Characters Who Make a Big Impression in a Small Amount of Time

The very weird Anthony Scaramucci lasted only 10 days as Donald Trump’s communications director — a brief and memorable White House cameo for that minor cast member in “Trumpland.”

Which reminds me of the many fictional people who appear for a short or relatively short time in novels, yet are unforgettable — whether they’re good or evil, funny or not funny, etc. They’re not as important as the protagonists and the top-tier secondary characters, but they leave their mark.

A few examples (chronologically by the novels’ publication date):

The gentle/ill-fated Helen of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre becomes friends with Jane when they’re both girls at the Lowood institution. Helen shows the young Jane that there’s some kindness in the world, and her (Helen’s) death helps spark changes at the unhealthy Lowood — cheaply run by wealthy “religious” hypocrite Mr. Brocklehurst — that probably save the lives of Jane and others.

Moby-Dick‘s Starbuck doesn’t appear a lot in Herman Melville’s novel, but the calm/earnest first mate is quite a contrast to the crazed Captain Ahab — and the only person on the Pequod ship who tries to talk Ahab out of continuing his obsessive quest to revenge himself on the white whale who bit off Ahab’s leg. But the not-brave-enough Starbuck (who inspired the name of a certain coffee chain) ultimately goes along with Ahab’s doomed mission.

In George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, the mother Daniel has never really known turns up late, and only briefly, but she is a crucial piece in the puzzle as the title character discovers his secret Jewish identity. The mother-son scene is dramatic, heightened by the fact that she’s terminally ill.

A highlight of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is the devil cameo in an amazing scene that’s philosophical, hilarious, and more. Satan (a hallucination?) appears in the guise of an amiable elderly man and proceeds to tell a bunch of silly — or perhaps not so silly — stories.

In Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk, there are many minor characters with cameos that will have you rolling on the floor. My favorite of those people might be Baloun, who’s always so hungry and food-obsessed that he can’t help scarfing down the edibles he’s supposed to be saving for his commanding officer.

Readers of James Hilton’s Lost Horizon only get to see the leader of Shangri-La for a short time, but that leader’s life is long: he’s 250 years old! Not easy to forget that

Eowyn has a minor part in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, but it’s a memorable one as she disguises herself as a man to fight in battle. She stands out even more given that most of Tolkien’s characters are male and his trilogy has quite a bit of gender stereotyping. Yet The Lord of the Rings is still great.

Which is more than one can say about anybody who was or is part of the Trump administration.

Who are some of the minor characters in literature you’ve found majorly memorable?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece, with education and health themes, is here.

56 thoughts on “Characters Who Make a Big Impression in a Small Amount of Time

    • Thank you, beckyness77! I haven’t read that Stephen King/Peter Straub novel, but have read many King works and one Straub book. King certainly created a number of memorable secondary characters who appeared for a relatively short amount of time.


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  3. The character the week’s topic brought to mind was the man in the title of Eric Ambler’s “A Coffin for Dimitrios”. The narrator, a writer in search of inspiration for a mystery novel, finds himself compelled and fascinated by the doings ascribed to arch-criminal and mastermind Dimitrios (dead on a morgue slab, if the corpse’s ID is to be believed) by a rather despicable police type he encounters on holiday, which leads the narrator and his unquenchable curiosity to several cities and citizens throughout Europe. International intrigue, corruption, assassination seems to have followed in the wake of Dimitrios for many years, and he employed various agents and go-betweens and confederates, most still wary of discovery or revenge. Dimitrios always hovers at the edges of everything and everywhere, but only by hearsay and recollection, until…

    Suffice it to say he makes an appearance, briefly, but most memorably, and after, the tang of gunpowder hangs in the air.

    Which reminds me of the wizard in “The Wizard of Oz,” the classic movie, as he too was much talked about, revered and feared, but took up a smidgen of screen time in comparison to his importance in the general scheme of the place.

    Which reminds me of Abraham Lincoln in “A Birth of a Nation”.

    “The Mask of Dimitrios” (1944) is the title of the movie made from Ambler’s thriller, and features wonderful performances by Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. I recommend the novel; I recommend the movie.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY! A VERY interesting angle on this topic — characters who loom large in a novel yet don’t actually appear all that much.

      Another example would be the title character in Sir Walter Scott’s “Rob Roy,” who, despite having the book named after him, doesn’t appear until many chapters have gone by and is not the main protagonist — though he gets more pages than Dimitrios or The Wizard. (The movie version of “Rob Roy” is different; he’s the lead player in that adaptation.)

      Great comment!


