As a child, I enjoyed listening to an old recording of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf narrated by Basil Rathbone, with the orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski. I liked the music and the story. But something else stayed with me that’s made a big difference to me as a writer.
Each character is associated with an instrument and a melody or theme. String instruments signify Peter and the cat and the bird are a clarinet and a flute. The French horns tell you when the wolf is present and woodwinds and drums tell you when the hunters are around.
The idea of a “theme” can help writers create memorable secondary characters without having to provide them with hundreds of words of description and back story.
In my novel The Sun Singer, for example, I wanted to add depth to the character named Tor who, while a blacksmith who made shields and swords, was fascinated by words. When he got them wrong, it provided a little comic relief in between battle scenes. When he was around, there was usually an on-going gag or riff about his vocabulary.
When I look at secondary characters, I think of things that make them stand out, that can be repeated in various ways throughout the story, and that set them apart from other characters in terms of attitudes, speech patterns and appearance.
While it’s probably a good idea to jot down what each character does and what they look like, past a point, I find that a theme helps me remember them myself and then define them for the readers. If you look at political cartoons, you’ll see that the artists have picked several real physical features from the famous people they’re portraying, and then these become the important part of the drawing each time the person appears in a cartoon.
When you see a cartoon with a President or a movie star or a member of Congress, you know who it is immediately because that person’s mouth, eyebrows, beard, hairstyle, or some other feature has been captured in the drawing.
Like the flute and the bird in Peter and the Wolf, the features in political cartoons and secondary characters’ speech patterns/habits/jokes/gestures become one and the same. This is what the writer wants. S/he wants the readers to believe the characters are all three-dimensional even though you can’t spend a lot of time with each minor character’s background in most novels.
In my current work in progress, I have a secondary character who is taken with Mamie Eisenhower, the First Lady at the time this story was set. In the 1950s, a lot of people copied Mamie Eisenhower’s hair style, approach to fashion, the soap she used and the perfume she wore. Now, in 2014, I don’t expect my readers to remember this. But I can still pick out several features pertaining to the First Lady at the time and show how this minor character (who is really full of herself) is using them as part of her personality in a way that others don’t find very flattering.
Like Mamie, she loves charm bracelets. Once the theme is “set in motion,” all I have to do is say that her bracelet rattled on a table, got caught in somebody’s hair, or spun circles of sunlight around a room to remind the reader of the whole Mamie Eisenhower affectation.
Some characters use profanity, some mispronounce words, some smell like they’ve never had a bath, some walk with a limp or talk with their hands or smile too often or fail to make eye contact. You can exploit such things as themes.
When all is said and done, these themes help make the minor characters memorable and familiar to readers as the story unfolds. It’s a trick, in a way, because the readers will think they really know your characters when, in fact, they just know that one is a flute and another is a French horn.