Monday, January 25, 2010

Walk-Ons and Exits, Pursued By a Bear


A colour illustration by Clarence F. Underwood for the novel Beau Brocade by The Baroness Orczy.

I came upon a brief but interesting discussion at Fangs, Fur and Fey about tertiary characters.

Please note that, by and large, the following quotes or paraphrases a number of the points raised.

One writer neatly summarized the role of tertiary characters as (1) those who help -- or obstruct -- the protagonist, (2) those that symbolize some element of conflict or conundrum, and (3) those that provide a useful revelation about the protagonist's character/actions/motivations.

One could be finicky and mention that there is really a fourth type of character with which we populate our novels, those sometimes rendered en masse (crowds, mobs, hordes, throngs, packs, hosts, troops and such), sometimes as a singular and equally anonymous wandering walk-on -- those types whose main purpose is to provide local colour, texture, and background to a scene, lest the stage seem unrealistically empty and bare.

Even so, one writer suggested these nameless backgrounders can provide added value beyond just stage dressing, not only to trigger a reminder, an observation or a conclusion from the main character, but also to insert some necessary prop in the story line.
Double duty - always our job.

23 comments:

Whirlochre said...

As I understand it, Lord of the Rings was originally conceived as one wizard's love for his diminitive weirdo — but Tolkien got carried away with the orcs.

laughingwolf said...

case in point: wagner's ring of the niebelung

raine said...

So these are the barely-mentioned characters, the local color, the disposables, the background, the one-line extras, the folks who get eaten by the zombies, the guys in Star Trek who wear the red shirts?

I like it. :)

Charles Gramlich said...

In horror fiction there's a type whose job it is to die in messy ways to show how 'bad' the villain is.

Bernita said...

Apparently a lot of people ended up being carried away by the orcs, Whirl!

Goddamnthering, it's called in our house, LW.

Hee, Raine. Yup.Fun, spotting them.

Works for me, Charles!

Gabriele C. said...

I have my own way of classifying characters in my books - it's easier than trying to fit them into preconceived categories. I usually have a cast of 60-70 named characters (in the Roman standalones) to 150+ in the epic Fantasy, and it's my job to keep the straight for myself and the reader, so I do it my way. Tertiary characters is not a term I use in that context.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

My personal rule is always use as few characters as possible. I learned that writing short stories. But that's a rule for me; some people can write a cast of thousands well.

If a nameless character appears in one of my books, they're like a gun on the mantel. They're gonna get shot.

Gabriele C. said...

One of the reasons I have so many named characters is that I deal with armies and big battles. A Roman centurion would know the names of his soldiers and not shout, "Spear Carrier 3, stand in line, Disposable 2, what's that dirt speck on your scutum?" He'd use names, and so must I. :)

Bernita said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bernita said...

Whether you use the terms or not, Gabriele, surely some characters are more important than others.

Betsy, I use a small cast also. Not sure I could manage a large one.

If a nameless character appears in one of my books, they're like a gun on the mantel. They're gonna get shot.
I like that!

To name or not to name is a topic for a whole 'nother post, Gabriele.

jason evans said...

My life has a lot of tertiary characters. The obstruction variety.

Bernita said...

Life imitating art again, Jason...

Natasha Fondren said...

You know, I stopped writing short stories for three years, I think. I've recently started again, and I think the "double duty" thing (or triple duty, LOL) is the skill that got most flabby by not writing short, every now and then.

Bernita said...

I know they say that every word should count no matter what one is writing, Natsha, but writing short does tend to concentrate on maximum value.

writtenwyrdd said...

I've always called what you name tertiary as secondary characters. What do you see as the difference, bernita?

And any or all of the uses you mention can be applied to main, secondary, walk on or whatever characters--it's all in how we writers take advantage!

I particularly like to make a paragraph, character or incident have at least two uses. It adds depth.

Bernita said...

Wtitten, let's take Malignity.
Lillie and Johnny are primary.
Ted ( the by-law guy) and Nathan are scondary characters.
Tertiary characters are those who appear en passant, a young constable and his partner, a telephone repairman,Rhoda Tiller the dispatcher... those whose role is extremely limited.
Unfortunately,those uses are not always applied to the lesser characters.

writtenwyrdd said...

Gotcha. How's the WIP going, anyhow?

Bernita said...

I just finished a run through it not five minutes ago, Written, so my brain is a little befuddled.
I think I've done all the damage I can at the moment. Now over 83,500 words, though.

Demon Hunter said...

Wow. Wonderful. I was concerned about my other characters but I think they all have a place in my novel. :-D

Bernita said...

Tyhitia, you "do good work!"

Lana Gramlich said...

I need to work more on secondary & tertiary characters (or animals,) in my paintings. I always tend to feature that ONE bird (or what have you.) I need to work more on multiple figures & *gasp* dare I say it...crowds. <:(

Bernita said...

Are you sure, Lana?
I like the power of your paintings as they are.
Don't go all Richard Doyle on me!

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