How to get to know your minor characters

Posted By Ashley Stokes


In a recent online workshop, some students said that they didn’t feel they knew their minor characters well enough to predict how and why they might behave in certain scenes. To ensure minor characters are acting authentically, rather than as props to move the plot’s mechanism, you must first understand what they would be feeling within the scene, and why. To do this, I recommend writing Inner Monologues, or IM, from the points of view of your minor characters.

What is an ‘Inner Monologue’?

I first encountered the theory behind Inner Monologues in Robert McKee’s book Story. The process he describes is tilted to screenplay, where the writer must give the actor something to say or do, where there’s no other form of storytelling allowed other than image or dialogue.

He does say ‘during the creation of a scene we must find our way to the centre of each character and experience it from his point of view’.

Getting inside the minds of our characters

What we’re talking about here is a technique for developing what is going in the minds of characters when we don’t have direct access to their thoughts: minor characters; bit-part players; secondary characters; any character that we don’t allow to control narrative point of view; major characters seen from another perspective in novels with multiple narrators; or characters in the rare stories where we’re not party to the inner workings of any of the characters and keep a discreet distance, like in Hemingway’s Hills like White Elephants. The risk in not doing an IM for these characters is that they just play their allotted roles too obviously, and thus make the plot look procedural, one of the things that we’re trying to avoid when we write a story.

Even so, the technique is also useful for our narrating characters, who may not understand why they do what they do, or may have blind spots or be in some way unreliable. It’s a way for you as the author to explore the underside of the iceberg.

Writing from the inside out

After analysing a scene from Robert Towne’s screenplay Chinatown by asking questions about why each character says what he or she says at given points, McKee goes on to say:

“In writing out what actors call ‘Inner Monologues’ I’ve put this well-paced scene into ultra -slow motion and given words to what would be flights of feeling or flashes of insight. Nonetheless, that’s how it is at the desk. It may take days, even weeks, to write what will be minutes, perhaps seconds on screen. We put each and every moment under the microscope of thinking, rethinking, creating, recreating as we weave through our characters’ moments, a maze of unspoken thoughts, images, sensations and emotions. Writing from the inside out, however, does not mean we imagine a scene from one end to other locked in a single character’s point of view. Rather … the writer shifts point of view. He settles into the conscious centre of a character and asks the question, If I were this character in these circumstances, what would I do? He feels within his own emotions a specific human reaction and imagines the character’s next actions.”

Notebook work

So: this gives us an idea what the Inner Monologue is supposed to do, and describes notebook work that informs the composition of the scene. It’s working out how a character would feel in a given scene and why, what is it about her past or personality that forms her visible behaviour. This is achieved by freewriting, busking and jotting, mind-mapping, listing, drawing up chronologies and examining key relationships. It can even use other stimuli, like images, to help us explore the emotional landscape of our characters. It could prompt you to research the biographies of minor characters to work out what their presence in a scene reminds them of. Your major characters might also remind them of significant people from their past, too, and this could inform their reactions and actions. You could start to flesh out your minor characters so they seem less predictable or recognisable as mere types.

Negotiating knotty problems

I don’t always use an IM, or, if I do, I often use them as gathering exercises or fishing trips before I’ve committed to writing a story. But, if I have a knotty problem to negotiate that involves a key interaction with a minor or secondary character, I’ll spend some time on an IM, and I have two-stage process for that.

I’ll give you an example from my own work (as that’s what I know best).

In my current work-in-progress, I recently reached a major turning point. Three of my four major characters are about to embark on an expedition to a remote village. However, just before this can unfold, there’s a game-changing event that makes it unlikely or irrational that the narrator would still continue with the expedition.

However, at the start of the next section, I jump ahead and start the story with the narrator, arriving in the vicinity of the village on his own, and for a while, the writing concentrates on this until there’s a convenient point to fill in the gaps.

My problem here – and this is the gap – I needed the narrator to go on this trip (I have no story if he doesn’t), but he has every reason in the world not to go. I needed to account for a number of things relating to how he came to be here both alone and at all. The knottiest one is why his very rational wife would allow him to go (it would be very out of character for him to still depart in the circumstances without her blessing or if she were stressed).

So, my IM took two stages.

I took out an index card and I busked why, the wife (let’s call her Nicole), would encourage the narrator to go. I made lists. I crossed out some things, but in the end, came up with reasons that seemed in keeping with her, the marriage, what she wants from life etc. As she is often someone who thinks ahead, I also saw that she would game this situation and see possibilities that the narrator wouldn’t, and thus serve to actually make his mind up for him. I rewrote the scene in note form from her point of view, as if it were happening to her, which involved to some extent imagining the whole of the novel so far from her perspective as someone both sympathetic to, but also frustrated by someone else’s obsession. Snippets of dialogue and turns of phrase also occurred to me here that I noted down. Some made it into the draft as Nicole’s active speech.

What I also did next – stage two – was to further interrogate Nicole here, and freewrite why she would have made this decision, taken this line. What was it about her upbringing, experience, etc, that made her able to give this advice. I made lists and spider diagrams to this effect.

In doing so, I found out much more about Nicole than I knew before, or had known at the planning stage of the book. It was easier to do this now that N was in play, when I’d been writing about her for some time already.

This should helpfully help me when I come to edit the passages that occur before this discussion about whether the narrator should leave. Nicole is now a more real character to me that she was before.

So, this is how I use an IM to not only make my scenes dramatic and charged, but also help me deepen my own sense of my characters.

Give it a try

You can use an IM before you start to write, or during the process, or after the scene is written to double-check yourself. It’s a good little exercise for broadening or deepening your sense of your minor or non-POV characters and exploiting their inner lives to help texture and deepen group scenes. Give it a try. See if it throws up anything you didn’t know that can add a little quirk or aspect to your characters.