lessons from jane eyre 5 ways to bring minor characters to life

Lessons From Jane Eyre: 5 Ways to Bring Minor Characters to Life

Just for fun, today I’d thought I’d give you a sneak peek of my upcoming book Jane Eyre: The Writer’s Digest Annotated Classic. The book, available in late July (release date coming soon!), finds the method behind the magic of Charlotte Brontë’s enduring novel. Via annotations to the original text, I have analyzed the storytelling techniques Brontë used to create this literary masterpiece—so you can put these same techniques to use in creating the next great classic! Today, I’d like to share an excerpt from Chapter 10, in which Brontë masterfully presents an insignificant minor character in a way that brings her to life without leading readers to believe she’s more important to the story than she really is.

Excerpt from Jane Eyre

My ostensible errand on this occasion was to get measured for a pair of shoes; so I discharged that business first, and when it was done, I stepped across the clean and quiet little street from the shoemaker’s to the post-office: it was kept by an old dame, who wore horn spectacles on her nose, and black mittens on her hands.

“Are there any letters for J.E.?” I asked.

She peered at me over her spectacles, and then she opened a drawer and fumbled among its contents for a long time, so long that my hopes began to falter. At last, having held a document before her glasses for nearly five minutes, she presented it across the counter, accompanying the act by another inquisitive and mistrustful glance–it was for J.E.

Bringing Minor Characters to Life

In some ways, minor characters are like settings: they’re background “filler,” used to flesh out your story world and provide interactions for your protagonist. However, wielded with a deft hand, minor characters offer the possibility of being so much more. As we’ve already discussed in Chapter 6, they can be a mirror in which the protagonist compares and contrasts her own strengths and weaknesses. But they can also provide everything from comic relief to conflict to communication. A minor character can appear throughout the story, as does Rochester, or only once, a does our unnamed post lady in this scene.

Whatever the importance or length of their roles, minor characters should never be taken for granted. If you’re going to raise your story into a convincing facsimile of realism and, as a result, suspend your readers’ disbelief, every minor character needs to be treated just a seriously as the protagonist. Brontë’s postal lady appears only once. She is given a grand total of five paragraphs and one line of dialogue and isn’t even introduced by name. Brontë tells readers just three things about her: she’s old, she wears glasses, and she wears mittens. But these details are more than enough to give readers the paints they need to finish the character’s portrait. Let’s take a closer look at how Brontë accomplished this:

1. The length of the description indicates the character’s role in the story.

A more prominent character would deserve a much more complete description, but any more than we find here would have given readers an incorrect sense of the postal lady’s importance within the story.

2. The details are vivid and specific.

The old woman’s spectacles are “horn” and her mittens are “black.” Because textures and colors immediately establish visual images in the readers’ imagination, they can be extremely efficient adjectives

3. The “rule of three” achieves a sense of balance.

The human brain, whether through inherent tendency or just ingrained association, finds a sense of wholeness in lists of three. The result is a catalog of details that presents a rounded picture without lapsing into a “grocery list.”

4. The readers are trusted to fill in the blanks.

Say “apple,” and readers see a shiny red apple with a green leaf and a friendly worm. Say “nerd,” and they see a guy in black glasses and a loaded pocket protector. Readers don’t need much to be able to visualize a character. Less description is often more.

5. The character acts uniquely and realistically.

When the old woman peers and fumbles, and then stares at the letter for five minutes before “suspiciously” handing it over, she becomes a personage in her own right. She’s the heroine of her own story, whatever it may be, and she acts like it.

Tell me your opinion: How do you bring to life minor characters in your story?

lessons from jane eyre 5 ways to bring minor characters to life (1)

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Jan Swanson says

    I was told, a long time ago, try not to treat minor characters like manikins. A guard at Buckingham palace does breath and blink his eyes. A brief description of an unnamed character helps bring them to life. I thank you for refreshing my mind in your article. I love your posts, they help a lot in my writing.

    • It’s great fun to try to think of even walk-on characters as living, breathing human beings with stories of their own. The only danger is that sometimes our imaginations can run away with us and minor characters can end up taking over the story!

  2. I like to make them extremely annoying, funny, charming, etc. Old movies are good for this. I”ll always remember the train conductor in A Quiet Man. He has about ten seconds on screen, but he was lively and energetic. Background characters should come with well…backgrounds. I don’t need to write out their history, but just imagine it and apply it to the character in my scene. My waitress, for example, just came from visiting her mother, who is in the final stages of Alzheimer’s. Now I know how she’ll behave.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      John Ford was brilliant with minor characters. He never wasted them. They were always larger-than-life characters in their own right–without overpowering their designated roles.

  3. This may be slightly off-topic, and if so, I apologize and feel free to direct me to a more appropriate post. I have an on-again, off-again work in progress where one of my minor-ish characters, insists on his story being told, and not my heroine’s…at least not yet. Should I cave and tell his story, so that maybe he will be agreeable to being a supporting cast member to my heroine once he’s had his say? Do you ever have “minor” characters muscle in and take over?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s always worthwhile paying attention when a minor character catches your attention. If he interests you *more* than the intended main character, that may be a sign you should be writing his story instead. But you also need to ask yourself whether this minor character has the chops to carry a whole story? What will be his character arc? How will the shift impact theme? Will you need to design a new antagonistic force to oppose him?

      • Those are really good points to think about. Although it didn’t start out that way, this particular character has ended up with a pretty rich background and could easily carry his own story, separate from the one I am trying to write. I had hoped he would be a minor character, but when his background formed I realized he would have to play a more important role than I originally had in mind and I adjusted his status to minor-ish, but more and more it looks like he will be a major player in the story.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Maybe you have a series on your hands! Many series introduce minor characters in one book so they can use them as main characters in later books.

