I'm also reading up: devouring, actually, a few just-released novels and memoirs, to see how characters are being used today.
How many, how often do they appear, and how much weight do they have to carry in a story, to please a reader? To keep her (me, in this case) engaged?
Last night I stayed up late to finish Lisa Lutz's new novel, The Passenger. I think it's going to rival Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, and I also think it's much more sophisticated than either of those in how it uses characters.
Readers Track Characters
Whenever a character is introduced, the reader subconsciously makes note and begins to pay attention to that character's purpose in the story. When they appear, what they do, how much they're developed. We readers don't track nameless characters or walk-on's (the waiter, the store clerk) unless they're given interesting characteristics. Even minor characters are logged in the reader's brain and must carry a consistent thread through the story.
I remember when my first novel was at the publisher's. I got an email from my editor asking about one of the minor characters, Chad. Chad, evidently, had dropped out of the story around chapter 14. My editor was tracking Chad (she liked him) and wanted me to create a "loop," where he appeared again. A "loop," she explained, was like a road that circled back by the end of the story to where it had started. Chad would walk along this road, appearing in various chapters as needed, and by the end the reader would feel satisfaction in knowing he was accounted for.
I reworked several chapters under her guidance and it did create a much stronger presence for Chad in the novel. I was hooked on "loops."
Lutz's novel, mentioned above, has excellent loops. Without spoiling the mystery, I'll say that one of the important characters, named Blue, disappears for most of the middle of the book. I was happy to see her go, truthfully--she's a tragic influence on the narrator--but I did wonder why she was introduced and what she'd do by the end. I was tracking her.
Lutz began bringing in hints of Blue, very skillfully, setting up her reappearance at the end--a surprise that is anticipated because of the loop she creates. We are given just enough about Blue when she's offstage to feel satisfied when she walks back on.
Your writing exercise this week is to check out one of your minor characters and see how this characters loops back into your story by the end. How present are they through the book? Do they disappear? Can you resurrect them (as I did Chad) to create that reader-pleasing loop?
I'd also highly recommend The Passenger if you're looking for a good novel to read (maybe not before bed, since it's a thriller, though).