walk-on character

Making the Most of Walk-On Characters

Making the Most of Walk-On CharactersWalk-on characters are often the neglected heroes of fiction. If the protagonist didn’t have other people with whom to interact, most stories would quickly fall apart. So, whenever the need arises, we stick in a taxi driver or a receptionist or a bum on the corner.

Often, these unnamed characters fulfill the needs of the moment, disappear from the story, and are never thought about again by either the protagonist or the readers. This isn’t necessarily a problem, particularly since you don’t want a bunch of dead-end characters cluttering up your story and getting in your hero’s way as he attempts to get from Point A to Point B.

East of the Mountains David GutersonHowever, this nameless, faceless multitude of minor characters still presents a wonderful opportunity for bringing depth and memorability to your story.

David Guterson’s East of the Mountains offers an incredibly complete cast of characters. Every person in this story, even those with the shortest of walk-on roles, strikes the reader as a complete human being.

We never doubt that Guterson’s protagonist is surrounded by a world of living, breathing, three-dimensional people. The walk-on characters in this story don’t just serve to push the plot forward in necessary ways. Every single one of them leaves fingerprints on both the main character and the reader.

The key to achieving complete walk-on characters is to envision them as complete people—and not just cardboard cutouts to fill the gaps in the plot. Every person has a story; every person has a life that extends far beyond his interaction with the protagonist. Each minor character should be unique and detailed.

You don’t need to share each and every minor character’s life story, but if you keep their backstories in mind as you write, you’ll end up with a rich and varied supporting cast.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Do you have any walk-on characters you might be able to flesh out a little more? Tell me in the comments!

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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. I wonder if the wife of one of my protagonists could be considered a walk-on character. She only appears within the first quarter of the story, because *spoiler* she dies at the first plot point.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I look at walk-on characters as those who walk on and then off again–usually nameless characters with only a line of dialogue or two. But a character like you’re describing is certainly a minor character, so all the same ideas here would apply.

  2. The protag in my novel is a son to a noble family, so he lives in a palace. Therefore there’s a couple nameless people around who get like one line and are never seen again (i.e. guards). Can’t do much else with those since the story leaves there early on.

    There was one of those I cut in second draft. He says something at the first sign of the antag’s presence, then a named secondary character points out basically the same thing but better.

  3. Mpho Keitumetse says

    I’d have to say my favourite walk-on would have to be the woman who runs the boarding house where my protagonist rents a room. She tries to set the protagonist up with one of her sons who lives in a foreign country.
    I love walk-on characters for precisely the reasons you give above. They make the story richer. So I’m really worried about two walk-on mercernaries I have recently met in my novel. They seem a little flat and cliché to me. Can you offer any advice to help make mercernaries more memorable than their greasy sweat and heavily contracted one-liners?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Personally, my favorite act for insta-dimension in minor characters is “casting” them. Choose a movie actor (or whoever) to play the character. Sometimes to really find a unique opportunity, you’ll have to look past the obvious casting choice to someone unusual for the type. It’s fast, easy, and fun.

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