  4. I try to give some description of minor characters so the reader can get some sort of picture of them in their mind. It’s better than just having a non descript character.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Readers need clues in order to build visual pictures. Usually, all it takes is one or two well-chosen descriptors to bring an image to life.

  5. Katie Hamer says

    I guess a background character can act as a blank screen on which your main character can project their insecurities. In the case of the Jane Eyre excerpt, feels like she is being treated with suspicion. I do wonder how much of this reaction is based on her own insecurities. Thanks for this post, it’s certainly got me thinking…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Great observation. This is true of any non-POV character. Everything gets filtered through the POV, so everything is subject to the narrator’s interpretation.

  6. Oh, this was interesting. Minor characters CAN bring so much color to a story when well used!

    Thanks for another great post, starting my journey with your book tomorrow xxx

    Hugs,

    M.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Minor characters are often my favorite part of any book. There’s so much room to play and be creative with them.

  7. Very interesting points, and a really useful reminder that even minor characters need a purpose and life of their own, even if we only see a very small part of that life in the novel itself.

    One thing I’ve been playing around with lately is whether it is better to have a lot of minor characters all serving different purposes, or whether to combine several purposes into a fewer number of minor characters. No conclusions yet, but it’s been fun experimenting.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There’s no right answer to the question of how many characters you should include in any given story. But a good rule of thumb is always going to be: Less is more. The tighter your cast, the tighter and more complex your story will be.

  8. thomas h cullen says

    The “rule of three” resonates a lot – it’s true, in vast amount of contexts three is the right quantity:

    It’s a recurring number in The Representative. (Remember three climaxes? – there’s a sufficient quantity of examples in the text to drive home the point). That’s the best of the five.

    Only should you ever establish characters who legitimately serve the narrative – ergo the more sincere you write, the less prone you should be to establishing them.

    Great post Katie.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      We find the rule of three everywhere – in everything from prose to graphic design.

      • thomas h cullen says

        The three Trokans; in contrast to Mariel, Croyan’s hoping for finally “it” to have worked on the third of occasions; the three “foul” names; the three act structure (set-up, take-off and discovery); the father, mother and child –

        The three climaxes; the three descriptions – of one’s patriotism.

        The three references to the four.

        It’s not the next great classic: The Representative’s the pinnacle – after them all!

        (It sincerely is the text every human being on the planet will equally be able to adore.)

  9. Sara J Green says

    Because minor characters usually get brief treatment, there is a danger that we write a caricature, rather than a ‘real’ person. Caricatures are like cliches, occasionally they can serve a purpose but they’re the lazy or inexperienced writer’s crutch rather than having real legs of their own. Dickens is the Master of Character of course. Sometimes I find his characters are so outrageous that they verge on caricature. Then I realise there’s much more behind the picture.
    Thanks for the website and all your nuggets, K.M. When first I found you, I wondered what a young spec fiction writer would have to offer a fifty-something creative non-fiction/fiction writer like me – and I’m glad I did it anyway. I really enjoy your posts and articles.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Dickens gets away with a lot of his Dickensness because much of what he’s writing intentionally verges on the humorous. He’s a great example of how every character has a story of his own. But, you’re right, he’s not necessarily a good role model for modern writers in all things. Glad you’re enjoying the site!

  10. Esther Costello McGreevy says

    Hi K.M.! Your post via email, my first from you, came during my wip’s final edit. Now I wonder whether I should revisit a few minor characters who appear only once with none to few lines of dialogue. I tend to write these minors, like walk-ons, on the lean side–little if any description other than their occupation that’s related to the scene (e.g. a 19th C. coachman)–but carried through a scene by fitting dialogue and verbs that show some aspect of their physicality or demeanor. However, your post reminds me that even walk-ons display a sense of themselves and are, most often, wearing clothes.
    I look forward to receiving more provocative posts from you. Thank you, ECM

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Although we always want to give minor characters their due wherever we can, we do have to keep the context in mind. Sometimes we’re just plain going to be better off keeping it simple by saying “the postman dropped off a letter,” rather than expanding our word count by adding further details.

  11. I am curious as to why my comment wasn’t posted on June 4. Are excerpts not allowed?

    • thomas h cullen says

      If it was what I think, it’s probably just a random system error – did you make sure to enter your both name and email?

      It’s irritating isn’t it – it can take such mental effort to write out something exactly as we mean to.

      • Thank you for answering me, Thomas. Yes, those cyber gremlins lie in wait to put Murphy’s law into effect, I suspect. 🙂 Perhaps I’ll try again later…

        • thomas h cullen says

          That’s okay. I’ll humour you and in the next few minutes just quickly look up Murphy’s law.

          Have a nice day.

  12. Alison Murray says

    A great post. Insightful and instructive while taking us back to a classic read years ago. I will buy your book when released. A clever concept.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, I’m really excited about the series, just for my own sake. Looking forward to reading what other authors do in future installments.

  13. The way I bring minor characters to life is I actually kind of “copy” another, more prominent character. I have a character named Cora, who is positively chipper. Really, that’s the only word for her. I frequently put her personality into minor characters–the grocery store clerk, a waitress, things like that. And I can also do the same thing with other characters–Ashley, a pessimist, Ty, who is very opinionated, Nathaniel, a very caring person. It’s easy to create minor characters.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      We have to wary, however, of making our minor characters too similar to or too affirming toward our protagonists. The most interesting characters always arise from contrasts.

  14. Hi. Love your site! In the article above you write, “As we’ve already discussed in Chapter 6…” Which chapter 6 are you referring to? thanks!

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