Writing Walk-On Characters Like a Best-Selling Author

Considering the boastful title of this post, I trust you will glean at least one or two snippets of writerly advice worthy of it. If not, then perhaps you will at least be engaged by the writing. (Jeez, blogger, boast much?)

Writers don’t boast, they project self-confidence.

“James Theodore Roosevelt can flip a quarter twenty straight times and call it correctly on every flip. He’ll sometimes do this for his guests. When asked why he chose his current profession, he likes to say ‘because it lets me serve humanity without costing me my soul’ which will inevitably conjure a snickering laugh of irony.

‘On Sunday’s JT drives his mother twenty miles out of town. These little cruises through the country cost him a good bit of dough for gas and wear and tear, but he never complains because she (his mother) is deteriorating quickly and he doesn’t know how much longer she’ll even remember his name.

He says ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ not because he was taught manners but because he doesn’t appreciate it when others fail to say these magic words.

Ultimately he would like to backpack through Europe and climb the Andes. He knows he never will. The tragedy of knowing his dreams will forever remain only dreams is at least partially mitigated by the knowledge that, eventually, Amy will just have to say yes to his constant questing.

‘In the meantime he collects books. The breadth of his collected works is remarkable: Vonnegut, Windersheer, McCullough, Larson, Martin, Sanderson and Thompson. Like his hero Poe, he spends long dreary midnights alone, pondering old works and wondering why no one else appreciates his literary appetites. If only they knew, if only one person in all the world showed the least bit of interest, his unfulfilled dreams would poof out of existence, superseded by the simple joy of being seen and heard and appreciated.

‘Suicide has crossed his mind. Never attempted, of course, but he has fantasized, entertained scenarios, wondered if anyone would notice other than his landlord, peeved by the stench of his rotting corpse wafting through the building, disturbing other tenants who never noticed him before.

‘At work he buries such lurid fantasies in busyness and tunes hummed and whistled.

‘He likes to whistle while he works; it’s pretty much the only time the other guys use his name. ‘Knock it off, James!’ It’s nice to be noticed.

‘As he delivers yet another standard order, the client fails to look at him. JT imagines what it would be like, slamming the man’s head against the hard oak surface of the table, repeatedly, harder each time. The others would notice then, wouldn’t they? For now he swallows the impulse and sets the order down gently, a smile plastered on his face, a lie written in dry pink flesh.

‘He pours his gaze into the client. All his malice is constrained behind micro-thin corneas (hazel like rich coffee, if anyone cares). His hand remains on the order, forcing the client to look up, look at him, and see him.

‘Finally the man does.

‘JT stretches the smile even further, till it hurts, all while imagining what it would feel like to snuff the life out of this pompous dick. Someday, he knows, he will snap. One day someone will pay for his unfulfilled dreams, his longing and loneliness. But not today.

‘Today, even as he pours his hatred into the client’s eyes, James Theodore Roosevelt suspects that the only one to suffer on that day will be him, for even in his rage the only life he could possibly take would be his own.’

I bet you thought you were reading a mini-bio of a main character. Nope.

JT Roosevelt is a walk-on character. He walks onto a scene, does his part and leaves without a fuss. He’s a blip. A shadow. A background noise you don’t even notice.

Now let’s see the same character through the eyes of the main character.

‘Where is that bloody waiter?” Carl demanded, glancing around. ‘What’s his name, John? Timmy?’

‘Solomon grinned at his dinner partner. Such impatience was the mark of a weak man, a man likely to make mistakes and cause a scene. That was good. It would make the non-interrogation interrogation go a lot smoother later tonight, once he got Carl good and drunk.

‘When the waiter returned, he paused, his hand lingering on Solomon’s plate of chicken cordon bleu.

‘Looking up, Solomon was caught in a pair of dark eyes. It was almost disconcerting, the way John or Timmy or whomever stared at him, like he wanted to take a steak knife and slice his throat or something. He watched the waiter stalk off until he was gone. That brief unsettling encounter remained with him throughout the meal. Later on upstairs in their room, as he was tying Carl up, Solomon reflected on that waiters’ expression, and wondered what had caused it.

‘He supposed, as he took out his ‘kit’, that you never really knew anyone.

‘Carl certainly didn’t know Solomon. That ignorance, that deep pit of loneliness, it separated you from people, made you feel things, bad things, and it made you capable of doing things well-adjusted people could never, would never, do.’

You see, it is the mark of a thoughtful writer who thinks of his minor walk-on characters as real individuals.

When writing a walk-on, you would do well to imagine that this ‘blip’ is a complete person, filled with hopes and dreams and love and hatred, driven or torn by yearning and powerful impulses, a person capable of both simple tricks (like JT’s coin flipping) and profound violence.

They say all it takes to create diamonds is time and pressure. Well people are the same way. Given enough time and pressure, even harmless unnoticed individuals like James Theodore Roosevelt could prove to be hard, shaped into something entirely different from what they were in the beginning.

Your readers don’t need to know all the details of the lives of your walk-on characters. But you should know them. By taking the time to create a mini-bio, a small but provocative background, even minor blips could provide tension or give the MC precisely the bit of revelation he needs to move his story along.

Plus, by knowing your walk-ons, you infuse your manuscript with an acute sense of realism.

Moral of the Story: The next time you’re dining out, remember to tip your waiter. You might just save a life.

(Oh, and ‘don’t forget to remember’ that your walk-ons are people too, complete with their own passions and foibles and peccadilloes. Pretend that they are not just waiting around for the MC to show up so they can ‘walk-on’, but that the appearance of the MC is merely a blip in your walk-ons life.)