When I was 14 my family moved to another state for a single year (my dad was on sabbatical). During that year I went to another school. For that entire twelve months, I felt invisible. I’d left all my friends behind, didn’t know anyone in this new place, and felt like no one even knew I was there.
I was depressed all year.
Three years later, my life had changed dramatically. I had gone from introvert to extrovert; some friends and I were starting our own high school, and I was the de facto spokesman. I did quite a bit of public speaking that year, including an out-of-state trip to give a talk at my ninth-grade alma mater on our new-school project. “This’ll be interesting,” I thought. “I wonder if anyone there will remember me at all?”
The instant I walked through the front entrance I was besieged with greetings —“Hey, Johnny, how’ve you been? How’s your little brother? You still playing the cello? Great to see you!” And on and on.
They not only knew me, they knew all sorts of little things about me. I was flabbergasted.
I’d thought that in the life of that school, that year, I’d been a minor character. And in truth, I was—most of my classmates had formed friendships and bonds dating back to when they were grade-schoolers and would go on through the rest of high school. Into that solidly established cast of characters, I dropped in for only a brief sequence of scenes.
But, as it turned out, even as a minor character, they knew things about me. I hadn’t been invisible at all. I’d been real.
There are people we know well, and people we know just a little. Then there are those we hardly know at all. But none of them is “minor.”
In the course of interviews on Steel Fear, I’ve gotten this question a handful of times: “How do you make your characters come to life—even the minor ones?”
My answer is usually something like: “You have to care about them. You write them until their feelings feel real to you.” All true—but the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that the better answer is this: You notice them.
Caring is in the specifics.
It’s like that in relationships. You notice what your partner wants and needs, likes and loves. You notice his or her favorite colors, movies, books, foods. Things to do at night. Shows to watch, books to read, places to sit, places to walk. Birthdays of people she cares about. You notice things—specific things, things others might not see.
That’s the secret to bringing a relationship to life. That’s the secret to bringing a character to life
It’s the little things.
The mom in the Netflix miniseries The Queen’s Gambit is a tragic figure, a fifties housewife who is discarded by her husband, addicted to booze and tranquilizers. But she plays the piano beautifully (Satie, yet!) and forms her sentences with oddly elegant word choices that in anyone else might sounded stilted or affected, but in her serve to give her a kind of poignant dignity and grace. It’s incredibly moving.
I am endlessly amazed and intrigued at how writers can so lovingly craft the details that bring someone to life.
Conventional screenwriting wisdom says that when you first introduce a new character, you get a temporary reprieve from the “show, don’t tell” rule. A brief grace period, a “free throw,” where you can give a short description that is all “tell” and no “show.”
In the script for Unforgiven (one of my favorite films), here’s how the writer, David Webb Peoples, introduces us to Little Bill, the bad sheriff played to such chillingly terrifying effect by Gene Hackman:
Little Bill is huge and ominous. Some say he acquired the bearskin by staring the bear to death and others say he drowned the animal in spit. Anyhow, he’s big with a drooping moustache and he is sucking on his church warden’s clay pipe and you know he isn’t scared of anything.
Here are two examples of such “free throw” introductions from Steel Fear. First, the admiral:
Selena Kirkland’s face was all smooth planes and sharp angles, like fragments of a fine china set refashioned into an instrument of war. She reminded Jackson of Pallas Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and democracy. Also of warfare. And everyone on the Attic plain knew, gods and mortals alike: you did not mess with Athena.
(The actual phrase in the book is a bit stronger than “mess with,” but hey, this is a family-friendly blog.) Then, the command master chief:
Command Master Chief Robbie Jackson glanced down at his cooling coffee. Master Chief Jackson was not a patron of Jittery Abe’s [the onboard coffee shop.] He liked his coffee the traditional navy way: from the mess, black and nasty. A description that he himself had answered to on more than one occasion. Though he was not in fact a nasty man; an even mix of drill sergeant and Creole den mother, Master Chief Jackson was revered among his crew, even loved. Also feared.
No one aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln had ever seen him smile.
When he roamed the Abe’s passageways Jackson moved like an Abrams tank that had taken a few semesters of ballet.
These are fun to write. What intrigues me more, though, are the little gestures and idiosyncrasies that come later on, after the character has already been introduced. The “show” part of “show, don’t tell.” To me, these “insignificant” little behaviors are the real key that unlocks the door to the uniqueness and humanity of the person you’re writing.
For example, here’s what happens in the paragraph right after we’ve gotten our introduction to Master Chief Jackson:
He took a sip. The brew tasted like scorched chicory cut with mud. Perfect, to his way of thinking. He set the mug down, its ceramic base making almost no sound as it touched the desk’s steel surface, and thought about the man who had just left his office.
Think about what it takes to set a thick ceramic mug down on the surface of a steel-top desk — without it making a sound. And what it says about the person who does it. This is a guy who loves his coffee not just black but downright burnt and bitter. The highest-ranking noncom on the ship, who is second only to the captain in terms of power and authority.
Yet he places his cup down so it makes no sound.
To me that says: Here is great power under exquisite control. A person who is acutely aware of the impact of his own actions, and who considers every sentence he speaks, every action he takes, with great care.
