Who IS This? Making Minor Characters Useful

Last week Nailing Down The Essentials continued the Character Development Series with Heroes. I’d planned to talk about the Heroine today, but home life has been incredibly busy (also the reason I’m so late getting this post up), and a post for less significant characters took far less thought than one for a main character. So, this week, it’s minor characterd.

Hotel clerk, bar tender, cab driver, friend of a friend. Anyone can be a minor character in your novel – it’s an equal opportunity career. The minor character is one who is only present for a short time in the story. They can make one appearance, or several, but the reader doesn’t see much of them. They often have a vital bit of information to pass on to the protagonists, and when they accomplish that, they can disappear. Some hang around a little longer to take care of less important tasks, but they don’t get a great deal of attention.

The temptation is to bring the character into the scene, let him do his job and leave, without bothering to do more than name him, if we even do that much. The trouble with that approach is, it can minimize the importance of the character’s job to the reader, causing her to miss something important.

A moment’s more work can add new layers of significance to whichever conflict the minor character is part of, and even introduce the potential for more conflict and tension. Suddenly, this one-off character can reveal some aspect of the protagonist’s (or antagonist’s) personality that we may not even have been aware of. The reader’s experience will be richer, the other characters more multidimensional, and the plot can become more complex.

How do we achieve this miracle? Simple. Give the character 2 or 3 unique traits, and reveal those traits judiciously. Put a couple minutes’ thought into the traits, and into how you can get the most mileage out of them.

In Blood Dragon, Kiellen’s mission is to find Jaden after her friends reported her missing. He goes to the motel her friends say she intended to check in to with the man she met at the nightclub. The clerk brings out facets of Kiellen’s personality the reader hasn’t seen yet.

The clerk is young, and insolent, which reveals Kiellen’s impatience in dealing with humans. His tension escalates as the clerk takes his sweet time answering questions. In a scant hint of foreshadowing, Kiellen begins to wonder why his emotions are surfacing with this mission. With his habit of emotional distance from his missions, dealing with anger and frustration while trying to keep a clear head is new, and frustrating as well, introducing a new source of inner conflict.

Of course, I could have revealed all that in other ways. But the clerk provided the opportunity, and to have wasted it would have simplified Kiellen. I could have used another trait for the clerk to either reveal more about Kiellen, or the plot, but I chose not to. Too much of even a good thing can ruin the story.

Give it a shot. Write a scene where your Hero and Heroine are out to dinner. Have the waiter flirt openly with the Heroine, while sneaking snide remarks. Using the Hero’s point-of-view, explore his reactions to this insignificant character. Does he realize he’s jealous? Try to hide that fact from the Heroine? How else does he react to his jealousy? How does the Heroine react? Perhaps this is where the Hero begins to realize he has feelings for the Heroine?

The key to using minor characters this way is striking the balance between giving them enough significance that the reader notices what they do, without making them seem more important than they are.

How do you use minor characters? Do you make them stand out, or just let them fade into the setting?


8 responses to “Who IS This? Making Minor Characters Useful

  1. That depends on a variety of factors. For example: Do I want the reader to realize the importance of the minor character’s information? Did my main characters notice anything about him/her? If they didn’t, I don’t put in a lot of detail either.

    • Hi Misha. You’re right – whatever significance we end up giving the minor characters has to fit the story.

      Sometimes, just a quick mental exploration is enough to open up new possibilities, with no risk of revealing too much, or making the character seem more important than s/he really is.


  2. I had an assistant for the empress in a story I was writing, and his job was to deliver information to her, for the reader’s benefit. He had a walk on part, really. However, I kept having to refer to him as “her assistant” and it got old using that phrase. I realized he needed a name. I’d already given him a few quirks, and made him an enhanced human — after all, the empress only surrounds herself with beautiful men who have brains and political savvy. Once I gave him a name it was as if he came to life on his own. Alitus Vivaldi ended up with his own book, stole the heart of a major character in a different book, and nearly caused a riot in the empire. He became a major player in a conspiracy that has developed across multiple books. Bringing a minor character to life can have far reaching consequences. I’m glad I did it — Alitus has added a great deal of spice to everyone’s life he touches. Good article. I enjoyed the ideas.

    • Thanks, Kayelle. That’s exactly the kind of thing I was referring to. Something as simple as giving a minor character a name, or a speech pattern, or a habit, etc., can completely change things. Your example had far more complex consequences than the usual minor character will have, but it perfectly demonstrates the kinds of possibilities that can be opened up.


  3. I LOVE that I saw this on Google+ and read it. I was stuck on a part in my own story. I’ve used minor characters three times so far to bring certain aspects into my story. I’ve questioned whether it was a good idea, but stuck with it because if I tried to take my story in another direction it just wouldn’t work. There’s the minor character and then people featured, with the latter it’s just not their turn, if that makes sense. So far I’ve used two minor characters with one featured person in the story as a build up for his eventual mental snap. With out these external influences, he’d just be a bad guy. This way I can show his build up to the moment he switches from help to hinderance. Great read.

    • Hi Atiya, I’m glad you saw it and stopped in. One of the important uses of minor characters is to show things about a point-of-view, or main, character that need to be revealed for the reader’s understanding of the story. Without the minor character, we’re often stuck with telling instead of showing, when showing would be far more effective.


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