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But I’ll bet that as you walked out of the theater, you remembered Bronson Pinchot. He had absolutely nothing to do with the story—if he had been a mere placeholder, you would never have noticed anything was missing. Pinchot based his accent on the speech of an Israeli he once knew; the accent was so rare that almost no one in the audience recognized it. He was not just a foreigner; he was a strange and effeminate foreigner.
Furthermore, Pinchot’s reactions to Eddie Murphy—the hint of annoyance, superiority, snottiness in his tone—made him even more eccentric. And yet, though we remembered him, we never expected his character to be important to the story.
The way to make such characters instantly memorable without leading the audience to expect them to do more is to make them eccentric, exaggerated or obsessive. There were hundreds of placeholders in that film—thugs who shot at cops, cops who got shot at, people milling around in the hotel lobby, people at the hotel desk. But the effeminacy and the accent were combined—and so the audience remembered him.
They all acted exactly as you would expect them to act. Unless you personally knew an actor who played one of the walk-ons, you don’t remember any of them. You know, the one with the effeminate manner and the weird foreign accent. In southern California, a Spanish accent would not be out of the ordinary; he would have disappeared. What’s more important, though, is that the accent was an eccentric one, completely unexpected.
If these were the first five paragraphs of the story, we would naturally expect that the story was going to be about Nora and the cabby, and when Nora goes on through the story without ever seeing or even thinking of the cabdriver again, at some point many readers are going to ask, “What was that business with the cabdriver all about?
” As you use these techniques to varying degrees with the many characters in your story, an unconscious ranking of the characters will emerge in the readers’ minds, starting with the least-important background characters, moving up through the minor characters, to the major characters, and finally to two or three main characters or a single protagonist—the people or person the story is mostly about.
A stereotype is a character who is a typical member of a group. Therefore, they take no notice of him: He disappears into the background.
If we think that a particular stereotype is unfair to the person it supposedly explains, then we’re free to deliberately violate the stereotype.
The audience still isn’t supposed to care much about him; he isn’t expected to play a continuing role in the story.But the moment we do that, we have made the character unique, which will make him attract the readers’ attention.He will no longer simply disappear—he isn’t a walk-on anymore.Let’s go back to the example I gave of Nora’s cabby, the one she paid for a ride. So if in fact you wanted to tell the story of how Nora got involved with this obsessive-compulsive cabdriver—or how the cabdriver managed to get Nora’s attention so he could start dating her—this would be a pretty good beginning.The stereotypical reaction—“Hey, thanks, lady”—is so ordinary we can omit it entirely. The other side of that coin is that if the cabdriver is supposed to be minor, you could not begin the story with this scene.
He might be momentarily involved in the action, but then he’ll disappear.