Any novel could potentially contain a cast of hundreds. Most of the important action, however, will only involve the protagonist and a few other major characters.
But just because minor characters aren’t taking up the limelight, it doesn’t mean you have license to make them bland and unmemorable. On the other side of that coin, you might hear echoes of advice that insists, regardless of how well rounded your brief visitors might be, you go to town on your story and erase every non-major character. If characters aren’t integral to the plot, then they have no place being there, right?
Every character in a story is important – even the minor ones. These smaller appearances, when written well, can advance the plot, develop a major character, help set the tone for your tale, and even more besides.
So let’s take a look at a few ways you can make your minor characters matter.
What Are Characters?
In storytelling, characters generally fall into one of four types: the protagonist, main characters, a minor character or an extra.
So what exactly do these mean?
Let’s use the Star Wars universe as an example since it’s all the rage these days. For the sake of keeping focus within this expansive (and expanding!) universe, we’ll pick the original trilogy.
The protagonist is Luke Skywalker—the story is focused primarily on his adventure and his character development. He’s not in every scene, but the arc of the story revolves around him.
Alongside Luke are the main characters: Leia, Han Solo, Darth Vader and so on. The importance of these characters can often be indistinguishable from the protagonist. Each has their own development and subplots, but the story isn’t really ‘about’ them.
Minor (or supporting) characters include Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Jabba the Hutt, and Lando Calrissian. They are important to the story, but seldom the central character of a scene. Their appearances will be brief or sporadic – yet they can steal the limelight when they do turn up.
A common mistake when developing your story is to confuse minor characters with extras. Extras are more incidental and exist in the background. Sticking with Star Wars, extras would be the imperial storm troopers, most of the rebel fighters, and individual Ewoks.
Major Mistakes with Minor Characters
It’s a common misconception amongst writers that rounded characters are good and flatter ones are bad. There’s truth in that statement, but it shouldn’t be taken as an absolute – because a novel needs both fully explored characters and lesser entities. It’s an intrinsic part of building the hierarchy of protagonists, main characters, minor characters, and extras.
As long as they serve their utility – drawing attention towards other characters or plot elements – minor characters might not have a detailed back-story. If a character appears in just one or two scenes, an old acquaintance who reveals a hidden element of a major character’s personality, for example, we really don’t need page upon page of their life story in an attempt to make them ‘rounded.’ There are much more economical ways to imbue them with life – something we’ll go into in just a moment.
What’s most important to remember is that minor characters should make a story better. That’s what they’re there for. They can affirm or unsettle ideas about a protagonist, or add the extra depth to a scene that makes it unforgettable.
Keep in mind these three points about your minor characters. They should fulfill at least one:
- Advance the plot
- Give more insight into major characters
- Set the tone of a scene
How to Write Them
Minor characters tend to be defined by a smaller collection of traits. They might even be a stereotype – a ruthless crime lord, say. After all, a writer has only a short time to introduce and utilize them.
Here are some practical tips to help you write a great minor character:
A good way to make a minor character memorable in a short time is to exaggerate them. Don’t make Jabba just a little evil; make him a disgusting and ruthless slug. Exaggeration makes a minor character vivid but doesn’t over-develop them. As with so much in writing, there’s a balancing act to be performed here, though – you don’t wall to fall into outright caricature. What you’re looking for is a more refined way to tell the reader what they’re supposed to understand about this character as quickly as possible. This could be through their appearance, their tone of speech, how they glance at people, or their mannerisms.
Taking the longer route can be folly for minor characters because there’s little point in building the reader’s interest and then abandoning the character before we can learn more about them. That’s annoying, and people carry on the feeling of wanting to know more. If that desire, “I wish we’d seen more of [insert name], that character was brilliant,” overrides interest in the main story, then you haven’t served your book well.
If they are well placed, a minor character adds information that helps the reader understand other characters better.
Minor characters in your story must serve a purpose – primarily serving character, tone, or plot. Without purpose, they only bog you down. If you discover that a minor character doesn’t offer something that can’t be found elsewhere, the only thing to do with these characters is to cut them – be ruthless!
As in real life, the people that surround someone can speak volumes about their personality. If your protagonist is a gruff, tough biker who chooses to hang around with a crowd of sensitive artists, think about the information that gives you.
Going back to the storytelling in Star Wars, a prime example of a minor character who carries heavy impact on character is Greedo – the ill-fated bounty hunter who meets his end after a brief but threatening discussion with Han Solo.
This particular conversation – and the result of it – tells us a whole lot about Han’s character. Not just some of his history, but highlighting his roguish bent. This scene is so important to who Han is, in fact, that it spawned an entire “Han Shot First” movement. Fans vehemently protested when director George Lucas decided to re-edit the scene in later releases to imply Han killed Greedo purely in self-defense, rather than for self-preservation – and those are not entirely the same thing.
Pack a punch
Strong minor characters should do something that affects the protagonist. You might highlight the villainy of main characters through the death of another. If you don’t want to sacrifice a major character to do so, minor ones are more expendable.
An opposite approach is to use a minor character to lighten the mood. Where your protagonist might not be suited to coming across as frightened or wacky, your minor character can. This technique can add some comic relief to your story and change the tone – even if only temporarily.
Now that you know why minor characters matter – and why they must matter – go ahead and get stuck into making yours memorable. Even if they only flicker briefly into your story, make them so bright that they shine a light on everyone around them… not just themselves.