He carried his other eye - his bad eye - on his keychain

Posted by Jeff Markowitz on Wednesday, April 13, 2011
On Saturday, when I was presenting my workshop at AuthorFest about developing characters that readers will care about (before I was detained by the Air Marshals at O'Hare on suspicion of murder) I found myself spending quite a bit of time talking about writing the minor characters.  If you want your main characters to be three-dimensional, you can't have them interacting with cardboard cut-outs.  So it's just as important to flesh out your minor characters as it is to develop your protagonist.  The way I like to think of it is, they may be minor characters in your story, but they're the main character in their own story.  So they have a life beyond the confines of your story.  Just like your protagonist, they have a back story.

As I was discussing this at AuthorFest, I was reminded of a blog post I wrote several years ago.  On June 20, 2008, our friend Smoky challenged us to write a 100 word story, exactly 100 words, featuring a vegetable, a power tool and a place.  Even in a 100 word story, I used a few of those words to hint at Detective Johnson's back story.  I wrote -  

With his one good eye (he carried his other eye – his bad eye - on his keychain, but that’s another story entirely), Detective Johnson could tell that the woman in the parking lot behind the Palace Restaurant in Happy Jack, Arizona was dead.  But when he bent over to check the Craftsman drill/driver, the drill bit embedded in her neck, something else caught his eye (the bad eye, dangling from the keychain at his belt).  One order of assorted tempura, to go.  It might be important to the case.
Or not.  Without thinking, Detective Johnson nibbled on the zucchini tempura.

We don't meet very many people at the beginning and watch their life unfold sequentially.  We meet them somewhere in the middle and as we share their present and perhaps their future, we also learn bits and pieces about their past.  And that's the way it should be with characters in stories.   You don't need to know what the deal is with Detective Johnson's bad eye.  But if you spend enough time with him, over time, he'll tell you what he's willing to reveal.  Just like we do in real life.

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