Walk-on characters are the best. The balloon seller who gives a toddler a balloon, cracks a joke, then disappears from the main character’s life forever. The coworker who says something weird that makes the main character realize something really important. The mailman who drives past the camera sporting a fluorescent purple mustache.
Well, maybe not that last one, since he’s not even a walk-on– he’s just a weird person who may not have even been paid for his contribution to society. But the first two, along with the thousands of other characters who appear in stories without staying long enough to become side characters, those are walk-ons, and they are amazing.
However, there are a few kinds of walk-ons. It is the privilege of some to literally walk on and off the set, perhaps with a quip or a meaningful something or other in there. Others merely stand there as promises to explain potential awesomeness later in the story. And others– and these are the best– die.
Star Trek’s red shirts! Fringe’s test subjects! The first people you see in any given cop show, who then are shot or robbed or abducted or something like that, making for an interesting mystery for the main characters to unravel. Those are the best walk-ons, in my opinion.
And am I wrong? Sure, they die, but look at it as a writer, not as an audience, for just a moment. The writers pack an enormous amount of awesomeness into every single red shirt or throwaway character.
Take a look at them for a moment. What happens when one of those characters walk on? No one knows who they are yet– they’re blank slates. The writers have about thirty seconds to make us like them, but after that, we’re going to dismiss them as relatively unimportant. If the deaths of these characters are supposed to have any sort of impact, the last thing the writer wants is for the audience to dismiss them.
So what do the writers do instead? They have ten seconds to make us like them. What happens?
Well, they make us like them. But how do they do it? If you look at a lot of these walk-ons, you start to notice a pattern. They all have a few seconds before their demise, but what do they do? Many of them interact with children.
What good are children, and why do writers, those monsters, make us watch doomed people talk to children before they die in unnatural ways?
You’ve guessed by now, I’m sure: children make the characters sympathetic. The way they act when they’re around little people determines whether we respect or dislike them in our first (and last) encounter with them. Do they smile and please the children? This is an angel of a man, who shouldn’t deserve anything bad to befall him! (And then something does.) Do they ignore the children, or be mean to them? What a terrible person. They’re obviously the villain– kick him in the shin or something.
It’s amazing how much of an effect such a small thing can have, isn’t it? Children are humanity’s greatest treasure, and showing how people interact with them shows more about their personality than anything else they do. It’s a classic example of showing instead of telling, and it’s beautiful when done correctly.
Of course, this automatically raises your evil status as a writer; to kill a character is one thing, but to kill one who just smiled at a baby is a criminal act. Just hope the readers don’t find out where you live.
(Bonus question: since characters interact with children before they die, does this mean children are the real killers in all these shows? Have we just stumbled upon a great mystery of humankind? I’ll leave it to you to decide. You’ll probably say no, because children are humanity’s greatest treasure. Your choice.)
But, as with all things, this can be used for good or evil. Evil: killing characters. Good: making people like characters without making them die. Commercials have to do this constantly. Why would you buy a product used by someone who hates babies? (In fact, they use this to slight their competitors.) Have the subject of the commercial be someone who wants only their infant’s health, and suddenly the product seems like a very wise purchase. It’s a trick people use all the time for quick likability.
Of course, this can go too far. For instance, in longer stories (basically, if you’re following this character for more than a minute), you can’t just make the character likable on whether or not they’re good with kids. It’s going to need more than that. Walk-on characters are allowed to seem perfect for their short lives, but main characters or true side characters have to seem a little bit deeper than just that. (However, John Grisham uses this technique expertly on his main character in The Racketeer, so it can definitely be done, but don’t put all your trust in it.)
If you’re having someone die an important death, or perhaps a quick one offstage, try showing them interact with a child beforehand. Even if it’s a longstanding character who the audience already likes, reaffirm the audience’s affection with this technique (as long as it’s in character). It’s a brilliant way to create sympathy quickly, and it’s amazing when it’s pulled off correctly.