The old adage in English literature is that marginalized characters are the most truthful; from their decentralized perspective, they see things that ‘mainstream’ characters do not, and due to their frequently limited power and status, they have nothing to lose by telling the truth.
They see things that others don’t. And they tell us about it.
In Gone with the Wind, Mammy saw things as right and wrong, and could have her opinion heard loud and clear by grumbling in a raised voice in an adjoining room, but nobody would actually pay attention to her directly. But her voice was heard, and often obeyed.
Anna Karenina’s Levin was a country squire who abhorred the forced socialization of town life and its frivolous demands on his time and money. He remained the most accurate and honest character throughout the novel, and often took on Tolstoy’s social and political opinions. His decentralized position gave him insight into society that the central characters lacked.
In terms of real life, the folks along the fringes speak an element of truth – and are free to question the social structure they are a peripheral part of. Hippies, militias, anybody handing out on the edge of things, whether they are there by choice or chance.
They have the freedom to question the things that others are invested in, and due to the distance with which they hold themselves, they see the situation very differently than someone in the middle of things.
I adore marginal characters – even my main characters tend to be pretty marginalized folks with major issues of some kind or other. But my peripheral characters tend to be the voice of truth in my novels, they tell it like it is, bless their souls.
What I can’t stand are stereotypical peripheral characters. You know, the flaming queen, full of lisp, stereotype and no heart. Or the hooker or the janitor or the whatever.
Writers tend to forget these characters are real people – somewhere. The issues these folks face are real, so don’t make them clownish buffoons or saints. All characters, like all people, are a mix of good and bad, light and dark.
I just like my characters to have an edge to them, and often they’re already on the periphery of society, teetering away from the mainstream toward something else. In short, they work toward freedom as they escape from the trappings of mainstream life (the fact they are often bound by something else is what makes them truly interesting).
To quote: Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.
And that, my friends, is liberating indeed.
What do you look for in a character? Who captures your heart and mind? (‘cuz that’s what a great character does — you remember them long after the story’s over.)