  4. As for brief appearances being memorable, I think of Dave Astor, who shows up once a year at the conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists but who makes a big impact. Let’s see if that holds in Cincinnati in 2018. (Frank Sinatra said he went to Cincinnati once but it was closed.)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This post (as well as the comments) has given me lots of good advice for when thinking of the characters in the novel I am writing. I’ll keep in mind to make each character important, however much time they occupy the story.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi Dave,

    Just for something different, the first books that I thought of were Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” series, but if I fear that if I mention those books one more time, WordPress might stop me commenting!

    Until reading the other comments, I struggled to come up with another character. The best I could do was Melanie from “Gone with the Wind”. She’s not a small character, however I think I love her even more than I love the main characters. And I loved them a lot!

    After reading the comments, I was reminded of “Emma” which I didn’t love, however I did really enjoy Emma’s father who was a little quirky, as was the mother in Lionel Shriver’s riveting “We need to talk about Kevin”. Definitely not major, but characters that I could personally relate to.

    Speaking of characters who are very present despite being dead, I can’t go past “Rebecca”. And in that wonderful Daphne Du Maurier novel was one of my favourite housekeepers – Mrs Danvers. Again, not really a minor character, but still memorable despite not being a main character.

    Speaking of memorable housekeepers, I liked the narration of “Wuthering Heights” though I didn’t really love the story. I would have preferred if that housekeeper had been a main character!

    Speaking of Bertha, how great was that “Jane Eyre” mystery?!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Wait…you’ve read “The Dark Tower” series? You like it? But, seriously, books or book series we love tend to give us multiple examples for multiple literature topics. I’ve certainly mentioned “Jane Eyre” many times in my columns — and, yes, that novel’s mystery is GREAT. Totally thought Grace Poole was the “madwoman in the attic” the first time I read the book (in high school).

      Excellent minor-character examples from “Gone With the Wind,” “Emma,” “Rebecca,” “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” and “Wuthering Heights.” Nelly Dean IS a terrific creation.

      Thank you, Sue!


      • Oh, so I HAVE told you about “The Dark Tower”? Good, because I wasn’t sure 🙂 Part of why I thought of that series is because it’s a favourite, but also because it’s just so long. If it was 7 books of the same 4 characters, it would have gotten really boring. I’m sure most epic fantasies are the same. I’ve only read “Lord of the Rings” once, and it was many years ago, but I’m sure there are a lot of characters who only appear for a chapter or two to help Frodo and Sam on their way. You mentioned a great one above.

        I think when I first encountered the spirit in the attic, I couldn’t get past it being something supernatural. I knew it couldn’t be, but all I could picture were ghosts and werewolves and other monsters. Maybe I’d been binging on “Harry Potter”. But I loved discovering that the thing in the attic made sense. And was much more devastating than what I’d pictured – just in a different way. I’ve just added the Orson Welles version of the movie to my list, which I find even less time to get to than my book list!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Excellent point, Sue. Book series almost HAVE to have a bunch of good minor characters to help hold reader interest and move things along. “Harry Potter” (which you mentioned) is certainly a major example of that — the Dursleys, Luna Lovegood, Filch, Cho Chang, each year’s new Professor of Dark Arts, etc.

          Well, the person in the attic in “Jane Eyre” COULD have been supernatural. 🙂 Heck, when Jane “heard” Rochester from many miles away near the end of the novel, it was kind of supernatural.

          Orson Welles was a top-notch Rochester!


      • ” Totally thought Grace Poole was the “madwoman in the attic” the first time I read the book (in high school).”

        And me, I had taken her to be a baptismal font!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Dave, I was musing about this topic and I think that secondary, or even the primary ones, are more real to me when I’ve seen a good production of the novel either on TV or on film. For example, there’s “The House of Mirth,” in which the person who most hurts Lily Bart is Bertha Dorset, played by the wonderful Laura Linney. Then there’s the villainous Gus Trainor, played by Dan Ackroyd, as curious as that casting seems to me. Another pivotal character is Grace, who relays the rumors to their aunt to get her to disinherit Lily in favor of herself. She is played by Jodhi May, a British actor that has been in quite a few British TV miniseries, including “Daniel Deronda.” I’ve read the book several times, as well as seeing the film starring Gillian Anderson, and I think the latter was remarkably faithful to the novel.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Kat Lib, for those very interesting thoughts and examples!

