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Friday, November 3

How to Tell if That Throwaway Character Is Really a Star

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

This week's Refresher Friday takes an updated look at knowing when a throwaway character deserves to be more. Enjoy!

Primary characters are easy. We pick them, we write abut them, we plan their lives. Secondary characters are a bit more sketchy. Sometimes we know exactly who they are are what role they play. Other times, we have no idea who will be a throwaway and who will be a star.

How do you know who is a throwaway character and who will eventually become an important one?

Characters there only for window dressing usually stay in the background. They serve a small, specific function and once they're done, they're done. They don't affect plot, so they can be as faceless as needed.

However...

Sometimes a walk-on role develops into a character who's a lot more important.


I blame the subconscious when this happens. It recognizes a need in the story that our conscious writer brain hasn't picked up on yet, and fills that need. A character who was supposed to be window dressing keeps showing up and the story is so much richer for it.

For example, a throwaway character in my novel, The Shifter, ended up being a major character in the series--and it was purely by accident. I needed a walk-on and they were never meant to be more than the person who triggered the catalyst to the inciting event. But later, when I needed a character to play a larger role, the same character popped back up. It hit me that using the same one beautifully tied the story together in a way I'd hadn't planned.

(Here are 6 Ways to Make Readers Fall in Love With Your Characters)

There was a reason this worked out so well.

Some throwaway characters fit roles that connect to the larger plot. 


They represent larger themes, or balance the protagonist in some way, or allow as aspect of the story that can't be explored any other way (or any other multitude of reasons). They fit the story in a fundamental way without us even trying to make them.

I couldn't have used any other throwaway character in the entire book and still have accomplished the same thing. Which is a really good indication of a potential star hiding as throwaway character.

(Here's more on How to Make Your Characters Come Alive)

Before creating a brand-new character to fill a bigger story role, check if you have a walk-on character who would work. 


Not only will this keep the number of characters down, but it allows you to deepen your plot and tie elements together in ways that enhance your story.
  • Is there a walk-on in a position to make your protagonist's life harder? 
  • Can anyone support them when no one else can? 
  • Is there someone who will complicate their problems? 
 If so, this character could be more. If not, they're fine in teeny roles.

(Here's more on Fleshing Out Flat Characters)

But be wary of prima donnas who want to take over the story.


Some walk-on characters are so much fun they steal the spotlight from the protagonist. These guys demand more page time and you often end up creating subplots for them--which can hijack your entire plot. They're such great characters you want to help them grow, but keep an eye out so they don't start moving into your story without permission.

Promote the stars. Keep the spotlight hogs in the dark.

Have you had a walk-on character turn in to a star? Have you ever had one try to take over the novel? 

Looking to improve your craft? Check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel. 

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), and Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).   
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9 comments:

  1. Thanks for answering my question - even though no one ever really knows when a character becomes important. I guess, a follow-up question is: Did you have any "important" characters turn out to be NOT important? Did you have to write off any characters during your revisions - and was that difficult?

    Second question, how did you get in the "mindset" of writing from the antagonist perspectives (assuming you wrote in third-person)? If not, what are your thoughts on how to decide between telling a story in first- or third- person?

    Sorry...lots of questions :) But you have all the interesting answers!

    P.S. Not that you need awards, I gave you a blog award here because I like your blog!

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  2. Thanks so much! I love questions, so never fear about asking them. Some I'll answer here, others I'll save for a post. Some I'll do both, like this one! I just cut an important character out of book two actually. They just didn't work in the end, and they took about 20K of the manuscript with them when they went -sigh-. I don't mind cutting, so it didn't bother me at all, and the new stuff that replaced it is FAR better. But it can be pretty disheartening to spend a lot of work on someone and then have to get rid of them, even if you know it's best for the story. (More on this in a later post, as it's a good topic)

    You don't know if a character will be more, but it's good to keep a tight rein on them so they don't take over. Keep an eye out for the ones with the potential to be more, but don't let every good walk-on talk you into making them a star :)

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  3. I figure you probably left the name out on purpose, but I'm still going to ask: Who was the walk-on?

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  4. Danello. I had no idea who he was when I first wrote him. He was just the night guard, and I never expected him to show up again.

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  5. I was right! All I've read so far is the excerpt online, and somehow I knew that you were talking about Danello!

    But then, I've had that happen to me a LOT. My urban fantasy WiP started out with the mantras: "The vampire will be a bit character" and "The vampire is NOT a love interest."

    *clears throat* Um, yeah. It's still happening in an unconventional way, so that's all good.

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  6. Your post a few days ago about character names reminded me of a character in Driftwood I had to rename, and linking to this post, it was because from being a bit player he had become more important.

    Originally I'd named him Bruce, but as he became more of a love interest for Juliet I knew I had to rename him - sorry if anyone reading this is a Bruce, or married to one - but the name just wasn't doing it for me in a romantic sense.

    I've also had to get rid of a major character and plot line in my present WIP, the writing was good (well in my view anyway!!) but the plot line was weak and wasn't adding to the overall structure. Sometimes we just have to murder our darlings. On a happier note I have plans to use the removed plot as a short story. Never delete anything - just cut and paste.

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  7. Shauna: Poor Bruce :) But yeah, Bruce and Juliet doesn't have a good ring to it. (Though I admit I had a HUGE crush on Bruce Boxlightener back in his Scarecrow and Mrs. Kings days, so I can see the name as a love interest) That's a great idea about saving scenes for a possible short story.

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  8. Interesting post.

    I had one throwaway character in the manuscripts I'm working on who was simply meant to play the role of a guide in the first story, then maybe be mentioned once later.

    While working on a side story in the same manuscript series, that character decide to reveal himself as a major complication, and ended up being a villain to one of the protagonists.

    Surprised me, but I liked the idea and kept it. So yeah... I see what you mean about those secondary characters who get a larger role. The same happened with a couple other characters in the storyline, and I'm looking forward to seeing how their stories play out. :-)

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  9. Sbibb, fun! I love when that happens. Make me seem like a plotting genius, lol.

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