What ‘The Bachelorette’ can teach about writing minor characters.

Defensive Disclaimer:

I know, I know….

I-suggested-to-my-husband-that-we-watch-it-as-a-joke-and-now-we-are-both-kinda-hooked-don’t-judge.

Trying to navigate this whole early adulthood thing with new careers and attempts at professionalism and finding the line between “I’m deeply introverted so no people please”/”but we have to interact people or we will be social pariahs” is stressful and exhausting. Sprinkle in the desire for posterity + literally everyone questioning your reproductive habits and plans + lack of any bun in the oven… It’s really easy to feel overwhelmed, bummed out, and kinda come home feeling like a failure.

This is where ‘The Bachelorette’ comes in: a cost-effective way to feel better about your social skills and decision-making abilities than watch a bunch of people literally competing to marry an attractive stranger.

So, don’t judge me…just bear with me.

Side note- I say ‘The Bachelorette’ because that’s the current one that’s airing (go Rachel) but this applies to ‘The Bachelor’ and even ‘Bachelor in Paradise’.

Moving on!

In case you’re completely unfamiliar with ‘The Bachelorette’, 1 incredibly attractive single woman is chosen to be

(FRONT) MILTON, BRYCE, JEDIDIAH, JACK, FRED, IGGY, RACHEL LINDSAY, KYLE, JAMEY, MICHAEL, LEE, KENNY, BLAKE E.; 
(MIDDLE) MATTHEW, BRYAN, PETER, JOSIAH, DEAN, GRANT, KENNETH, BLAKE K., ERIC, ROBERT;
(BACK) JONATHAN, WILL, ADAM, DEMARIO, ALEX, MOHIT, LUCAS, ANTHONY, BRADY

The Bachelorette for the season and 20-30(ish) attractive and [usually– cough DiMario] single men are brought onto the show to find love with her. The guys all live in this big mansion and every week, The Bachelorette takes them out on dates with different ratios (group dates, 1 on 1 dates, dreaded 2 on 1 dates, etc.). At the end of each week, there’s a Rose Ceremony where The Bachelorette gives roses to those men she’s interested in still dating, and sends the others home. Rinse and repeat for several weeks until there’s 1 guy left, a proposal, and they ride off into the highly publicized sunset. Sounds like a foolproof plan for romance, right?

The first few episodes are high on drama, but low on emotional attachment to any one contestant mostly because of the sheer number of them all. The guys they bring in are all conventionally attractive and it can be difficult to tell them apart:

Conversations in our home typically go along the lines of:

“Wait- is he the guy that is the professional sign dancer?”

“No, that guy has sharper cheekbones. I think this guy was the one that we liked because he has a 6 pack but is humble about it. Was he the chicken enthusiast?”

Bottomline: LOTS of bodies each attempting to be unique and stand out from the pack can make it difficult to keep track of who is who.

For me, this problem is incredibly frustrating to come across it while I’m reading. One of my pet peeves is getting so lost in the number of characters being thrown at me that I feel like I need to set the book down and draw out a family tree.

Yes, there needs to be a believable number of minor characters surrounding your protagonist. Very few people live in a vacuum: we interact and cross paths with dozens of people every day, so it makes sense for there to be classmates, acquaintances, gas station workers, etc. But be judicious in how much description you provide for each of these minor characters.

If this 7-11 worker isn’t going to be around past page 2, does it matter to me that he his name is Marv and he has buck teeth that he’s incredibly sensitive about? Probably not, so don’t throw those extra details at me that are going to bog me down as I read.

 

 

The only exception to this rule is if you’re providing this information in order to “show and not tell” something about the main character. Unless you’re telling me about Marv in order to provide an example of how your main character is a bully who ruthlessly pinpoints what people are self-conscious are about and then mercilessly mocks poor Marv about his teeth, I don’t really care.

 

Let’s think about the logistics of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. We can reasonably assume that this is the only school of it’s kind in the country, which gave Rowling the possibility of making this school as enormous as she wanted. The graduating class of 1989 from Hogwarts could very reasonably have been upwards of 300 people.

But instead, look at how many people she introduced the reader to: Harry shared a dormitory with Ron, Neville, Seamus, and Dean. That’s a much more manageable number to keep track of across 7 novels.

On The Bachelorette, it’s fun to pick your favorite contestants after episode one and that initial first impression (and it’s even more fun you to pick out the absolutely crazy contestants that you know are only on the show because the producer’s can’t say no to the ‘rating gold’ that the craziness brings). But then suddenly it’s week 3, some random guy get asked out on a 1-on-1 date that you’ve NEVER seen before and suddenly you doubt your ability to pinpoint a winner.

When you’re coming up with your minor characters, use the following checklist:

  • Are they going to play a recurring part later on down the road in your novel?
  • Can this be an opportunity to teach us more about your main character?
  • Is this someone who is going to be accompanying your character for the remainder of your novel/series (aka a classmate that you might want to reference later on in the book, but don’t necessarily need to designate a lot of time to)?

In short, try to limit how many names you throw at your reader at once. Otherwise, readers can feel overwhelmed and intimidated in finishing your novel. You want to dedicate your time–and your reader’s time–to the main characters. That way your reader can root for the right people from the very beginning, instead of getting sidetracked by some guy that doesn’t receive a rose and is sent home in week 2.

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8 comments

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