesn’t come in quarts or by the inch. But there are three general levels of importance, and the distinctions can be useful.

Walk-ons and placeholders. You won’t develop these characters at all; they’re just people in the background, meant to lend realism or perform a simple function and then disappear, forgotten.

Minor characters. These characters may make a difference in the plot, but we aren’t supposed to get emotionally involved with them, either negatively or positively.  We don’t expect them to keep showing up in the story.  Their desires and actions might cause a twist in the story, but play no role in shaping its ongoing flow.  In fact, a rule of thumb is that a minor character does one or two things in the story and then disappears.

Major characters. This group includes the people we care about; we love them or hate them, fear them or hope they succeed.  They show up again and again in the story.  The story is, to one degree or another, about them, and we expect to find out what happens to them by the end.  Their desires and actions drive the story forward and carry it through all its twists and turns.

Remember, though, that there is no wall dividing one level from the others. In your story, Pete and Nora may be the main characters, but their friends Morry and Dolores and Pete’s boss Edgar and Nora’s brother Shawn are also fairly major, and we expect to know more about them; and then there’s Pete’s secretary and the doorman, who both do some pretty important things in the story, though we aren’t aware of deep personal dilemmas in their lives; and we certainly will remember the weird taxi driver and the Indian cop and…

So where is the dividing line between major and minor? There isn’t one.  But we know that Pete and Nora  are the most important; Morry, Dolores, Edgar, and Shawn are somewhat important; Pete’s secretary and the doorman are somewhat important but still pretty minor; and the weird taxi driver and the Indian cop are definitely minor but certainly not mere walk-ons.  The different levels shade into each other.  And as you master the techniques appropriate to each level, you’ll be able to create each character at exactly the level of importance the story requires.

WALK-ONS AND PLACEHOLDERS

Unless your story takes place in a hermitage or a desert island, your main characters are surrounded by many people who are utterly unimportant in the story. They are background; they are part of the milieu.  Here are a few samples that show what I mean.

Nora accidently gave the cabby a twenty for a five-dollar ride and then was too shy to ask for change. Within a minute a skycap had the rest of her money.

Pete checked at the desk for his messages. There weren’t any, but the bellman did have a package for him.

People started honking their horns before Nora even knew there was a traffic jam.

Apparently some suspicious neighbour had called the cops. The uniform who arrested him wasn’t interested in Pete’s explanations, and he soon found himself at the precinct headquarters.

Notice how many people we’ve “met” in these few sentences. A cabby, a skycap, a hotel desk clerk, a bellman, horn-honkers in a traffic jam, a suspicious neighbour, a uniformed police officer.  Every single one of these people is designed to fulfil a brief role in the story and then vanish completely out of sight.

Part of the Scenery

How do you make people vanish? Any stage director knows the trick.  You have a crowd of people on stage, most of them walk-ons.  They have to be there because otherwise the setting wouldn’t be realistic – but you don’t want them to distract the audience’s attention.  In effect, you want them to be like scenery.  They really aren’t characters at all – they’re movable pieces of milieu.

So you dress them in drab or similar clothing, and make your main characters’ costumes contrast sharply with the crowd. If possible, you make the walk-ons hold absolutely still; if they  have to move, you make them move as smoothly and gently as possible.  You do not allow them to make noise except when you want general crowd noises.  You make them keep their attention riveted on their own quiet task or on the main action of the scene.  You turn them so they’re facing generally upstage.  You never let anyone walk-on stay on stage for very long, or the audience starts expecting him to do something.

The surest way for a walk-on to get himself fired from a play is to become “creative” – to start fidgeting or doing some clever bit of stage business that distracts attention from the main action of the scene. Unless, of course, this is one of those rare occasions when the walk-on’s new business is brilliantly funny – in which case, you  might even pay him more and elevate the part.

You have the same options in fiction. If a character who isn’t supposed to matter starts getting out of hand, distracting from the main thread of the story, you either cut her out entirely, or you figure out why you as a writer were so interested in her that you’ve spent more time on her than you meant to, and revise the story to make her matter more.

Most of the time, though, you want your walk-ons to disappear. You want them to fade back and be part of the scenery, part of the milieu.  How do you do it in fiction?

