Let Walk-on Characters Enrich Your Scenes

Walk-on characters, if you bring them to life, can do many good, subtle things for your story.

I once knew an old (very old) actor, Rod, a friend of my mother’s, who announced one day he had been cast as a walk-on in a Woody Allen movie. I remember thinking, “how cool, to be 90 ish and land even a second or two in a Woody Allen movie.”

When I saw it (Hannah and Her Sisters), I realized why Rod had been chosen. As old as he was, Rod had a merry demeanor and a spritely step. In his scene, he was to walk by briskly, arm in arm with a much younger woman, passing a phone both in which hypochondriac Woody Allen was regaling his personal assistant with fears of impending death. Most viewers probably didn’t even notice him, consciously. But unconsciously, they picked up the fleeting image of an ancient man, happy and in love, contrasting ridiculously with Woody Allen’s doom and gloom.

Good filmmakers cast their walk-ons carefully because they want to get the most out of every moment of screen time. For the same reason, good novelists, skilled in thumbnail characterization, make full use out of walk-ons for the same reason.

Developed or not, walk-ons are present in almost any story you could write. They are everywhere: delivery people, hairdressers, school principals, doormen–we can’t avoid them. But how well do we we write them? How well do we use their hidden powers? To help explain what I’m driving at, here’s an example of how NOT to write walk-ons:

“The waiter came to their table, and Mark had to watch, fuming, as Emily flirted outrageously with him. He noticed it, too. As he was reciting the mandatory list of specials, the man pitched the whole list at her, for goodness sake. Emily smiled in that special way when he finished and said, “Could you do that again?”

Notice that, beyond being a waiter and male, our table server has been given no characteristics. Emily could be flirting with an innocent teenager, a grizzled old retiree, a sexy young Italian, you name it. Is he fat, thin? Tall and awkward, short and brash? Does he have no clue what’s going on, or is he equipped to flirt back? We don’t know. And worse, there’s no apparent sense that we ought to know. For a moment, think of fiction as a game. If the goal is toto keep a reader reading, every opportunity to heighten your reader’s involvement is crucially important. Let opportunities like this waiter go by, unused, and it won’t be long before the reader abandons of your story. GAME OVER.

But this should never happen. Remember hearing about the explorer who starved to death in the wild, while all around him there were edible weeds, seeds, and leaves that could have kept him alive? Don’t be that guy–know how to recognize the opportunities lying around unused in any given scene you write. Every one of them is a potential power factor for your story and it’s the mark of an experienced fiction writer to know them when he/she sees them, as well as to know how they can be quickly exploited.

Which brings us back to our waiter. He represents a whole class of walk-ons who are relatively easy to characterize because they’re only there to serve a single function (in his case, to take orders and bring food). Give him another character-based function (to be Emily’s flirtation object), and presto, you’ve handed yourself a gift. Build a thumbnail with a few well-chosen details, give him a revealing moment of interaction with one of your major characters, and you can help the scene nail its purpose.

“A macho young Italian waiter ambled over to their table and Mark had to watch Emily go into flirtation on mode while he recited the list of specials, exploiting his accent to make each item seem sexy, She started blushing halfway through and obviously wasn’t focussing. “Could you do that again?” she said when he’d finished. He feigned embarrassment and went through the list again, slower, more suggestively, keeping his eyes on her.”

See what’s different? The second version uses the waiter to support the scene’s subtext––the incompatibility of this couple, perhaps an impending breakup. It does it by showing how expertly Emily flirts, and making the reader feel Mark’s sullen resentment at having no defense against it.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Charles Stafrace April 22, 2011 at 7:54 am

It is fantastic how the two paragraphs describing the waiter scene are so different, yet describing the same event. This walk-on character matter had never occurred to me, though i confess i have done it sometimes in my never-published works without knowing that it is known by that term. But the way it is taught above has given me a lot of food for thought. Thanks.

2 Bella April 23, 2011 at 8:08 am

I think the first scene is better, not great, but useful. To me trhe second is overdone & I’d find it a turn off.

3 Bill Henderson May 2, 2011 at 5:00 am

Looking back from a later vantage point, I can see how the second version might be a little heavy on style, or might clash with your narrative. But the principle is still a good to keep in mind. If the waiter is a blank (“the man”), then the action (she flirts with him) is likely to have less impact on the reader.

Leave a Comment