Wednesday, March 27, 2019

What to Do with Minor Characters

By David E. Sharp

You've learned how to create a compelling character arc, how to imbue your protagonist with three-dimensional layers and how to shrug off the stereotypes. You've created main characters with compelling backstories, subplots, and nuance.

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Now you're writing a scene where your protagonist is having a conversation with a waiter we will never see again. What do you do? Give him a full backstory, a family tree and a quest to retrieve the holy grail? How should we handle minor characters?

Majors and Minors

Minor characters fall somewhere between essential and mere set pieces. They're precisely on the bottom rung of significance like a crowd of movie extras. They may have names or dialog, but they lack development. Think the mad Hatter, Miracle Max, and Tiny Tim. Each of them has a critical role to play in the stories in which they appear, but those roles exist to serve the greater narrative.

A primary character, especially protagonists, should have depth. They should reveal multiple layers, and they should experience change.

Minor Characters Don't Have to Be Three-Dimensional

It's easy to develop a mindset that three-dimensional characters are good, and two-dimensional characters are bad. In the case of minor characters, this is not so. You would exhaust your reader if you gave every imaginary person who graced your pages a full dossier. You don't have time to give everybody a tragic flaw and a moment of recognition.

Embrace flat characters! Love them. Take them out to lunch. They are your friends. Being two-dimensional only means they won't experience growth during the story. And if they're only around for a scene or two, that's just fine.

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Minor Characters Have a Purpose

Minor characters don't need to become principal. They don't need to have a complicated backstory. All they really need to do is:

  • Advance the plot
  • Provide insight into a major character
  • Set a tone

That's their whole job. If your minor characters do not fulfill one or more of these items, then another thing they don't need to do is be in your book

But They Can Be Interesting

Flat characters don't have to be boring. And they don't have to fulfill stereotypes.

The Cheshire Cat advances the plot by prodding Alice along when she's dragging her feet. He acts as a foil, revealing insights about Alice by contrasting with her. And he most certainly sets a tone. Check, check and check! 

He's certainly not dull! But he is flat. He doesn't change from one end of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to the other. He maintains his psychotic and disturbing status quo throughout. And can you imagine the book without him?

With a little care, you can use minor characters to great effect without letting them upstage your protag.

For more on proper use of minor characters, check out:  Three Major Roles of Minor Characters

1 comment:

Cynthia Heart Books said...

I agree that we don't need to share every single character's life story in our stories.

Sometimes a minor character's presence can help shed light on the other characters. Since you mentioned a waiter, I'll say that seeing how the protagonist or the protagonist's companion treats a waiter can be very telling about those characters.

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