How to Keep a Bit Character From Wearing Out His Welcome

blue-website-buttons-4-1369151-m

shop owners, or workers of all kinds, are very common bit characters.

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. πŸ™‚ (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.

Advertisements

18 responses to “How to Keep a Bit Character From Wearing Out His Welcome

  1. I love bit characters, too! It’s always nice when a series has a character who isn’t really important, per se, but you’re glad to see them again. Like they’re your own acquaintance as much as the characters’.

    My favourite character in my own novel series began life as a bit character. He’s a chatty travelling merchant who pops up whenever main characters are trading goods. The more this guy popped up, the more he got sucked into plot events. So I he’s really not a bit character anymore, but he still acts like the goofy local colour!

  2. I love the spontaneity of bit characters. They show up just when I need them at times. One of my favorite uses is having them help supporting characters evolve. Those scenes where a secondary can shine or reveal something without the shadow of the main character in the scene can really help with their depth. I’ve had a few recurring bit players that also evolved to something else, which is fun to see. Many times it gives me a reason to have characters return to a location or run into old friends who have news of other events. Gives the world a more organic feel.

    Still, I’ve noticed that nearly every book I read has that one bit character that I can’t stand. I wonder if everyone has that type of reaction to books with many characters. If you have such a variety of personalities then one would assume a reader would hate on at least one.

    • I agree, this a great way to use bit characters and I never plan them, they always just appear.

      I wonder if the authors realise some of their bit characters are annoying and if they’ve put them in there deliberately? Or if it’s just bad characterisation? I notice this when a comic relief pops up and they’re the same stereotype you find in Hollywood movies. I suppose it’s like in real life; there’s always going to be some people that annoy you πŸ™‚

      • I’ve wondered that and it can be bad characterization some times. Yet, it could also be that the author doesn’t find them annoying. Just like in life, there are all types of personalities and we react differently to each one. So while I might find a character obnoxious, another reader might find them the most endearing. An example would be the character Xander from Buffy. I thought he was great and one of my favorites, but several friends thought he was a useless clown. It seems to be prevalent with the comic relief and sidekick characters. I get this about my own characters at times too. My MC has no problem voicing his frustrations and getting mopey, so some people despise him for this. Others think it makes him more realistic.

        • That’s a fantastic point…. people definitely do react differently to different people and things. One of my fav examples is Ron Weasley from Harry Potter. I have read some crazy back and forth between Ron haters and Ron defenders. Sure, he’s not perfect, but I think like you say, his flaws make him realistic. And he shows growth and maturation throughout the books. What more can we ask from someone who is supposedly as human as we are?

        • It’s always the sidekick that gets it. πŸ™‚ I’m actually wondering if my favorite character in the book I’m reading has the same type of love/hate thing. She can be a little obnoxious and annoying, but I liked that because it makes her stand out.

      • it’s true. like you say, it’s a question of whether the author knows they’re annoying! πŸ™‚ When I feel the author does understand that, I find the character easier to deal with.

    • Your point about secondary characters is really pertinent to the discussion…. bit characters can help secondary characters evolve or show who they are, not just the protagonist. Hadn’t really thought about or mentioned that. And I agree that running into old friends in a book is just one of the best experiences ever!

      • I actually had this discussion with someone. I use a bit character that appears for one chapter section as a decoy for the plot and a way for two supporting characters to take the spotlight. I never brought this character back, which some people want closure on. Personally, I have no plan for him and he served his purpose. So I guess there are times a bit character gets some traction with readers that the author never thought of.

  3. Great post, gives me something to think of next time I am writing a smaller character πŸ™‚ Thanks for sharing!

  4. So is a typical novel an 8-bit book, 32-bit book, or what? Hehe. πŸ™‚

  5. Excellent post!!! I love those purposes for a bit character. I sometimes don’t recognize the potential of my characters. I wrote a book once that didn’t go anywhere. But when one of my grad advisors read it, she asked about one character who briefly appeared in one chapter. I didn’t think anything of the guy until I started exploring his life and family. Now I’m writing a book in which he’s one of the main characters! So I totally agree with you. But i love that list you provided.

  6. I seem to be one of those authors who makes a minor character, bit or just supporting, and they somehow end up as more interesting and end up with their own stories instead of staying put.
    I think I’ve seen the most impact with bit characters in interactive fiction–stories where the audience shapes the story. I’ve told stories like these before, and once, I brought in a minor character for the protagonists to ask for directions. Except that, thanks to the audience, they kept talking to him and eventually dragged him along.
    Long story short, he somehow became one of the more important supports, instead of just a one-off character. Strange how things work out sometimes.

    • interactive fiction is so new to me! I have heard about it and had a guest post where Lisa England talked about her interactive fiction but I have never read it or taken part in it. Such a cool phenomenon and interesting approach to art!!! I’m glad you mentioned it…. It really is crazy how the audience will connect with characters you didn’t expect them to!

Join the Conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s