Six impossible things

Walk-ons

Most stories involve more than one character. Even classic castaway Man-against-Nature stories, like Robinson Crusoe and Gary Paulsen’s Hatchett, include the protagonist interacting with other characters at the beginning and end of the story.

Characters get grouped into several categories. First are the protagonist and viewpoint characters, who may or may not be the same person. Then you have major characters who play a large role in the story – the villain or antagonist, the sidekick, the romantic interest, parents, BFFs, etc. Next come the secondary characters, the minor characters, and finally the walk-ons or spear carriers.

Walk-ons are the faceless folks at the outer periphery of the story, who are only mentioned at all because logically somebody has to be watching the city gate, taking tickets at the amusement park, serving the drinks and canapes, and generally populating the world your Hero is busy trying to save. They are the city guards, waiters, janitors, housekeepers, valets, bellhops, drivers, stormtroopers, postal carriers, dressmakers, and random people crowding the sidewalk or the spaceport lounge. They rarely have any dialog other than something obvious like “Would you like fries with that?” or “May I take your bag, sir?”

Lots of writers don’t think much about these folks until their character starts to walk into the lounge of the train station and they suddenly realize that the place really can’t just be empty. In a lot of stories, this works just fine. The protagonist and his/her small circle of major characters have more than enough to be going on with; there’s no need for additional complications.

Because quite frequently, what happens when a writer does start thinking about one of these people is that they start growing more of a personality. As soon as this starts showing, the character graduates from walk-on to minor, especially if they have a couple of lines of dialog or a page of conversation. Often, the writer really likes this new character, and brings him or her back in a later scene or two, which quickly upgrades the character further, to secondary character. If the character develops their own subplot, their status as secondary character solidifies; if the subplot becomes important to the central plot and/or the character starts getting viewpoint scenes, the character can end up joining the ranks of major characters. And even the most massively sprawling multiple-viewpoint epic series does not have room for the writer to do this with every Uber driver, lab technician, army private, or random pedestrian in the story.

Tempting as it is to just ignore walk-ons, or treat them as self-moving props, it is actually quite useful to put a little thought into who and what they are, if only to have some idea who-all is likely to be around in certain settings. The walk-ons are the general population from which your minor characters and secondary characters are drawn (and often the major characters and protagonist as well). If you know what kinds of jobs people had in medieval castles and villages, you can give everybody more interesting things to do. Space stations can’t be populated exclusively by scientists and engineers; medieval castles had blacksmiths and farmers and weavers as well as guards and cooks and grooms. Western towns didn’t just have a sheriff, a tavern-owner, a prostitute-barmaid with a heart of gold, a couple of outlaws, and a bunch of generic townspeople; all those townspeople had jobs, too. And they weren’t necessarily the same in every town.

Even when the spear-carriers are just that – a massive army carrying spears – there is potential variation that can make them more interesting (without necessarily leading the writer down the path of ever-proliferating subplots for ever-increasing numbers of minor and secondary characters who keep wanting their own books). Armor and weaponry has not always been standardized, especially during times when yeomen were expected to bring their own arms and armor when they were called up by their lord. Even when it is standardized, armies keep having to make rules to keep soldiers from adding or altering their uniforms, because there’s always one guy who wants to wear a blue bandanna instead of a red one, or a turtleneck instead of a collar. And that doesn’t even mention the designs they paint on their airplanes, bombs, and guns.

You can imply a lot about the culture of your world, how cosmopolitan your cities and countries are (or aren’t), and how much diversity and prejudice there is (or isn’t) by how you handle your walk-on characters. If your main character stops for lunch at her favorite Mexican restaurant, where she tells the waiter that the Korean chef did his usual fantastic job, that tells the reader something about the world your protagonist lives in and about what she takes for granted.

