The Incidental Character Requires a Deft Brush Stroke

Three Types of Characters

Be A NovelistIn your novel, the main stars on center stage are the main characters.  Next in line are secondary characters. These secondary personalities interact with main characters to complicate the plot and make the major players life either glorious or miserable.

But then those in an even lesser role, who command even less of the spotlight, are the incidental characters. The incidental character in your novel breezes in and out of a scene almost unnoticed – the mechanic at the garage, the waitress at the restaurant, the nurse at the hospital, the receptionist at the office, or the clerk at the hotel.

It takes a skilled author to make these background stage hands appear vibrant and alive.  How can that be accomplished?

Understand Their Purpose

A good beginning is to grasp the purpose of adding such personalities to your story.  It’s not just to take up space and fill the page.  The purpose of incidental characters is to more fully authenticate the setting, or add to the mood. Or both.

Because they are just that – incidental to the story – they need a soft brush stroke, but with a vivid color.  That nurse or mechanic should never upstage either the main or the secondary characters.  (If he tries to do so, fire him. Remove him from the story, expound upon his characteristics, and use him in your next novel. He’s too good a treasure to discard!)

Be A NovelistNo Need for Character Introspection

It’s best not to give introspection to the incidental character – even in a novel of multiple viewpoints. (Not saying it is never done, but for a beginning novelist, it could lead to a nowhere rabbit trail, wasting valuable time.) Keep in mind that the reader has no need to examine this character’s inner thoughts. It will add nothing to the plot.

To Name or Not to Name

Whether or not to name your incidental character will be your judgment call.  The best advice is to leave her nameless and let actions describe her.  Naming the incidental character could end up as page clutter.  Try it both ways and see which feels best as you read the section aloud.

Here’s an example:Be A Novelist

A twenty-something children’s photographer slouched against the wall at the entrance of her so-called shop in the discount store.  Stubby fingers with chewed nails swiftly created texts on her iPhone as the popping of her gum heralded her presence over the din of passersby.

If your main character is in a hurry to get her toddler’s photo taken, she will give pause before she uses this photographer.  Notice how, without assigning this character a name or divulging inner thoughts, her presence can be vividly seen – and heard.

Never Let Them Go to WasteBe A Novelist

This was just a quick idea off the top of my head, but you can see what can be done when you pay close attention to such details.  Never allow these incidental characters to go to waste by simply slipping them in and out of the novel.  Put them to work by allowing them to heighten the mood and intensify the atmosphere of your story.

One more note – don’t forget that you will find these characters everywhere! Keep your eyes open, your attention alert, and your notebook ready.


Be A NovelistRe-release of the third book in my Tulsa Series (Tulsa Trespass), originally published by Barbour Publishing in 1995, now available on Kindle and Nook.  Tulsa Trespass is historical fiction set against the backdrop of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. Check it out HERE.




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