Stereotypes

We talked about stereotypes in Chapter 1, and I told you then that sometimes stereotyping would be exactly the tool of characterization you need.

This is the time.

A stereotype is a character who is a typical member of a group. He does exactly what the readers expect him to do.  Therefore they take no notice of him – he disappears into the background.

As ordinary human beings, we may not like a particular stereotype if we happen to be the member of a group we think is viewed unfairly.  But as writers, writing to our own community, we can’t help but be aware of and use our community stereotypes in order to make placeholding characters behave exactly according to expectations.

If we think that a particular stereotype is unfair to the group it supposedly explains, then we’re free to deliberately violate the stereotype. But the moment we do that, we have made the character strange, which will make him attract the readers’ attention.  He will no longer simply disappear – he isn’t a walk-on anymore.  He has stepped forward out of the milieu and joined the story.

MINOR CHARACTERS

There’s nothing wrong with a background character violating stereotype and attracting attention – as long as you realize that he isn’t part of the background anymore. The readers will notice him, and they’ll expect his strangeness to amount to something.

The audience still isn’t supposed to care much about him; he isn’t expected to play a continuing role in the story. He might be momentarily involved in the action, but then he’ll disappear.  Still, his individuality will set a mood, add humour, make the milieu more interesting or complete.  The way to make such characters instantly memorable without leading the audience to expect them to do more is to make them eccentric, exaggerated, or obsessive.

Eccentricity

Remember the movie Beverly Hills Cop?  There were hundreds of placeholders in that film – thugs who shot at cops, cops who get shot at, people milling around in the hotel lobby, people at the hotel desk.  They all acted exactly as you would expect them to act.  They vanished.  Unless you personally knew an actor who played one of the walk-ons, you don’t remember any of them.

But I’ll bet that as you walked out of the theatre, you remembered Bronson Pinchot. Not by name, of course, not then.  He was the desk attendant in the art gallery.  You know, the one with the effeminate manner and the weird foreign accent.  He had absolutely nothing to do with the story – if he had been a mere placeholder, you would never have noticed anything was missing.  So why do you remember him?

It wasn’t that he had a foreign accent. In southern California, a Spanish accent would merely have stereotyped him; he would have disappeared.

It wasn’t his effeminacy. The audience would merely see him as a stereotypical homosexual.  Again, he would disappear.

But the effeminacy and the accent were combined – the “foreigner” stereotype and the “effete homosexual” stereotype are rarely used together, and so the audience was surprised. What’s more important, though, is that the accent was an eccentric one, completely unexpected.  Pinchot based his accent on the speech of an Israeli he once knew; the accent was so rare that almost no one in the audience recognized it.  It was a genuinely novel way to speak.  He was not just a foreigner, he was a strange and effeminate foreigner.  Furthermore, Pinchot’s reactions to Eddie Murphy – the hint of annoyance, superiority, snottiness in his tone – made him even more eccentric.  Eccentric enough to stick in our minds.

How memorable was he? From that bit part, he went directly into the TV series Perfect Strangers.  Which goes to show that you can still parlay a bit part into a career.

And yet in Beverly Hills Cop, though we remembered him, we never expected his character to be important in the story.  He existed only for a few laughs and to make Eddie Murphy’s Detroit-cop character feel even more alien in L.S. Pinchot managed to steal the scene – to get his promotion from walk-on – without distorting the story.  He was funny, but he made no great difference in the way the story went.  He simply amused us for a moment.

Since he was a minor character, that was exactly what he needed to be. Likewise, in your stories you need to realize that your minor characters should not be deeply and carefully characterized.  Like flashbulbs, they need to shine once, brightly, and then get tossed away.

Exaggeration

Another way to make a minor character flash. You take a normal human trait, and make it just a little – or sometimes a lot – more extreme, like the character Sweet Face in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  Butch and the Kid are in the whorehouse; the Pinkerton detectives ride up on the street below.  There we see a pudgy-faced character who looks like the soul of innocence and believability.  Butch tells Sundance a brief story about him – that with Sweet-Face covering for them, they’re safe, but because everybody believes him.  His innocent look is an exaggeration, but sure enough, when Sweet-Face points out of town, as if to say “they went thataway,” the Pinkertons take off in that direction.

