Author Talk: The Importance of Character Actors

Storytellers have many tools to convey information to the reader, and character actors are one tool I’ve not considered in depth until now. First, let’s look at three levels of characters. I won’t say types because that’s a much deeper and more specific dive into character roles and can comprise anywhere from five to more than a dozen types.

Typically, we have Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary characters. I call them Main, Secondary, and Ancillary, but I mean the same thing.

Main (primary) characters include the protagonist, antagonist, sidekicks, and others who are prominent throughout the tale and essential to advancing the plot and any subplots. [When authors say, “well, my main character is …”, they’re talking about their protagonist.] Depending on the story–short story, novella, novel–there could be a few or many main characters.

Secondary characters come and go throughout the story. They may be family members, coworkers, and others whose role is broader than ancillary and narrower than main. However, they are generally named and reappear frequently enough or have enough prominence and importance in their few scenes that they are essential to advancing the plot. Some authors give them last names only, as they don’t want the reader to invest emotional energy in getting to know them too deeply. I’m not as fussy as that and give them a name based on how my main characters would refer to them.

Ancillary (tertiary) characters are typically not named other than with a generic title. The author should imbue them with some realism, but they’re a prop–like furniture–interchangeable as to gender, race, physical attributes, etc. and often don’t even speak. It’s the cab driver who gets someone to the airport, the person who delivers a package, a maid at the hotel, or the landscaper who’s noisy trimmer is interfering with an important call. They flesh out the story with realism and are a way to provide information to the reader as to the conditions that surround and help or hinder the other characters: weather, road conditions, breaking news, and the like.

The Importance of Character Actors in Your Story

While writing my review of a Marx Brothers’ films-inspired anthology (linked post forthcoming later this month), I watched several videos and trailers to see what from each movie spoke to its respective story. The presence of several character actors raised my antenna. I think I should make better use of them in my stories. 

A character actor is one who brings a stylized manner or eccentricity to their role. They form a backbone within the industry because the audience is comfortable with their presence through their continuing solid delivery, often of a character type (there’s that word again, but I won’t go down that rabbit hole today), regardless of what story they’re in. Some are the glue that’s held a show together when a main character has moved on or whose performance was less than stellar. They’re often part of the background, but what story doesn’t need that background? That’s a major reason character actors tend to work more regularly than leading men and women. 

Looking in on Claire's Outdoor Office
Looking in on Claire’s Outdoor Office

Getting back to the written word, a number of authors create quirky (read: eccentric) sidekick characters. Anyone remember Gabby Hayes from ages-ago westerns? He pretty much played the same character whether the star was Gene Autry or Roy Rogers (my favorite). He was eccentric and played for the laugh. When he appeared, you knew what to expect in terms of tone and action. 

In the Marx Brothers films, Margaret Dumont regularly played a wealthy widow in need of a detective, bodyguard, or champion. It didn’t matter what the plot was or which starlet was featured. Dumont regularly delivered a solid character who established a sense of where this was going. 

That stability within the constantly shifting framework of this plot versus that one, or this set of stars versus another, gives the viewer a sense of comfort so they can settle in and know where this will end, just not how the plot will get them there.

Can I create engaging, memorable secondary or even ancillary character actors, especially in a series, without writing stereotypes or relying on quirky eccentricities? 

That’s my self-challenge–to grow as a writer who can present characters to the page who, through their manner, dialogue, or description, give the reader a sense of comfort and familiarity with time and place while my main characters challenge those perceptions and bring a refreshing tale to life.  

If you’re an author, how are you accomplishing this–or, have you not considered it before? Let me know in the comments.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Crowley Erynn

    This is an excellent topic, Claire. I hadn’t thought about it that way. I’ve noticed a few characters in my current WIP (amateur sleuth novel) were intended as tertiary characters (including a dog) took on personality and depth as I wrote and wrangled their way into secondary character roles. Two others remained as tertiary characters, but developed more unique personality than I intended that adds interest and familiarity very subtly. In both situations, I had no idea the characters enhancements were going to happen until I was typing so I credit the characters themselves. I didn’t have to think about adding the depth it just happened. I can see how going back and doing that would help add depth (if those crazy characters don’t do it themselves). I may need to rein some of mine in to keep them in the background.

    1. Claire

      Indeed, Erynn, we do sometimes have to rein in our characters. I’m glad you found the topic useful.

  2. Bobbi Chukran

    Hi Claire! All of my stories have “character” actors in them and that’s what my readers seem to like most about them. Yes, they are quirky, weird and sometimes just plain crazy. But they all have a part to play in the story/mystery. And when I’m reading, I look for the same types of characters. Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with eccentric characters. Depends on what type of story, though. Mine are more lighthearted, a bit satirical, so they fit in well with that type story.

    1. Claire

      Yes, Bobbi, quirky can be fine. I think I’ve tired of the “fat” character always wearing garish outfits and things like that in a slew of books I’d read that perhaps tainted my position. I enjoyed Gabby Hayes’s character in those old films, but always found the Roy Roger’s series sidekick, Pat “whathisname,” to be too silly, for example. Eccentric isn’t necessarily ridiculous, either.

      It’s a fine line and what may begin as eccentric can become too much if overdone. Then again, I’m the same way about comedians. I more often than not find that comedians who get their own TV show overdo it. Some people like it, though, or the shows wouldn’t stay on the air.

      Thanks for dropping by. I hope you’ll read and comment on other posts as well.

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