On Characters Who Are Mere Acquaintances: More Important Than You Think

Acquaintances and bit characters are more important to the structure of your novel than you might think.

Acquaintances and bit characters are more important to the structure of your novel than you might think.

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).ย  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!

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33 responses to “On Characters Who Are Mere Acquaintances: More Important Than You Think

  1. I love this post…there are so many people I run into in my life that are present for fleeting moments, but they make a big impression…as for a particular character that stands out, I can’t name only one, because in every story, all the people the main characters come in contact with are part of the whole…they just fit.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post! I love the way you describe “part of the whole.” I feel that way too. “Small characters” can be vital to the whole feeling whole. They matter quite a lot even if that significance isn’t really plain to see.

  2. Reblogged this on Mouth Trap and commented:
    worth reading folks.

  3. One of my favourites was Brienne of Tarth in the Game of Thrones novels. When she was first introduced she was an interesting side character with her own passions and personality, whose presence highlighted social norms and prejudices around the role of women in that setting.

    She’s also, in my opinion, an example of the dangers of getting too excited about these characters. George R R Martin liked her enough that he decided to turn her into a main character later, with a substantial plotline that slows down the novels without seeming to add much overall. Admittedly, this being Martin, she could eventually turn out to be vitally important, but right now it feels like the author has got too attached to what was an interesting bit character, and is giving her lots of attention at the cost of pacing.

    • that’s a great reminder: thanks for the example, Andrew! I have yet to read Martin but what you says makes a lot of sense. It can be dangerous to give a bit character more attention than he or she requires just because you as the author like the character. Less is more. It’s hard to accept that sometimes.

  4. When well written, the smaller, secondary characters also give you the opportunity to adjust the pacing of your story. They can be the comic relief or the vehicle for creating a plot twist, too. There’s a balancing act, though, because they can feel “dropped in” if they aren’t used properly.

    • That’s a fantastic point: they really should be and need to be organically placed, as though they belong when and where they show up and they’re doing what they’re doing for a personal reason. Not to advance your plot for you. Thanks, Candace!

  5. I liked the cabbage guy from Avatar: The Last Airbender series. With books, I always enjoy seeing an old character return even in passing. It brings more life and depth to the world. As true as it is that some people never meet again, there are always those you run into later.

  6. Good article. Thank you, Victoria! Secondary characters bring the fragrance, the humor or even the mystery and certain accents we need for our story. Their presence is like condiments for a good dinner.

  7. I made the mistake once of introducing too many little characters, mostly because I still didn’t know what I wanted from the big character, and it ended up throwing things off. But the problem with deleting them all is losing that ‘thing’ that you mentioned is off.

    Sigh. Writing. That balance is so quirky to find ๐Ÿ™‚

    • It really is!!!! One thing I’ve heard suggested is to combine two or three bit characters into one. that way you cut back on the excess but still have something of the real world, recognizing people at places atmosphere that’s so important.

  8. thank you Victoria

    I read you every day…that is what I thank you for.

  9. Great post! It made certain things about my own story fall into place. Not only do we all have those bit players in our own life, but our interaction with them solidifies our character. It defines to those that may not know us very well, what type of person we are. The old axiom, “actions speak louder than words” fits here. So how much more could this work in our fictional world? A character that releases a trapped animal versus one that yells at it to quit whining, or worse, walk by it without a second glance, is very indicative of their character and not a word was spoken. Or, saying hi and offering pleasantries like in your example of the security guard. How many people just walk by or maybe grunt out an obligatory greeting? They may not be merely rude, but they may be preoccupied. In any event however, they are not really a “people person” and their actions leave that impression, correct or not. These post reminds me that I still have a lot of characterization to do in my WIP’s world. Many thanks again for your help. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Glad you enjoyed the post, Becky! Love what you say about the characterization…. that’s so true. Actions really do speak louder than words. And even when these brief interactions involve more words than action, those words can be revealing.

  10. The Coen Bros. are geniuses at using bit characters to full effect. I think of the scene in Fargo where a bit-player cop is interviewing a bit-player witness. It has no major players in it, yet i’s one of the best scenes in the movie, using character, setting and dialogue brilliantly to convey some necessary exposition.

    I have to also say that I disagree that Brienne of Tarth causes pacing problems in Martin’s books–Martin just sucks at pacing; it’s his biggest weakness as a writer. Every second she’s in the story is a treasure.

  11. Secondary or tertiary characters are lovely to play off your main character. Terry Pratchett is the king of bit charcters. They pop up everywhere! Like Albert who cooks for Death Or the Librarian, who is an orangutan. Pratchett is like Dickens. His books are well populated with interesting characters who live out the plot.

    • I really do need to reach Pratchett!!! I have heard so many good things…. I feel like I’m missing out. If you compare him to Dickens I think I’d really enjoy him…. I love what Dickens does with character.

  12. It’s so true there are many people I take for granted, the bit character’s in my life. Thanks this has made me think about making my WIP a bit more well rounded with characters ๐Ÿ™‚

  13. Yup, I’ve taken bit characters who have grown and put them into their own books. Or had them cameo in another book. And I have definitely taken people off the street or transit and put them into books, either as main characters or bit parts. You never know what a character is going to grow into!

  14. Pingback: How to Keep a Bit Character From Wearing Out His Welcome | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  15. Pingback: The “Come, Cliche, Crackdown” Approach to Character Development | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

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