      If a screen adaptation is done well and fairly faithfully, it can indeed make the novel’s characters seem more “real.” Then it can get VERY interesting when rereading the novel with the actresses and actors in one’s mind’s eye! Heck, when I reread the “Harry Potter” series, I “saw” Harry in the guise of Daniel Radcliffe, Hermione in the guise of Emma Watson, etc. Of course, there’s also something to be said for picturing characters only in our imagination…


      • Dave, I agree with you, and I must admit that I often see characters as they looked like in their first or best appearance on film, and that sometimes it’s better to see them in our imaginations. Especially when it comes to Jane Austen, who had so many productions based on every single book that it’s hard to figure which character best represents it on screen. I’ll watch everything that has ever been produced about Austen’s books, and I’ll sit there thinking that this is the best, or worst, casting ever: Kate Beckinsale vs. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma (Kate by a mile); Amanda Root’s performance as Anne Elliot, no question, she’s the best ever, with Ciarin Hinds as the best Captain Wentworth; and David Rintoul vs. Colin Firth as the best Mr. Darcy (although I must admit comes down to a tie, because I loved them both). So, I’m planning to reread all of Austen’s six novels, and hope I can come up with the best casting characters.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I hadn’t thought of that, Kat Lib — it can indeed be a bit mentally confusing to picture fictional characters when a number of screen adaptations have been done with different actresses or actors playing the same role. Certainly the case with various Jane Austen novels and other books that inspire a new production every few years or decades — “Jane Eyre,” “The Great Gatsby,” etc. But it can also be interesting to compare which actress/actor captured the character best!


          • Dave, I have to mention that back in the early ’90s somewhere I had a friend from work who had a teenage daughter, and she and her high school friends were madly in love with Timothy Dalton as Mr. Rochester (I think by the BBC) and had parties where they’d get together to watch that production of Jane Eyre. I must admit to really liking that version of the book, and I even liked Timothy Dalton in the two James Bond films he was in.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Sounds like a great version, with a “heartthrob” as Rochester. 🙂 Unfortunately, I haven’t seen it. I do think Orson Welles was an excellent Rochester in the 1940s “Jane Eyre” film, and his not being totally handsome made him a more realistic Rochester — in looks at least.


  8. Howdy, Dave!

    — Who are some of the minor characters in literature you’ve found majorly memorable? —

    Embodying the hypocrisy mottling a number of political types throughout history, Uriah Heep may play too big a role in Charles Dickens’ “David Copperfield” to be considered fairly in your context, but he will always be a majorly memorable minor character to me.

    J.J. (Alias MugRuith1)

    In Memoriam
    The Mooche
    July 21, 2017-July 31, 2017
    (Ten Days That Shook the World?)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Uriah Heep is a GREAT example of a memorable minor character. Heck, as we know, his name came to evoke a certain personality type. Dickens definitely created a bunch of unforgettable secondary cast members.

      “Ten Days That Shook the World” — ha! I have that fascinating John Reed book. Hmm…about Russia, Trump’s favorite country…

      Thanks, J.J.!


      • — Dickens definitely created a bunch of unforgettable secondary cast members. —

        Very true. Frequently, it strikes me — Ow! Ow! Ow! — that one of the biggest differences between a great novelist and a not-so-great novelist lies in the care they lavish upon their respective plot-device characters, as exemplified on the former side by the likes of Monsieur Homais in Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary,” Yeremi Vishnovyetski in Henryk Sienkiewicz’s “With Fire and Sword” and Edmond Aubrey, aka the Paladin, in Mark Twain’s “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc.”

        — “Ten Days That Shook the World” — ha! I have that fascinating John Reed book. Hmm…about Russia, Trump’s favorite country… —

        There are no coincidences.

        Liked by 1 person

    • “The Mooche” is a big fave of my mother’s– she attends a jazz performance weekly, and it is among her top requests.

      Thanks for introducing it here; I hope others will enjoy!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Howdy, jhNY!

        — “The Mooche” is a big fave of my mother’s– she attends a jazz performance weekly, and it is among her top requests. —

        Your Mom has impeccable taste! With all due respect to the King of Oliver, Earl of Hines and Count of Basie, the Duke of Ellington ranks No. 1 in my own Muggsy’s Peerage of American Jazz Royalty, thanks not only to “The Mooche” but also to “Black and Tan Fantasy,” “Concerto for Cootie,” “Creole Rhapsody,” “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me,” “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo,” “In a Sentimental Mood,” “Ko Ko,” “Mood Indigo,” “Satin Doll,” “Take the ‘A’ Train”* and a couple of dozen other five-star cuts in my Apple iTunes library.


        *Still good advice for anybody in Hell’s Kitchen looking to head uptown or down, in a hurry, 78 years after its composition by the extraordinary Billy Strayhorn.

        Liked by 1 person

        • In my hoard, I have around 50 cd’s devoted to the work of Mr,. Ellington, who is a monument, a titan and the tops. I confess a great love for a number of the old jazzers, but the Duke had everything: genius, organization and a great band, with members of long-standing who knew what was required and with whom the leader knew what could be achieved, which was glorious. As I remember him saying to an interviewer, when asked how he was able to keep so many members for so long he confessed: “I’ve got a secret: I pay them.” And he did, such as anybody did in the bad old daze– on the road and off– though ‘off’ was not often or for long, and off-road was also when the recordings happened.