If you want a faceless mass of identical stormtroopers in white armor because you want to imply something about the government that created them (heck, they’re clones – they’re even identical inside the armor!), that’s fine. But if your Evil Hordes and Armies of the Light are all the same simply because you haven’t thought about them much…you might want to stop and consider. If you have good reasons for populating your city with identical men in gray flannel suits, that’s fine, but you had really better be aware that most real-life cities don’t look like that, even at noon on a sunny day when all the office workers nip out for lunch. In other words, you can do what you want…but do it on purpose.

9 Comments
  1. One point I sweat is how many of the various kinds of spear-carriers there are. How many rooms in the crossroads inn, how many room-maids doing housekeeping and laundry, how many assistants the cook has. How many people the big port city has. How many bar wenches in how many waterfront taverns. How many stevedores unloading how many ships that are typically in port. How many slavegirls are being put up for auction in the market, and how many auctioneers are there to sell them. And so forth and so on.

    • I tend to worry about those sorts of things also. I recently did a ton of research on the populations of ancient cities and on the numbers of soldiers and support personnel in the army of Alexander the Great, as well as in the legions of ancient Rome.

      Was I writing a book set in our own ancient Mediterranean? I have done so (although that book didn’t require this population research, strangely enough), but this book was not that book.

      I was trying to figure out the population of a major military citadel in my own fantasy world at a time in my world’s early history. And I just didn’t feel comfortable “pulling the number out of a hat.” I wanted to know more about precedents in the real world. But it felt frustrating to do all that research on something that I probably could have (should have?) fudged. 😉

    • I sweat that a little too, and always end up leaving it vague enough that I can’t be wrong. I imagine not many readers would give it much thought — it wouldn’t occur to them that one bar wench couldn’t possibly serve a busy tavern, or whatever? That we sweat it much more than they do. I certainly don’t read a novel looking for mistakes, especially if I’m really invested in the story.

  2. The Icelandic sagas at times have a character who has one or two scenes, and when they’re finished, say of him, “And now he goes out of the story.”

  3. I think your last sentence here hits the nail on the head. Too often, I write something without really having a purpose, and that really is a pain when I have to go back and make changes…

  4. One thing that irks me is when a novel begins with a viewpoint character who the reader then reasonably assumes is going to carry much of the story – and who suddenly disappears after the first chapter, never to be seen again. This character usually serves some utilitarian purpose, such as boating the protagonist across a river at night, but sometimes serves only as a clunky means of describing the main character to the reader without resorting to the gawdawful “he looked in a mirror” trope.

    I hesitate to state t as a rule, because there are always exceptions, but a walk-on should not open a book (unless you make it damned clear that that’s all that person is).

    • I read something by (I believe) Orson Scott Card that basically said the rule of thumb for these “walk-ons” is that the earlier in the book they appear, the less attention you can give them. His example was a cranky cab driver who spends several paragraphs giving the main character a hard time. If the book opens that way, people will think the cab driver is an important character. If you put the scene halfway through a long story, it can just be part of the main character’s difficult day.

  5. I struggle with *how many* minor characters there are. In a big city they might be faceless strangers, but in an office, a reasonably socially graceful protagonist will know the receptionist, and the knot of coworkers, and all the people in their cube-block . . . or if it’s a village, the protagonist will know the baker and the blacksmith and the weaver and the wheelwright and the hostler . . . and all of these people have NAMES. And before you know it, there are a bajillion characters, even if the only ones who are actually important are the protagonist and the best friend and the parents and maybe a love interest and a couple of key secondary characters.

    I have occasionally seen walk-ons that were clearly just walk-ons and didn’t need to be paid attention to beyond their handful of scenes, but I still struggle to either make that clear or curb the proliferation of unimportant minor characters because *someone* has to be serving the tacos, etc.

  6. These characters multiply like mice, that’s for sure. I had to make sure I wasn’t inflating their profiles and actions during the writing. At this point, I treat these extras more as scenery than anything else. Having said that, it’s nice not to do the Hollywood thing and have all the extras be men, or white, or what have you.

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