Today I wanted to talk about bit characters: those small, barely glimpsed characters who nevertheless can leave a big impression and really make the world of your novel come alive.
Characters who, very possibly, could be the protagonists of their own spinoff adventures.
Yesterday I talked about an author’s relationship with her characters. What spurred this tangent from that discussion? An encounter I had with a really sweet woman who works as a security officer in the building where I live.
The building has lots of security officers who work different shifts, but this woman in particular always says hello and asks me how I’m doing. We’ve had lots of short but genuine conversations.
One day when I walked out in a suit, she told me I looked nice, so I thanked her and explained I was going to a job interview (she knows I’ve been looking for work). A couple of weeks later, she asked me how the job hunt was going.
We had a brief but fun conversation last night when I was returning from dinner with a friend, and I realized before I left the elevator how much I will miss seeing her every day when I move back home.
I totally take her from granted. Totally. But she always makes my day a little bit better. She makes the cold and the culture of Chicago a bit more bearable for me. And I never really pay her that much attention or think too much about her.
THE IRREPLACEABLE BIT CHARACTER
The security officer, of course, is a real person and not a literary character of any sort. But I still think her relationship with me provides an interesting analogy with a bit character in a novel who reappears from time to time and has a fun, outgoing, or otherwise memorable personality.
- The barista at your protagonist’s usual coffee shop
- Someone’s boss or coworker
- A neighbor who will drop by or meet your character on the street form time to time
Everyone’s life is filled with such acquaintances. These people, I think, have a bigger impact on our lives than we often stop to think about.
We don’t notice them too much when they’re around, but their absence is extremely noticeable. It makes something feel “off.”
Your major characters won’t only have friends and “secondary players” to help them out. Their lives will also be filled with acquaintances, the same as everyone.
Such characters don’t have much page or screen time, but they flesh out the world you’re writing about. They make it just a bit more real, more credible.
They provide authors a lot of opportunities:
- A chance to reinvent or utilize a stock character (more on stock characters here)
- A chance to shift or solidify tone
- A chance to throw in a clever one-liner
- A chance to advance a subplot in a fun and natural way, if that fits in with your plot
- A chance to characterize your protagonist. How we interact with and treat people who don’t have major roles in our lives reveals a lot about who we really are; there is a reason the Gospels instruct us to “love our neighbor.”
So don’t overlook your bit characters or fail to take advantage of them. I’ve heard it said that in the theater “there are no small roles, only small actors.”
You could definitely say the same of characters.
Who are your favorite bit characters from books you’ve read? Or written? I’ve always found Mr. Ollivander from the Harry Potter books very intriguing, even a bit disturbing. There’s a LOT going on in his shop I’d like to know more about.
Feel free to weigh in. And don’t forget that if you enjoyed this post, you can sign up to follow my blog by email at the top right of the page. That way you won’t miss out on future posts!