By contrast, I give you the ship’s captain.
The first time we meet Captain Eagleberg, he has just learned that one of his officers appears to have committed suicide by jumping off the ship. In a lengthy internal monologue, we get a picture of how he views this development.
Captain William James Eagleberg didn’t like making hasty decisions, nor did he respect those who did. Cautious by nature and made more so by training, he had not arrived at his station in life by acting on impulse. Right now, however, he was exhausted, his patience worn thin as a sheet of goddamn onionskin stationery.
Eagleberg had been up all night getting updates on the Iran situation. Then this morning, just as he had retired to his sea cabin in hopes of a stolen hour of shut-eye, they woke him to tell him some chucklehead had gone missing. … The man was an officer, head of ATO, a position of not inconsiderable responsibility. Also gay, as Eagleberg had been informed. The pressures of his life and station (and lifestyle, no doubt) had evidently got to the man, and he came to the moronic conclusion that he could resolve his issues by going over the rail and gulping down a few quarts of Gulf water. And he’d had neither the respect nor the consideration to hold off on that decision till they’d gotten through the choke point at Hormuz and out into the open sea. No, he just had to execute his drama right then and there, as they all sat at the Gulf’s mouth twiddling their goddamn thumbs. No impulse control. An officer.
Eagleberg thinks in utterly self-referential terms. He only cares about how this affects him, not his crew or the poor guy who’s gone missing.
This again is all “tell” — the writer’s free-throw chance to describe at first encounter. What says more to me about Eagleberg are two details that follow.
First, when his frustration eventually reaches the point where he can no longer keep it from spilling over, he curses out loud. And what does he say?
That’s it. We’ve all heard the expression “he swore like a sailor.” Well, this is how Eagleberg swears. Talk about self-repression. Throughout the book we keep waiting for the explosion, wondering if the man’s true bottled-up fury is ever going to show up. (Hint: it does.)
And the second detail: he calls Arthur Gaines, his XO (executive officer), “Artie,” which as it happens is a nickname that Gaines himself detests, though he’ll never let on that this is so.
In fact, that one little tic gives us a glimpse into the world not just one, but three characters.
First, the captain, who is clueless about how his own words and actions affect others.
Then Gaines himself, who has an ego himself but is way too politically canny to ever confront his boss.
And finally Finn, the book’s hero — who is the only person on board who notices this little recurring dysfunctional drama between the two men.
Both Jackson and Eagleberg are major players in the Steel Fear story — but there was one character I had trouble with. He was a “minor character” named Hermán Sanchez, a big bear of a guy, of limited intelligence and easily manipulated, a loner whose only source of companionship was three imaginary friends.
The book was finished, but Hermán still wasn’t right. He didn’t ring true. It was a cardboard cutout of a character, not flesh and blood and soul. He didn’t feel real.
So I started over and wrote a completely new character. His name is Luca Santiago, and he is still of limited intellect, still easily manipulated, still a loner whose only companionship is composed of imaginary friends. Here’s how I described him, when Finn discovers him in Finn’s stateroom, ostensibly there to clean.
A slender, narrow-shouldered sailor over by Finn’s dresser, shuffling a mop around and humming to himself. He swayed slightly on his feet, almost as if he might fall. Drunk? Stoned? It took Finn a moment to understand.
He was dancing with his mop.
As the sailor began swiveling around toward Finn his tune reached its chorus and he went from humming to singing. “Ayy, ayy, ay, ayyyyy, canta y no llorr—”
He stops abruptly when he realizes Finn is standing there in the door, watching him.
By the time the brief scene is over, Finn has made friends with him and we feel like we know who he is. The boy who serenades his mop. “The last romantic,” is how Finn sees him. “Dances With Mops.” In the buttoned-up world of navy culture he may be at the bottom of the totem pole — but he’s created his own world, too, where he is loved and loves in return.
We recently heard from Johnathan McClain, the brilliant actor who does the voice reading for the audiobook version of our novel. It’s extremely rare for an author to hear from the guy who does the audiobook. (Rare as in: never happens.) But Johnathan was so moved by the book, he took the time to get my email address and write me.
And the character he singled out? Luca Santiago. He wrote, “That character just about ripped my heart out.”
Every person alive is a human being with a story to tell.
There’s no such thing as a minor character.
This post is a treasure trove! Thank you for taking the time to write it and share so much wisdom, caring, and emotions, John!
I love Luca Santiago too! From the scene with the mop alone.
My favorite bit from the article are the two last sentences:
“Every person alive is a human being with a story to tell.
There’s no such thing as a minor character.”
Brilliant and true!
Such terrific insight. I love knowing the narrator touched base with you. That’s really saying something. Thinking I’ll get the audible version to hear his delivery! Thanks so much John for sharing!
Thanks, Peg! I just unpacked my first carton of hardcovers — and the same day downloaded the finished audio version! I confess I’ve not had a chance to listen yet still recovering from surgery and wayyyy behind) but I can’t wait. Johnathan is the best narrator of any audiobooks I’ve mine ever. (I’m not sure whether or not I should include or exempt Bob and me in that latter statement … LOL)
Really fabulous late night reading.
Thanks, Debby — and I had a fabulous time being on your podcast!