          My favorite piece, if I had to name but one, is “Passion Flower”, a Strayhorn composition confected for the man the Duke called the Lily Pons of the alto saxophone, Johnny Hodges. The arrangement and recording I like best was made in the 1950’s, after everybody had the tune to work on for a while. But I am fond of all the tunes on your list, and more.

          Liked by 1 person

  9. Morning Dave to me ” Low-land” by Jhumpa Lahiri her last Novel flows like a prose covers four generations and different continents. To me Bela in a short period of time make a long lasting impression.

    Abandoned by her mother at five raised by her Uncle Subhash with all the loving care and never knew her real Father who was murdered way before she was born. Her Mother Gouri was the least likable character went to higher studies had lovers later has lesbian relationship .
    In the end by Bela`s request went to meet Meghna her Granddaughter was told by Bela she will never forgive her mother for abandoning her and introduced to her daughter than Gauri was her great aunt.

    In her mind she knew one day she will tell the whole life story to meghna.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, bebe! Well said!

      Bela was indeed a VERY memorable character despite being in a novel with three other people (her mother, uncle, and deceased father) featured more prominently. Definitely scarred by having such a problematic mother, but lucky to have an uncle who was a great father to her.

      Jhumpa Lahiri is a superb writer. As we’ve discussed, her short stories and her “The Namesake” novel are also excellent.

      Liked by 1 person

      • There is a reason no one hears Jared speak, the secretary of all the Departments with zero experience got into Harvard with his Fathers donations who was known to be a swindler and was in jail for sometime. .

        Liked by 1 person

        • All great points, bebe! No decent person wants to hear this rich/entitled bozo speak; money and nepotism indeed got him into Harvard; he has virtually no experience or training for anything he’s doing in the White House; and his father was a crook.

          Liked by 1 person

  10. I can’t help but think of some of the secondary characters in Jane Austen’s books. Maybe Mr. Collins from P&P is the best example, but there’s also the fabulous Miss Bates and Mrs. Elton in Emma, John Thorpe in Northanger Abbey, and many others.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great observation, elenapedigo! Many of Jane Austen’s secondary characters are VERY interesting — including the pompous and conceited clergyman William Collins of “Pride and Prejudice.” Also memorable in a sense is the dead Mrs. Tilney — whose “presence” stimulates Catherine’s overactive/Gothic-novel-soaked imagination in “Northanger Abbey.” 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

          • Great comment about the late Mrs. Tilney! I agree with both of you as to the many memorable secondary characters in Jane Austen’s works.
            Just to pick another novel, “Persuasion,” there were many notable characters who all played a part in moving the novel along from when Anne and Wentworth meet again seven years after their broken engagement until finding themselves still in love and marry: Mary, Anne’s hypochondriac sister; Elizabeth, Anne’s other sister who is a social climber and egotist, just like their father; Captain Benwick, who is the means of getting Louisa Musgrove interested in him rather than Wentworth (over poetry!); and Captain Harville, who has the discussion with Anne in the great scene at the White Hart about the different feelings between men and women that finally makes Wentworth to declare his own faithfulness to the love he feels for Anne. I think my favorite secondary characters were Mrs. Smith and her nurse Rooke, the widow who is in ill health and not much fortune (thanks to Mr. William Elliot) and relies on gossip from Rooke to keep an interest in life in Bath, as well as to warn Anne about William Elliot’s character.

            Liked by 2 people

            • An IMPRESSIVELY comprehensive look at the secondary characters in “Persuasion” — my favorite Jane Austen novel. 🙂 Thank you, Kat Lib! I must reread “Persuasion” someday; I’ve read each of the six Austen novels exactly once — many fewer times than you!


            • I also love Mrs. Clay from Persuasion! And another dead character whose presence looms large is Richard Musgrove, the son who died at sea and is now remembered much more fondly than he deserves. Austen’s keen powers of observation were perhaps at their sharpest in that work.

              Liked by 1 person

              • “Austen’s keen powers of observation were perhaps at their sharpest in that work” — I think you’re right! And the smart/mature/capable/admirable Anne Elliot is my favorite Jane Austen “heroine.”

                Liked by 1 person

                • I agree with you about Mrs. Clay, who I thought about adding to my list, but I could go on all day about the characters in this great novel: Admiral and Mrs. Croft; all of the Musgrove family (especially the poor belated Richard); Lady Russell, who persuaded Anne to not marry Wentworth the first time around; and of course the odious Sir Walter and his presumptive heir, Mr. William Elliot.

                  Liked by 2 people

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