Grandma's Got a Gun or, "Who Are You Calling a Minor Character, Anyway?"

by Daniel Heath

Daniel HeathWe ask Daniel Heath, an award-winning playwright, for his ideas on minor characters. Take it away Daniel!

Writer's block is not a metaphysical condition. Writer's block just means there's something wrong with your story: either your plot is lousy, or your main characters aren't up to snuff, or the characters don't fit the plot, or all of the above. Recognizing this is not especially helpful, however. It's like saying, "The thing you did wrong on your math test was that you suck at math."

So, what do we do? And I say 'we,' because believe me, I've run more stories off the rails than I can count. But the Frenzy is underway, and we have neither the time nor the artistic temperament to go back to the beginning and make sure the tracks are straight. So, how do we get this thing moving again?

Think small.

Minor character can make a major difference. They can add conflict and interest to a scene and help you develop your main characters. A good minor character can create a mini-story in just a line of dialogue, and that can get your script out of the ditch and going again.

So, what makes a minor character 'good'? Let's start with 'different.' It's easier to think about, and it tends to get us started in the right direction.

What's he got buried in his basement?

Chances are that your first pass at a minor characters starts with a generic type or a specific function (someone has to drive the cab, after all). Every time a character like this shows up in your script–especially if this is a stage play, where you're going to have fewer bodies on stage, so they're all more important–do something to make her different. You can do this every single time a character opens her mouth. Don't worry if you overdo it; it's far easier to trim down a script that is too full of fascinating characters than it is to go back and make a dull script interesting.

So, how to make a character different? One easy way is to start by playing opposites. If the character is basically lovable, what is hateful about her? If hateful, what is lovable? Even DMV clerks love something. Somewhere inside that stony shell and pulpy, reeking oyster-flesh is a grain of ooze-covered sand that you can turn into a tiny pearl of understanding.

If the character has a stereotypical trait (e.g., the rude taxi driver), flip it 180 degrees (and suddenly your taxi driver has become eerily polite). Send mom out back with a bottle of Jack Daniels and a thirty-ought-six to do something about those damn squirrels.

Tangents work, too. Maybe the trucker who picks up your main character by the side of the road is only driving her rig as a day job; maybe she is also a semi-pro surfer, and her truck cab smells of salt water and tiger balm, and she keeps giving your protagonist the same advice over and over: "Ask the ocean, sugar, ask the ocean."

Why is he sharpening that Bowie knife, anyway?

So, your character is different, and chances are that the scene is already more memorable. Now we ask, 'Why?'

What was it that got mom out there with the rifle, in violation of local ordinances and common sense? Is she killing squirrels so she doesn't kill her brother in-law? Or is it that she loves order, and squirrels are natural anarchists? Perhaps, after a long day of working at the library, she simply likes the noise.

Answering the "why?" will tell you something important about your minor character. Suddenly she has some depth; compare her to a bland, oven-mitted stereotype and you can see the dramatic potential. And that brings us to the next step.

Don't look now, man, but I think that dude's making you more interesting.

Use your new minor characters to define your protagonist(s). Now that mom is not just a squishy shoulder, we can use her sharp edges to shape our story. Maybe the first time around, this scene had Phoebe coming home to tell her mom she lost her job. Now, when she comes home, she finds four squirrel carcasses hanging over the kitchen sink, blood draining into a pan. Now the scene is going somewhere.

Once you get good at this, you can start with a theme you want to bang around and work backward. Writing about the transience of life? Give the ice cream man a fresh diagnosis of some terminal something and see how that changes the scene when Phoebe orders a double scoop of mint chip.

Sometimes Grandpa needs to pipe down.

Should you give every minor character a bionic leg and a crack habit? No, clearly not. There are times when you need to keep everyone's attention on the main action. But if you're going to make a character boring, the burden of proof is on you to explain why she's even in your script. Make sure you're not missing opportunities along the way. Maybe that fifth gun-fight between your protagonist and the Canadian mafia would actually be more interesting viewed over the shoulder of the affable Scottish-American coroner's-office intern who has to mop up afterward.

But worry about all that later. For now, you want pages, and you want to learn about the characters who inhabit your world. Even if these pages of your script end up on the cutting room floor next month, they're a good exercise now... and pages are pages are pages, at least between now and April 30th.

Good Art is Good Politics

We've all seen films and TV shows and plays where it turns out that all the characters who are, oh, say, female, just happen to be two-dimensional stereotypes. That's not just bad politics, it's lousy art.

When you take the time to make sure that everyone in your play (no matter how briefly he or she crosses the stage) has human complexity, your work will be more true to the world we live in. You not only get help keeping your story moving, you not only get help filling out your page count, you make better art. And when you make good art, you make the world a better place, one tiny piece of writing at a time.

So go ahead, give Grandpa that eleventh toe. Keep him up all night long saving mice from the neighbor's glue traps, and see where it takes you.

Daniel Heath lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and writes fiction and plays; you can keep up with both on his blog at www.scratchfiction.com.