The Care and Handling of Throwaway Characters
How to Write a Great One-Scene Character
by Jack Windeyer
Throwaway characters. Every author has ’em, but not every author writes them the same way. Some authors give us a character’s life story only to have them speak a line and disappear forever. Other authors push these characters so far into the background that they practically part of the scenery—referenced by titles alone: the secretary, the general, the robot. I don’t know about you, but by the third time I read “the AI said,” I’m a bored reader.
In Persepolis Rising, James S.A. Corey strikes a balance: keep the plot moving but don’t lose the reader’s attention. How? By giving throwaways nicknames.
“Five minutes,” Ensign Somebody said from his monitor.
No way does Corey slow down to give extra details. The plot moves on but the throwaway isn’t quite so bland.
And, these nicknames are more recognizable than titles, which keeps the reader from losing track of who’s who during action scenes:
The other two OPA goons were flanking Bobbie, and one of them was holding the crowbar he’d just cracked her cheekbone with. In the sort of slow-motion clarity Bobbie always experienced during a fight, she saw skin and blood on the crowbar’s edge.
Oh, she thought, that’s why my face feels wet.
Crowbar was pulling back for another swing, while his partner tried to get behind her. Bobbie decided Crowbar was the more serious threat and lunged at him to get inside the arc of his swing. His arm went around her, and she felt the bar slam into her shoulder blade, which made her right arm go pins-and-needles numb. She threw a throat punch at him with it, and even though she couldn’t feel it, her arm did what she told it to. Crowbar dropped his weapon and clutched his throat with both hands, gagging.
In the hands of a less experienced writer, we’d be reading about “the tall goon” and “the shorter one.”
Now, I bet you’re thinking: ok, that’s cute, but won’t that get stale by the third time, too? That’s where you’ll see the difference between a writer and an honest-to-god craftsman. By the time the reader is ready for something new, Corey riffs on the technique. Now, the nicknames transform:
The Transport Union representative who was processing their paperwork handed Holden an oversized terminal covered in legalese. She had a pinched face, deep frown lines on her forehead and around her mouth, and wore her hair in short spikes dyed flaming red. Holden thought she looked like a disgruntled puffer fish, but recognized his unflattering opinion was at least partly a reaction to the mountain of forms she’d made him fill out.
“You do know,” the puffer fish said, “that this is a temporary change of status, pending the legal change-of-ownership registration?”
“Our next stop is the bank, where we’ll be finalizing the loan to sell the ship.”
“Mmhmm,” Puffer said, making it a sound of deep skepticism.
I think a key to success for this technique is to use it sparingly, to use it only to grab the reader’s attention when you need it most.
Notes on terminology:
Throwaway characters are also know by the terms incidental characters, walk-on characters, and cameo characters.