Never underestimate a minor character. How I wish I had known about this before I started my novel. As it is, on the near completion of my work-in-progress, I now have to go back to the drawing board to re-evaluate whether a minor character’s motivation is strong enough to justify his treatment of my major character.
I decided to create a story board so I could examine all the places in my story where Henry (minor character) was at odds with Grace (major character). To do this, I took a stack of index cards, cut them to the size, and drew little stick men in action with captions at their major points of connection. I then placed them on a white board in the order they happened. Using the storyboard I shared Henry’s story with some writer friends to determine whether or not my audience felt as I did – that Henry’s motivations were indeed not clear. We discussed other possible motivators that might work but nothing felt right. What to do.
Because Henry was a bad guy, I thought I wasn’t supposed to like him, and I didn’t. In fact I often referred to him by his last name. I think this was part of my problem. Not only did I not like
Henry for the way he treated Grace, I underestimated his impact on Grace as a force for good.
I sensed that my original reason for setting Henry against Grace had merit, I just needed a deeper understanding of why Henry was giving Grace such a hard time. I knew it was time to do an in-depth character study of Henry from a perspective that would redeem him in my eyes as a character worthy of my compassion.
At this point you may be asking yourself, “Didn’t you do a character sketch of all your characters when you started your novel?” The answer to that is an unequivocal, “Yes.” But as a minor character, I didn’t give Henry the respect I now know he deserves.
I was able to get my hands of an in-depth character sketch template from a friend. While many of the questions were familiar, others didn’t seem relevant and were difficult to answer; but I answered every one. It quickly became clear that I didn’t know Henry as well as I thought I did. There were two questions in particular that brought Henry to life for me: 1) What was he carrying in his pocket? 2) What are his sins of omission? In other words, what secrets does he have?
Based on what I already knew of his history, it was easy to determine what deep dark secret he was holding on to, in fact it was this very secret that had been eating away at him for years and causing his bitterness towards Grace in particular, because she was doing what he had been unable to do – cross boundaries.
Once I had determined Henry’s secret I knew exactly where it would be revealed in my novel. And once revealed, I knew this change had the potential to change the course of events that would help me to offer a satisfying ending, as well as make my minor character more sympathetic to the reader, and to myself.