Looking at Character: Punching Out Cardboard Characters

In today’s Looking at Character, I thought it would be fun to think about how we writers handle minor and secondary characters.  Even if you have a large troupe of main characters to work with, it is quite likely you’ll still have to include an assortment of minor characters to flesh out the world you are writing about.  With so much already on a writer’s plate, it’s rather tempting to deal with all of these background characters as, well, background.

Now, here’s the thing: you can do this to some degree and it won’t hurt your writing.  The truth is that, for the most part, people often only notice the majority of the masses around them as a general mass, only picking out general information about them.  So, yes, in a large metropolis or crowded arena, you can get away with general brushstrokes about those background characters.  The problem can come into play with a minor character when they are called to have more than a bit part in your story, especially when called into a ‘speaking role’, interacting with your main characters.

Obviously, you can’t make these secondary characters as featureless as your background characters.  Unfortunately, quite commonly, the author simply ‘punches them out’ of the background and presents them in an equally flat manner: the archetypical Cardboard Character.  Their personality, if it’s distinguishable at all, is usually a one note emotion or, often as not, their job or role, like ‘cop’ or ‘innkeeper’.  These Cardboard cutouts are little more than semi-sentient tools to attempt to breathe life to the world outside of the main characters.

This usually goes wrong quickly, even faster if a Cardboard Character is more than a one-note or one-scene wonder.  The reality is that such blatant lifeless stereotypes don’t exist in the real world.  Real people, from the lowest beggar to the most powerful corporate executive, are complex creatures, with various needs, fears, and other personality traits.  Do all of these need to come out with a minor character?  No, of course not, but some of them should.  Even a few little traits can add a lot of life to an otherwise Cardboard Character and also let you, the author, have some influence on how the reader looks at that minor character, making them more memorable than they would be.

Let’s not even consider the possibilities that fleshing out a few minor characters can have for your plot and main characterizations.  Let’s face it: you can ‘show’ much more about your characters, your world, and your plot when your main characters can interact with characters that have depth, even if it’s not the full depth of a main character?  It can open up wonders for your stories.

So remember, when you want to punch out some more Cardboard Characters for your plot, take some time to at least give them some extra dimensions and a fresh coat of paint.  The deeper they are, the better your stories will be.  If you have any comments, questions, or insights, feel free to add them below!

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4 comments

    1. That is an excellent way to think about it and a good writing policy. Even if you don’t have time to do a deep plot outline, you can still approach minor characters with that same respect.

  1. The nameless waiter who offers the wine list is just window-dressing, as far as evoking the typical sounds in a restaurant setting. I suppose I could have done away with him, but his eight-word interposition and subsequent non-speaking deliveries to the table, serve the purpose of pacing the dialogue, and pushing the chat in a particular direction, while giving one character the opportunity to ease into the discussion without coming across as being rude.

    1. Exactly. Window-dressing characters are important too. They make the world a living place. If all they are there for is a few lines of dialogue and that’s it, they are just fine as the baseline they are.

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