Bit characters: they really do matter, even if they don’t seem to at first glance. That’s something that’s been on my mind lately; while I’m editing my next Herezoth novel, I’m getting stuck on the important bit characters. To be precise, I don’t think I have enough of them.
We have all heard the phrase, “There are no small parts, only small actors.” That’s especially true for those who have gotten involved in theater. Well, the point of that phrase is very pertinent to fiction:
Every character matters, or at least, SHOULD matter. Every character, no matter how small, has some important role to fill, something critical to do with his or her presence that couldn’t happen without that character.
I reflected last August on how bit characters are more important than we think at first glance, and why that is. It’s true that everyone’s life is filled with acquaintances, and if our main character doesn’t have interactions with such people, something doesn’t feel right about his or her life.
GETTING THE BALANCE RIGHT
The tricky thing about bit characters: while they provide verisimilitude, or make a novel feel more life-like, if they are too present (or you have too many of them) a novel can feel weighed down by superfluous material.
In the end, striking a balance with your bit characters’ presence comes down to this great writing adage:
- Everything that happens in your novel must have a purpose.
Breaking that down to concern bit characters:
- Every interaction a major character has with an acquaintance or a bit character in your novel– or every interaction with a bit character that you mention in a throwaway manner– should contribute something tangible to the world you are creating.
Now, these purposes can be smaller or larger, and cover a variety of things.
- to enhance theme or set/shift tone
- a quick, humorous interaction for comic relief
- to slow down pacing and provide a breather for major characters (and readers)
- to deliver a one-liner that feels like a non sequitur but ends up being relevant to the major plot
- to humanize a major character or to show his or her weaknesses
- to flesh out setting and make the world feel real
Any and all of these things can be accomplished with a bit character. Depending on the purpose of a bit character’s interaction, sometimes you can cut down on word count by describing what happened after the fact, in conversation maybe, instead of giving a detailed play-by-play in real time.
This isn’t the best example, but it will work. It is always an option to have Jack mention that he went to the store and encountered a gruff employee who spilled coffee on his shirt, rather than narrate the shop visit and spill as they happen. Especially if what matters to your plot is the stain and NOT the employee as a character.
Also, this is a bit off topic, but I think recurring bit characters can be a BLAST. Some of my favorites from television shows and novels are Mr Ollivander (the wand expert in Harry Potter), Devin Banks (Jack’s nemesis on “30 Rock”) and Gunther (the barista on “Friends”).
Sometimes a bit character becomes something more.
One of my favorite examples of this is Dr. Frasier Crane. He started with a 3 episode arc or so on “Cheers,” played by Kelsey Grammer. He was Diane Chambers’s psychiatrist whom Diane asked to help Sam stop drinking.
People loved Frasier so much he became a series regular and then got his own spinoff show when Cheers ended. Grammer played Dr. Crane for 20 years!
I think of Frasier as a lesson: don’t be afraid to let a bit character turn into something more, if my gut is telling me a character has a bigger role to play than I first envisioned. I’ve actually dealt with that issue in my current WIP, giving a tavernkeep a larger role than I imagined he should have when I was outlining.
That is what created my “lack of bit player” problem. That guy is no longer a bit player. But there are always options: I mean, we’re dealing with a tavern. Taverns have regulars, especially in a small coastal village. 🙂 (CHEERS, anyone? It’s a scenario directly applicable to Frasier’s, even!)
Anyways, bit players are fun and important, but they aren’t anything to stress over. They generally develop naturally, out of necessity. If a character grabs a taxi, you’ll have a taxi driver. That kind of thing. And if you end up with a problem, it’s always fixable, and beta readers/ editors can clue you in.