Last week was all about the main characters – the detective, the villain, the side-kick and of course the victim(s).
This week, I’m interested in thinking about the minor characters – or extras – in my head I see these as a kind of walk-on part, much like those in any TV show or movie. They don’t always have lines. Sometimes they don’t even have names. They might be described as ‘an elderly dog-walker’ or ‘the woman behind the shop counter’. They crop up everywhere the story goes – in shops, houses, on village greens, in museums, and at dinner parties.
But why are they there?
Extras fulfill a number of criteria and needs for the author and the reader.
- they can deflect attention away from the culprit or villain.
- they can provide the reader with useful clues or snippets of information.
- equally, they can provide us with (less useful, sometimes) red herrings and wrong-turns.
- they enrich the story so it doesn’t consist of just your four main characters, unless that’s the whole point of the story.
- they can give us a sneak-peek of something that might happen in a later book if this is a series.
- they act as a kind of commentator or dramatic chorus to comment on the action or criticise or laud the ‘hero’.
But life as an Extra can be tough and is often unpredictable.
Police or other people in authority (completely unaware all too often that they themselves are Extras, can bully them or wrongfully arrest an Extra and accuse them of terrible things they haven’t done.
You need a huge range of skills as you may be called upon to perform almost any task from forensic assistant to chambermaid.
As an Extra, you might be completely overlooked by the reader who doesn’t even notice you, let alone what a magnificent job you do pretending to be an elderly dog-walker when you’re really a young woman in her twenties on her way to college and you don’t even like dogs.
And they never remember your name, which is why you have to have a description attached: Miss Jones, the games mistress at school where victim used to teach. You might even find yourself very near the bottom of a long list of characters, a list designed to help readers remember all the people in the book they’ve met but don’t remember.
No one asks your opinion. ‘Tell us, Poirot,’ they cry, at the end of the book. ‘Who did this dastardly deed? and why?’ I mean, all the Extras probably know this information too, don’t they. But no one ever asks them. They just come in with the tea tray and leave without anyone noticing.
Likewise, no one ever asks an Extra if they’re okay and how they feel about being shut up in a big country house with loads of stairs, and a murderer roaming about bumping people off willy-nilly.
And as if all this is not enough, when the author gets bored, you might even end up as the next victim, just to ‘spice things up a bit’.
How is that fair? It’s not just a policeman’s life that’s terrible hard. Try being an Extra for one book, let alone a whole series. I’m only surprised they don’t have a union.