Using Minor Characters for Continuity

Recently, I’ve been working with a publishing agent on a memoir for a client, and we’ve been rewriting the manuscript proposal in a way I thought I’d share with you. Naturally, memoirs focus on the life of the subject, but the other characters are important, too. Sometimes–especially when the subject’s life undergoes many changes that involve leaving the past behind–it can be difficult to ensure that other characters play important roles in the story.

For instance, the trajectories of the lives of childhood friends can really be instructive in terms of showing the way your subject’s life might have gone, but didn’t. Or, if such friends took similar paths, the story can show unpredictable trends that develop when lives contain certain similar elements.

Keeping those minor characters in the story are really important for showing why the protagonist’s life is so unique, but, in reality, these characters often fade out of the memoir subject’s life pretty early on. In a lot of peoples’ lives, childhood friends are replaced by adolescent friends. Eventually, you grow apart from them to develop adult friendships with different people. As a result, there isn’t a lot of continuity to the minor characters in your life.

In cases like this, we look to the rule of threes to include minor characters throughout the story. As long as a character appears in the story three times–and even if one of those appearances is just a matter of hearing about the person from afar–they can be useful. If the minor characters appear fewer than three times, drop them out of the story. Readers won’t see the relevance of these distant people.

So, when interviewing the memoir subject, I like to pinpoint the minor characters that seem to fade into the past and ask for instances where the subject hears about their progress in life, talks to them on the phone, or happens to run into them. Such small–often almost forgotten–moments help keep minor characters in the story and enables the writer to use such characters for the sake of continuity. Keeping those minor characters alive creates contrast that shows the unique nature of the subject’s life relative to others who started out in the same circumstances.

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