In my first teen novel, The Winter Prince, there are four secondary characters who turn up in a pack. They’re brothers, they’re all teens, and they all have similar names (they are, in fact, the princes of Orkney from Arthurian legend, traditionally named Gawaine, Agravaine, Gaheris, and Gareth). When a friend of mine read an early draft of The Winter Prince he couldn’t tell any of them apart.
Here’s what he advised me: ‘A supporting character needs a handle.’
‘A handle? You mean like a nickname?’
‘No. I mean like a door handle. Or a pot handle. Something that the reader can grab.’
Ever since then, I’ve tried to do exactly that with minor characters. I give them handles. I give them some characteristic, twitch or quirk designed to jolt the reader into recognition: ‘Oh, yeah, this is the guy with the thick glasses/the wandering hands/the car that’s always breaking down/the missing fingers…’ and those are just the ones from Code Name Verity! After my friend gave me this advice, I gave my character Agravaine my very first conscious handle. He wears his hair in a long copper-coloured plait of which he is very vain.
Handles shouldn’t be gratuitous. Agravaine’s plait, though I included it on purpose to make him a little different from the rest of his red-haired brothers, is important because it works symbolically to show how like his mother he is – she, too, has long red hair and is vain. It also shows Agravaine’s bond to his mother. Similarly, the handles for the minor characters in Code Name Verity all contribute to the plot in some way.
The magic thing about handles is that they help the writer as well as the reader. Once you’ve given someone an interesting characteristic, the writing starts to generate itself around that characteristic. The guy with the thick glasses suddenly has a prop that can be used in a number of different ways – sometimes he seems to be disguised, sometimes he seems to be hiding, sometimes he can take the glasses off and wipe his eyes and I, as the author, can use this prop to suggest his emotional state without having to speculate about what he’s thinking.
Handles aren’t just relevant to characters. Giving your settings specific, detailed characteristics helps to make them come alive, too. Not just the smell of flowers, but the smell of lilacs. Not just a fire in a fireplace, but a coal fire in an iron grate. Not just a small dog but a wire-haired terrier. Specific details don’t just make your story more interesting to read: they make it realistic and evocative. These small nuanced touches can be particularly important in historical fiction or fantasy, where it can be tempting to generalize when you don’t know or can’t visualize specifics.
What are your characters eating around their campfire? Have they got a coffee pot? Is the coffee burning? What does it smell like? When someone picks it up, is the handle hot?
It’s worth a few burnt fingers to grab that handle.
Elizabeth Wein’s author website: www.elizabethwein.com
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