Weekend Workout: Cameo Characters and the Hidden Scene

This weekend I’m at FaerieCon West in Seattle (the urban version of FaerieWorlds). One of the VIP guests is prolific mythic fiction writer Charles De Lint, most famous for creating the imaginary town of Newfolk and telling so many stories about its population and their supernatural issues that he’s actually lost count of how many tales have sprung from it. The stories of the residents are intertwined, sometimes pulling a cameo from one story for a protag in the next.

From GoodReads: The books have all been written in such a way that you should be able to pick up any one and get a full and complete story. However, characters do reoccur, off center stage as it were, and their stories do follow a sequence.

I like this on so many levels. To create an imaginary world that inspires such a multitude of stories existing simultaneously and separately. This makes so much sense to me, though, as I often look out at the world and wonder about each person’s story. The peripheral characters in my own life – the people I run across at the supermarket, the post office, the traffic light – all have their own stories that briefly, sometimes once and never again, slip through mine.

Do you create your cameo characters with as much love as you do your main characters? Do you see them as individuals each carrying baggage and a back story? Or are they simply flat, cookie-cutter cliches tossed in without much thought?

I think we should care about all our characters. And, yes, it’s true that I predominantly give more weekend workout time to the main ones. But when I’m working on a story and a minor character appears, I’ll often stop and write a little paragraph about them as an exercise. Something about their childhood, who their parents are, their physical quirks. Just to get to know them a little. Like that balding man on the corner with a brown stain on his pants and a slight limp. The one who gets on the bus and checks out the cute chubby lady reading from her iPad. That guy. What’s his story?

YOUR WORKOUT

This it a bit different than the past several exercises. This time, I want you to pick three cameo characters. The ones who only grace a few pages of your novel.

I want you to write what I call a “hidden scene” about each character. This is a scene that won’t end up anywhere in your story, but will give a little insight into who they are and make them a little more real.

In each “scene” they are alone and they pick up an object. The object is precious to them. The scene should include something that describes them physically at that moment and an action that includes the object.

Don’t think too much, don’t edit, don’t cross out. Give yourself at least 7 minutes for each one.

If you don’t know where to start, just write:

CHARACTER walks across the room and picks up OBJECT.

(this exercise can be used with your protag or other main characters as well, I just thought it would be nice to give some stage time to the supporting ones)

One thing Charles De Lint said about when he creates characters, is that he doesn’t have to know every single thing about them (i.e. what brand of toothpaste they use). Rather, he likes to learn about his characters like he’s meeting them at a party.

I like that.

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8 Comments

Filed under weekend workout, writing life

8 responses to “Weekend Workout: Cameo Characters and the Hidden Scene

  1. Excellent advice. Yes, I try to give my cameo characters a bit more detail and intrigue even if they are just in the book for a handful of pages. It’s difficult, though, when you’re battling word count. I often find myself deciding between describing a cameo character or adding another action scene to help support the protag’s motivations.

    I know that it is a balancing act. I tell myself eventually that I wouldn’t need that extra action scene if I’d written the motivation well enough in the first place.

    But I do think that’s what tends to happen. We spend more attention and time on the weightier aspects of the book, thereby neglecting the supporting cast.

    Love the writing exercise. I will most certainly give it a whirl.

  2. Wow. Love this exercise! Just did it with a character in my current wip and oh my what depth it gave to him, it really did add a layer, even allowed me to picture him better. Thanks!

    And lucky luck on hearing Charles De Lint! Hope you are enjoying the rest of the con. Safe travels home.

    • Just noticed this comment got stuck in my spam filter, which is odd because it should recognize you!

      Yay! Glad the exercise worked for you.

      Loved meeting Charles and his lovely wife. Great people. Very approachable. They sang at the con, too, which was an added treat. He’s a great song-writer as well as novelist.

  3. Thanks, 4 AM!

    To me, this isn’t about giving the cameo character more page time necessarily, just examining them more and making what’s there come to life.

  4. Thank you! This gets juices flowing. I remember the first time a character who was supposed to be a walk-on took over! I was dismayed, then let her go. What a character. I kept having to add to my character development page on her!

  5. Gina Bellandi Freyn

    I go through my life like you described. I’m always wondering what everyone’s story is and you’re right about developing these cameo people. Like your method of devoting a small paragraph to them. I call this brain stretching. Thanks.

  6. What a great technique. That sounds like tons of fun to play with.

From my brain to yours

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