A few moments later, the Pinkertons ride back, confront Sweet-Face again; Sweet-Face panics and points straight toward the room where Butch and the Kid are watching. His panic and betrayal are as exaggerated as his innocence was before.  He sticks in the memory, and yet we never expected him to be important again in the plot.

Obsessiveness

Let’s go back to the example I gave before, of Nora’s cabby, the one she paid a twenty for a five-dollar ride. The stereotypical reaction – “Hey, thanks, lady” is so ordinary we can omit it entirely.  But what if the cabdriver is obsessive?

“What is it, you trying to impress me? Trying to show me you’re big time?  Well, don’t suck ego out of me, lady!  I only take what I earn!

Nora had no time for this. She hurried away from the cab.  To her surprise, he jumped out and followed her, shouting at her with as much outrage as she’d expect if she hadn’t paid him at all.  “You can’t do this to me in America!” he shouted.  “I’m a Protestant, you never heard of the Protestant work ethic?!

Finally she stopped. He caught up with her, still scolding.  “You can’t do your rich-lady act with me, you hear me?”

“Shut up,” she said. “Satisfied?”

His mouth hung open; he looked at the five in utter disbelief. “What is this!” he said.  “No tip?”

Now, that’s a guy who won’t let go. If you saw that scene in a movie or even read it in a novel, chances are you’d remember the cabdriver.  Yet you wouldn’t expect him to be important in the plot.  If he showed up again it would be for more comic relief, not for anything important.  For instance, when the story is all but over and Nora is coming home with Pete for a well-earned rest, it could be funny if they get in a cab and it turns out to be the same driver.  The audience would remember him well enough for that.  But they  would be outraged if the cabdriver turned out to be an assassin or a long-lost cousin.

This would not be true, however, if this were the first scene in the story.  At the beginning of the story, all the characters are equal – we don’t know any of them at all.  So if in fact you wanted to tell the story of how Nora got involved with this obsessive-compulsive cabdriver – or how the cabdriver managed to get Nora’s attention so he could start dating her – this would be a pretty good beginning.

The other side of that coin is that if the cabdriver is in fact supposed to be minor, you could not begin the story with this scene.  If these were the first five paragraphs of the story, we would naturally expect that the story was going to be about Nora and the cabby, and when Nora goes on through the story without ever seeing or even thinking of the cabdriver again, at some point many readers are going to ask, What was that business with the cabdriver all about?

This is because much of what makes the difference between major and minor characters is the amount of time you spend on them. And the amount of time is not absolute – it is relative to the total length of the story.  In a 1,500-word story, this 150-word novel, this 150-word section would be almost vanishingly brief.  So the cabby would seem more important in a short story than in novel.

However, if this scene comes at the beginning of a story, so that the reader doesn’t know yet what the story is about, then the cabby is present in the entire 150 words of the story’s first scene.  At that point he seems to the reader to be almost as important as Nora – he is diminished only be the fact that he is not named and Nora is the point-of-view character.  The reader has every reason to expect that the cabby will amount to something.

This is why it’s a good idea to introduce at least a few major characters first, so that the first characters the reader meets – the characters who occupy 100 percent of the opening – really will turn out to matter to the story.

MAJOR CHARACTERS

By now it should be obvious that the major characters are the ones who really matter, the ones the story is, to one degree or another, about.  Their choices turn the story, their needs drive the story forward.

These are also the characters who most need to be characterized. Because they really matter to the story, you can devote as much time to them as strong characterization might require, and the rest of this Chapter is devoted to showing you exactly how to do full characterization.

There are other cues you use to let the audience know which characters are major, besides the raw amount of time devoted to characterization:

Choices

If a character is relatively powerful – powerful enough to make choices that change other characters’ lives – the audience will remember her better and expect her to amount to something more in the story. If the other characters all regard a character as dangerous or powerful, the readers will, too.

