Although it’s sometimes necessary to whisk a character in and out of a story without drawing too much attention to him, it’s generally worth remembering that a forgettable character can be a wasted opportunity. One book that really shows how much can be achieved with minor characters is The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell.
Durrell wrote The Alexandria Quartet between 1957 and 1960, although he had started preparing notes for it some twenty years before. It consists of four novels, set in the Egyptian port of Alexandria during the Second World War. The structure in itself is interesting, with the first three books describing the same events from different perspectives while the fourth moves forward in time—Durrell’s attempt to make use of fiction to explore Einsteinian notions of time—but right now let’s look at some of the minor characters.
With the story spread over four books, Durrell was naturally able to devote a lot more space to his minor characters than he would have in a single novel. That said, there’s still plenty to learn from his character descriptions.
Capodistria … how does he fit in? He is more of a goblin than a man, you would think. The flat triangular head of the snake with the huge frontal lobes; the hair grows forward in a widow’s peak. A whitish tongue is forever busy keeping his thin lips moist, He is ineffably rich and does not have to lift a finger for himself. He sits all day on the terrace of the Broker’s Club watching the women pass, with the restless eye of somebody endlessly shuffling through an old soiled pack of cards. From time to time there is a flick, like a chameleon’s tongue striking—a signal almost invisible to the inattentive. Then a figure slips from the terrace to trail the woman he had indicated. Sometimes his agents will quite openly stop and importune women on the street in his name, mentioning a sum of money. No one is offended by the mention of money in our city. Some girls simply laugh. Some consent at once. You never see vexation on their features. Virtue with us is never feigned. Nor vice. Both are natural. (p.33-34)
Notice how the narrator Darley—a young Englishman in Egypt—slips into the first person plural at the end of that passage, making a conscious decision to connect the (to him) alien character of Capodistira with himself. This both ties the two together in terms of the story, and tells us something of the narrator’s own character, his desire to see himself as a part of his foreign surroundings.
Another character, this one a sailor living in semi-retirement in the city:
Youth is beardless, so is second childhood. Scobie tugs tenderly at the remains of a once handsome and bushy torpedo-beard—but very gently, caressingly, for fear of pulling it out altogether and leaving himself quite naked. He clings to life like a limpet, each year bringing its hardly visible sea-change. It is as if his body were being reduced, shrunk, by the passing of the winters; his cranium will soon be the size of a baby’s. A year or two more and we will be able to squeeze it into a bottle and pickle it forever. The wrinkles become ever more heavily indented. Without his teeth his face is the face of an ancient ape; above the meagre beard his two cherry-red cheeks known affectionately as ‘port’ and ’starboard’, glow warm in all weathers. (p.103)
You can tell a lot about the relationship between Darley and Scobie from this brief description. There is a slightly patronizing fondness for this character in his “second childhood”, whose cranium Darley may soon be able to “squeeze into a bottle and pickle it forever”. Look also at the nautical terms. By using these to describe Scobie, Darley ensures that the sea will be built into our understanding of him; the man is indivisible from his background. Elsewhere in the book, through Darley’s concern for Scobie’s well-being we begin to invest in the character ourselves. Comic relief though he may be, we care about this “old pirate” and what becomes of him.
Other minor but memorable characters include the barber Mnemjian, whose “small wheedling voice puts a husk of double meaning around everything he says, and his speech is not the less remarkable for being punctuated by small world-weary sighs.”
Notes: page references are from the UK Faber edition, ISBN 0-571-08609-8; this was originally a post on The Serial Comma, an early version of this site.