Stories, novels, and even essays feature two types of characters (broadly speaking): major, complex characters and minor, flat ones. The terms are basically shorthand for this: some characters get a lot of time on the page while others might show up for only a sentence, the literary equivalent of a nameless movie henchman or Star Trek crew member. In action scenes, the minor character exists as a plot device, to get chopped down so that the major characters will act. But what about in stories where action isn’t the primary draw?
Leona Theis offers a great example of such a character and story in “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga,” which won the American Short Fiction contest (judged by Elizabeth McCracken) and appears in the latest issue of the magazine.
How the Story Works
The story takes place in 1974 in a Canadian university town. Sylvie is sharing an apartment with a woman she met at a bus stop. The women “each ran with a different crowd, and they agreed this would make for a good relationship, each of them minding her own business.” As anyone who’s ever shared an apartment might guess, it’s not long before the different crowds collide:
Lisa had moved into the suite a week earlier than Sylvie, claimed the larger bedroom, and stacked three twelve-packs of empty Labatt’s Blue bottles on the floor at the end of the kitchen cupboard. Sylvie associated Blue with truck drivers and guys who went out to Alberta to work the rigs. As if to confirm, Lisa’s fiancé Dave, a house framer, came by one night with three of his friends who were home from Alberta for the weekend. Not one of them wore his hair long; their fun appeared to come from drinking and its related games. Sylvie knelt and put Led Zeppelin on the turntable.
In this passage, Theis uses objects and places as emblems of a particular culture and class. On one hand, there’s the sort of men who drink Labatt’s Blue, drive trucks for Alberta oil rigs, and frame houses. On the other hand, there are men with long hair who listen to Led Zeppelin. Each of these details could be a throw-away detail, but because the passage has a point (showing how Lisa and Sylvie inhabit different worlds), each one is given a purpose.
The result is a short interaction with a minor character that acts as a kind of mic drop for the passage. It picks up after Sylvie puts on Led Zeppelin:
“Far out,” said the burly guy in the quilted vest in the armchair, and Sylvie could sense the effort involved, like someone who’d never taken French at school trying to say au revoir.
The minor character (un-named, like a henchman) is given a line of dialogue that puts his quilted vest and Labatt Blue into action: it lets him try to bridge the divide between the Lisa and Sylvie worlds.
When we talk about setting, we often refer to descriptions of place, but setting, like most writing terms, can be built in many different ways, as talented writers like Theis demonstrate.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s make a character represent a place or group, using “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga” by Leona Theis as a model:
- Figure out what worlds or groups exist in the story. Literature is full of examples: the cliques in high school stories, the many version of “The Prince and the Pauper” and “The Country Mouse and the City Mouse,” the rookies and pros from sports stories, insiders and outsiders, and worlds of gender, race, sexuality, politics, religion, and probably a hundred other ways that we divvy ourselves (or are divvied) into groups. Which ones are present in your story?
- Place your major characters into those worlds or groups. Which groups do your main characters belong to? As you can tell from the examples above, group identity can become a significant part of a story’s plot. In “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga,” the groups aren’t as essential to the story as in, say, a sports or high school story, but they certainly affect the characters and plot. So, don’t worry yet about what you’ll do with these groups. Just find which groups your characters are part of.
- Choose an acquaintance or someone close to one major character. In Theis’ story, we meet the roommate’s fiancé’s friend—so, someone who one of the major character (Lisa) knows but not someone she’s particularly close to, which makes him easy to discard after he’s done his job in the story. Because he’s not important, he can simply walk onto the page, do his thing, and leave. You can make a list of all of the possible acquaintances for your major characters, or you can try this:
- Decide what effect you’re going for. In Theis’ story, the passage accentuates the cultural difference between Sylvie (long hair, Led Zeppelin) and Lisa (Labatt’s Blue, truckers). Of course, this affect could be created by the great details she chooses, but it’s reinforced and made dramatic (and, therefore, interesting) by having it personified. So, in walks “the burly guy in the quilted vest.” He’s called forth by the situation. If Theis hadn’t needed to show the cultural difference between Sylvie and Lisa, the burly guy never would have been invented. What effect are you going for? What is the point of this particular passage in your story?
- Let the character react to something from another world. The burly guy is interesting only because he tries to engage with Sylvie on her terms (the terms of her world), which means responding to Led Zeppelin. Because he’s not from that long-haired world, his attempt to fit in isn’t smooth—which is what makes the moment interesting. What detail or person can your minor character interact with? How can the character try to engage with that person or detail on that person/detail’s terms? (In other words, what is the Led Zeppelin that your minor character must try to deal with?)
The goal is to create character, setting, and drama by letting a minor character represent his or her larger group and engage with some other group. If this sounds like science fiction and fantasy, that’s because this is what those genres do over and over again, but with aliens/dwarves/space travelers/vampires instead of truckers and hippies.