Focus

This leads to one of the most effective theatrical techniques for making the audience notice a character – have everyone on stage look at him, listen to him, or talk about him behind his back.  If you do enough of this, you never have to bring the character on stage.  We never see the title character in Waiting for Godot, for instance, and yet he is arguably the most important character in the play, and his failure to arrive is the most important “event.”

You can use the same technique in fiction to focus the readers’ attention on a character whether he’s present or not. In The Lord of the Rings, the character of Sauron appears in person only once; beyond that, he personally intervenes in the story only a handful of times.  Yet he is the engine driving almost every plot thread, the focus of everyone’s attention far more often than any other character.  The result is that readers “remember” Sauron as one of the most important characters in The Lord of the Rings – even though he almost never appears in the story at all.

Frequency of Appearance

If a character keeps coming back, even if she’s not all that exciting or powerful, we begin to expect her to do something important – or else why would the writer keep bringing her up? This is why, when movie stars are evaluating a script, they’ll keep track of how many scenes their character will be in.  if they aren’t in enough scenes, they won’t loom large enough in the audience’s mind – and therefore the film won’t be a “star vehicle.”

Sometimes a character who should remain minor will keep coming back just because of her job – a bartender at the club where two major characters regularly meet, for instance. Then you need to reduce her importance – have her say very little, or have substitute bartenders show up on her night off, something to let the reader know that it doesn’t matter much whether the bartender is there or not.

Action

A character doesn’t have to appear all that often, as long as every time he does appear, what he says and does has an important effect on the plot.  On the other hand, a character who is often present but does almost nothing can quickly fade in the readers’ memory.  In the play Romeo and Juliet, Romeo spends a lot of time with his two friends, Benvolio and Mercutio.  In fact, as I remember it Benvolio is present in more scenes than Mercutio, including the first scene in which we see Romeo himself.  Yet Benvolio is completely forgettable, while Mercutio is one of the most memorable characters in the play.  Why?  Because Benvolio never does anything but listen to people and make a few bland comments, while Mercutio is flamboyant and provocative and funny and outrageous, and when he is onstage he either incites or is deeply involved in every action.

Rule of thumb: Passive characters will not seem as important as active characters.

Sympathy

In another Chapter I’ll discuss techniques for making characters likable or sympathetic; for now, it’s enough to say that the more endearing or charming a character is, the more the audience comes to like her as a human being, the more important that character will be to the audience, and the more they’ll expect to see what becomes of her.

Point of View

One of the most potent devices for making a character important to your readers is to use the character’s point of view. The third part of this Chapter is devoted to explaining point of view, so this will be only a brief reference.  Rule of thumb: When a character in the story is used as the narrator or viewpoint character, his importance is greatly increased.

There are also some variables that are out of your control. A character might be extremely important to some readers because they think they resemble him, or because the character resembles someone they love or hate.  Or a character you think of as important may seem unimportant to some readers because they have seen too many characters like him – to them, the character has become a cliché.  In fact, if your story is very popular, it is likely to be imitated – and the fact that the market is flooded with imitations of your best character will soon make your character feel like an imitation, too, even though he’s the original!

But since these things are generally out of your control, you can’t very well use them to help you establish your hierarchy of characters. The techniques you can control are:

Ordinariness vs. strangeness

The amount of time devoted to the character

The character’s potential for making meaningful choices

Other characters’ focus on him

The character’s frequency of appearance

The character’s degree of involvement in the action

Readers’ sympathy for the character

Narration from the character’s point of view

As you use these techniques to varying degrees with the many characters in your story, an unconscious ranking of the characters will emerge in the readers’ minds, starting with the least important background characters, moving up through the minor characters, to the major characters, and finally to two or three main characters or a single protagonist – the people or person the story is mostly about.

Chance are you won’t be fully aware of the hierarchy of characters in your own story – it’s almost impossible for a storyteller to have all these techniques completely under conscious control. But if you find that readers seem not to notice a character you think is important, or if a character starts “taking over” the story when you don’t want him to, you can use these techniques to adjust the character’s relative importance.  And when these techniques are under your control, you can play your characters the way a harpist plays each strong on the harp, a few at a time, for exactly the right balance and harmony.

 

©MarshallDodgson, 1973.

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