Reading Like a Writer: Background Characters and Jazz

Posted on Wed, Feb 22 2017 9:00 am by Allison Wyss

Toni Morrison's Jazz is about Harlem in the 1920s. There's a central incident involving love, betrayal, and violence. Joe Trace has an affair and murders his lover, Dorcas. Violet, his wife, shows up at Dorcas's funeral to cut her face. But the story spins outward from the central events and characters, encompassing the neighborhood and making secondary characters as real as primary ones. Even tertiary characters, background characters—those who often just take up space in a narrative—become real people.

So how does Morrison make the minor characters real? I'd like to look at Sweetness, a character as tertiary as they come, for some good techniques to do this.

Malvonne is the neighbor to Joe and Violet who lends Joe a room for a love nest. In a typical telling of the scenario, Malvonne would be a secondary character. The story is not about her, but she influences it. Yet in Jazz (far from typical), we get to know Malvonne as a real person. We learn her history and spend a bit of time in her perspective.

Sweetness is, technically, less than a tertiary character. He's Malvonne's nephew, who she raised, but he's already gone by the time the story starts. His old room is important—it's that love nest—but he doesn't directly affect any of the major events.

In many novels, a character like Sweetness might exist not to be his own person, but merely as evidence of the fullness of Malvonne's character. Malvonne, in turn, might exist to round out the characters of Joe and Violet. Sweetness and Malvonne certainly do these things for the characters who rank higher than them.

But Morrison makes Sweetness into a full person, too. And she does so in very little space. He's mentioned a only few times in the book, most interestingly in relation to some stolen mail:

"Before Sweetness changed his name from William Younger or Little Caesar, he robbed a mailbox on 130th Street. Looking for postal notes, cash or what, Malvonne couldn't imagine."

Instead of the facts of Sweetness, we get the question of him: Why did he steal that mail? A question like this one is key. It takes up a lot of space in the reader's brain, offers a myriad of possibilities, but only takes a few words on a page.

Just like Malvonne, we have the fact of his action, but we don't have Sweetness. What evidence of Sweetness is that mail? What do we know of him as a person?  Interestingly, it's the multiplicity of explanations that spin out into a whole being, the way a single answer might not.

The question of why Sweetness stole the mail is one that Malvonne ponders but can't answer. Did he do it out of desperation, for the few dollars stuffed into various letters? Did he do it out of meanness, taking joy in disrupting the communication of strangers? Was there a specific letter he hoped to intercept? Was it a random act without meaning to him, just something he grabbed as he was passing by?

Because we don't know, just as Malvonne doesn't know, the answer to each of these questions is a ghosted "yes." We accept this person we never meet as someone who, somehow, has all of the characteristics that might lead to stealing mail. Therefore, with the simple question of "Why did he take that?" we get a complex personality for him, and he's more alive than if we knew just one facet of his nature.

This is not the same as vagueness. If we didn't have the mail at all, presumably we could make even more assumptions about Sweetness. But would we? What would draw our minds to ask any question at all? If we even bothered to wonder about him, we wouldn't imagine specific, conflicting possibilities; we'd just get a hazy mush.

I think it's also important the one bit of evidence we have is concrete. Though we don't know why he stole it, we know what the mail is. We can picture those letters as tangible objects.

And then we get their content. Malvonne feels responsible for her nephew's theft and attempts to right it. She forwards the letters, even attempting to make up for her nephew's theft of a dollar, not by replacing it (she can't), but by promising its replacement on behalf of the sender. Of course, we get to know Malvonne and her particular empathy for folks she doesn't know through her actions. And we get to know about the people who make up her neighborhood. But we also get a sense of Sweetness as a real being through the effect he has on others—both the way he's distressed Malvonne and the way he's disrupted the lives of his neighbors.

I'm also interested in the way something so simple as a nickname gives life to a character. A given name may allude to something through subtext. But a nickname has text. We know a character earned that name for a reason, even if we don't know the reason. Does "sweetness" describe this guy in some way? Is it an ironic name or a true one? Does it reference a significant event in his life? We don't know the answer, but those questions are specific and, like the questions related to the mail, they give us ideas to hang onto—much more than a generic given name.

These questions don't create a full and rounded character, but they do give us a sense that a character, who is full and rounded, exists somewhere in this world, that the character is round even if we don't know how.

Sweetness doesn't have to be more real for the reader than he is for Malvonne, or even than he is for Joe and Violet. But the story is more resonant because he has come alive. And it's these questions—these specific questions—that make it happen.


Allison Wyss is teaching the following classes at the Loft this winter: Eight Weeks, Four Drafts: Advanced Topics in RevisionHappy Hour Class: Digging for Treasure: Mining Craft Books to Write Smarter Fiction; and Six Weeks on Talking: Writing Dialogue. Her stories have appeared in [PANK] MagazineThe Southeast ReviewThe Golden KeyMetazenMadHat (Mad Hatters’ Review)The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Juked. She has an MFA from the University of Maryland. She tweets, mostly about writing, as @AllisonWyss.