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Bob Nailor




The Third Character

You have your hero/ine and your villain/ess. These are your good/bad characters the protagonist and the antagonist. There is another, the third character, that can move your story forward without lifting a finger or moving a foot. Writers spend hours creating the characters of their tales; some even detailing every nuance of the individual. Yet there is one character that is quickly dismissed or short-changed and this is the very character that can add the zing to your prose to make it stand out.

The alley was dark and foreboding. Linda hesitated a moment before entering, knowing full-well that Fluffy, her cat, would be hiding in a box by the dumpster.

* * * * *

The alley loomed before her. The dark, brick walls of the building towered overhead, shadowing everything in a sinister envelope. Linda hesitated a moment before entering the man-made canyon. Small stones crackled loudly against the alley's blacktop pavement as she slowly inched her way to the dumpster where, Fluffy, her cat, always hid in the well-worn, wooden fruit crate beside the metal behemoth.

Both paragraphs above reveal the same basic concept, but the second one creates an atmosphere with the addition of another character the world in which Linda exists.

Writers of fantasy and science fiction create maps of worlds for the reader to enjoy, detailing locations of where the action within the story takes place. Some may even inform you that the sun is red, the mountains are ice-topped, or even if the boulder has a jewel or two in it. Even these writers sometimes forget that the world their characters roam is also a real and valid character to reckon with. There can be a boulder, a granite boulder, a blue, granite boulder, or a blue, granite boulder dotted with glistening crystals. Even something so simple as the description of a boulder can convey to the reader what the writer is seeing.

A boulder. That could be any color and originally it was sort of yellowish in my mind. Then I read granite boulder and suddenly I was visualizing more a grayish colored stone. Oh, it is blue. I started to see what the writer wanted me to see; a blue granite boulder, perhaps something akin to Stonehenge. Finally I saw this blue, granite boulder with a few colorful crystals embedded within it. A few more descriptions of the world (boulder) and I'd know it the minute I saw it: about five feet across, nearly three feet tall and slightly flat on top with a small indent at one end which collects water when it rains.

Published romance, western, mystery, and horror writers all use the world as a character to enhance their tales. Let the environment around your characters help move the story forward. We all know what a deserted town, a dry gulch, a dark room, a closed coffin, a romantic canoe ride is like. By adding texture to those characters you create the atmosphere necessary to the story. A good western writer doesn't just have the cowboy ride into a deserted town; no, the writer adds ambiance to the town. There is some blowing tumbleweed, creaking shutters hanging precariously by dirty, broken windows. The wind moves everything including the sand which the cowboy can taste, it's gritty. If the author didn't add these touches, the town would be no more than flim-flam to get you through the scene. At that point, would it matter if it was deserted or not? Not really.

A canoe ride can be a paddling across the waters or detailed to make the reader feel the light mist of the paddle when it moves from side to side. Add moonlight, a few stars and a couple of pale bluish clouds and suddenly there are emotions evoked within the reader. In truth, a loving couple can only look into each other eyes so many times before the reader is bored. A romantic interlude is enhanced by the innocuous third character and reveals more to the reader than can be expected.

He opened the door and a musty scent assaulted them. Bill flicked the switch and the bare, overhead light glared into life revealing the burnt orange shag carpet, heavy, brown curtains and cheap chenille bedspread. Amanda gently patted the bed, straightening the bedspread before sitting on it. She could hear the springs creak beneath her weight.
"This will loosen you up," Bill said. He stuck a quarter in the machine by the headboard.
Startled, Amanda jumped up.
Bill leered at her and gently pushed her back onto the bed. "Magic fingers. Enjoy them and I'll be right back."

* * * * *

He opened the door and flicked the switch. Recessed lights glowed and Amanda could see the large, yet tasteful, framed picture of the reclining nude on the steel-gray wall. The white carpet accented the dark, black lacquered furniture. Curved, metal lamps completed the modern look. Bill smiled at Amanda's reaction.
"Here," he said and motioned for her to join him. They sat on the overstuffed bed's edge. From the table Bill opened a chilled bottle of wine and slowly poured a glass for her.
"This should warm you while I slip away momentarily."

Again, two paragraphs describing the same basic scene, but each slightly different to depict the world about the characters, Bill and Amanda. In the first example it is obvious that they are at a cheap motel and the encounter between them will be less than enduring. The second example reveals that they are in a quality hotel or Bill's apartment and he has planned for the encounter with wine already chilling. Without the addition of the third character, the basic scene would be:

Bill opened the door and turned on the switch. Amanda sat on the bed. Bill leaves momentarily.

Not exactly what one would consider exciting or page-turning reading.

The next time you have your hero/ine enter a room, remember, s/he is not just walking into a space with four walls but a world filled with color and texture. It can have a light or better, a glaring bulb dangling from a frayed electrical line. The walls might be bare, painted, tastefully wallpapered or reveal broken plaster and the floor could be linoleum, wood or carpet, any of which might be new, worn or damaged.

You create your characters and want the reader to be involved, to feel what the character feels. Wrap a world around your reader and s/he will be so immersed, a simple phrase like "a cool breeze tingled the hairs on his arms" might cause them goosebumps. That is when you know your third character has come alive.




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~ COMMENTS ~

Scott Bury
2015-08-31
The setting as character: good advice. I've tried it once or twice myself. It's hard work, but worth it.
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Diane Rapp
2015-08-31
Extremely helpful reminders of the "show" not "tell" truth in writing. We often forget while zooming through our plot to add the elements that make a scene come to life. Thanks.
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Bob Nailor
2015-08-31
That is so true and the sad part, many authors forget to add the details when they do the 2nd pass or during edits.
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onisa Ellis
2015-08-31
I think the key may be knowing when to move from setting the scene to beginning the action.
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Bob Nailor
2015-08-31
It's not so much switching from scene setting to action, as it is including the scene in the action. Remember those bar room scenes in the Western movies? Not only did they toss the culprit over the bar, but they usually broke several bottles of liquor and, so often, the mirror. These are the things one must remember to put into action... that 3rd character!
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Kenna McKinnon
2015-09-01
I didn't know what you meant by "the third character", Bob, and almost thought it was the cat! lol This is very good and something we should remember who were reared in the tradition of "lean prose" without a lot of detail, as I recall. Always glad to read your thoughts on writing, and very useful, too. I'm stretching out in my new black mesh chair which swings away from the desk, reaching the white keys with long white fingers.

I've also been taught not to use adverbs or a great many adjectives. Thankfully, rules were meant to be crushed and burned.
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