The speaker at a professional development seminar several years ago asked for two volunteers. To one volunteer, he gave a pencil with a rubber band attached to it. To the other volunteer, he gave the other end of the rubber band. He then gave them each a card containing instructions. The one volunteer had been told to draw a circle. The other had been told to keep the rubber band straight and tight. You can imagine the resulting drawing was not a circle at all as the two individuals fought to do as they were told.
The seminar was on classroom management, and the object lesson was on motivation for behaviour. As a teacher or a parent or a sister or a friend, I see a behaviour. I do not see a motivation. BUT, no action happens without some motivation.
Just as this is true in real life, it is also true of fictional characters. For me to understand (when reading) or fully develop (when writing) a character I need to look for the motivation behind his or her actions.
Sometimes character motivations are easy to see.
A coachman loses control of his horses and the heroine is about to be trampled, causing the hero to dash in to save her. The motivation? Immediate danger.
Sometimes they are much more difficult to see and may be fully or partially concealed.
A hero inexplicably leaves town. The heroine is understandably distraught. Now, unless the author has given me clues that the heroine has not had, I will also be just as distraught because I do not understand why he is doing this. Of course, the author may also choose to give both the heroine and me a misleading bit of information as the explanation for the hero’s abrupt departure. (Think: Letter from Miss Bingley)
Enter the minor character.
Often these characters are there as a tool to highlight something or to move the story forward. As such they do not always get a lot of developmental attention. They walk on, do their thing, and walk off. We, the readers, do not get to know them. In fact, we do not need to know them, and to explain them to the reader could distract from the story and may lead to a loose and rambling plot.
However, motivations that are unclear, concealed or not included are fantastic spots to play with a story.
I love this! An interesting minor character is a great story starter, in my opinion. In fact, my last two books are stories about minor characters. Listen to Your Heart focuses on Anne de Bourgh and her mother, Lady Catherine, and my newest book, Through Every Storm, focuses on Lydia and Wickham.
Now wait, I know what many will think. Ugh…not Lydia and Wickham! But, don’t give up on me just yet. Continue reading, please.
Let’s just look at Lydia since she is the one in most need of changing in this story. (Wickham has already found some maturity.)
The behaviour seen in Pride and Prejudice: Lydia acts like a spoiled brat without an apparent thought in her pretty little head.
But what if the wobbly, messy squiggle she is making of her life is because she is trying to draw a circle, but someone or something is preventing her? What might her motivation be? Could it be jealousy of an older more “perfect” sibling? Is it flawed parenting? Is it a cry for love and attention? Is it a feeling of inadequacy? The options are nearly limitless.
In Through Every Storm, I sent in Wickham, Kitty, Denny, and young Louisa Wickham to provide the proper incentives and instruction to change.
Here’s a little peek at just some of what makes my Lydia tick:
A tear slid down Lydia’s cheek. She blew out a frustrated breath and dashed it away. Ledgers were not something over which to cry.
She lined up the small pebbles on her desk once again. “I had ten. The bill is eleven.” She moved the pebbles from their line on the left to a new line on the right. “I need one more.”
She stared blankly at the account book in front of her. The numbers and lines blurred as she peered at them through her tears, which seemed insistent on falling. “I cannot do this. I do not know how to record it when I do not have enough.” She sighed and allowed the tears to fall.
Wickham had patiently instructed her on how to keep the household records three times already. She had listened. She had understood for that moment, but now… She tried to remember what he had said, but it was no use. She could not ask him again. She could hear the teasing of her father about how she must have feathers for brains when she had struggled to do the ciphers he had given her. She could not bear it if George were to laugh at her in such a way. She blew out another frustrated breath.
A hand rested gently on her shoulder. “Ma’am, I can show you.” Matthew took the pen from her hand and waited for her to shift so he could write. “Like this, ma’am.” He wrote the number as it needed to be recorded and then stood the pen in its holder. “Some people struggle with numbers. I do not.”
Lydia dried her tears and gave him a small smile. “Thank you. I did not want to fail, but I could not ask him to show me again…,” Her voice trailed off.
“He would never think you stupid, ma’am.”
Lydia’s eyes grew wide.
“I am sorry, ma’am. It was not my place.” He turned to leave.
“No, Matthew, I am most grateful for your assistance. I am only surprised you knew what I feared.”
“It was not hard to figure. I have seen my sister wear the same expression you wore more times than I care to recall.”
Over my many years of teaching, I have met more than one Lydia as characterized in Through Every Storm. These Lydias are the children who are often hard to love because they are hard. They have built a wall around their hearts in an effort to shield themselves. But, they like my Lydia need love and encouragement and patience and reassurance that they are not deficient. And when they get it, the change can be something quite wonderful.
Now it is your turn. What minor characters do you find fascinating? Do you have any opinion on what might make them who they are?