Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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September 23, 2022

Writing Minor Characters That Matter

by Ellen Buikema

Good stories have a cast of characters who each play a specific role. Minor characters, although not indispensable to the plot, matter.

Minor characters are not afterthoughts to the protagonists.

These characters can make or break a story. In addition to advancing the plot, they add depth and dimension. These individuals usually have a small role and often appear for a few scenes. But even if they aren’t in the story for long, minor characters can have a significant impact.

If you want to give a minor character more depth and dimension, you can give them their own story arc with something as simple as emotional or physical change.

Minor characters have many forms.

They can fill out the population of your world.

“The other townsfolk—rubes, as Uncle Al called them—had already made their way through the menagerie tent and into the big top, which pulsed with frenetic music.” Like Water for Elephants

Minor characters are great for providing information, which is a good way for the protagonist to overhear or see what’s happening.

In the Dead Until Dark: Sookie Stackhouse Southern Vampire Mystery #1 by Charlaine Harris,The main protagonist “listens in” telepathically to the thoughts of other characters to gather information. A gift that is both blessing and a curse.

They can set the tone of a scene.

Dean R. Koontz’s Lightning features a pair of foster parents that Laura, our protagonist, is afraid to love for fear of loss.  Her foster mom speaks.

‘“I owned an interior design firm, but I had to give it up eight years ago. Health reasons. Too stressful. I wasn’t used to sitting at home like a lump, so I did all the things I dreamed of as a businesswoman with no spare time. Like learning magic.”

“Health reasons?” Laura said.

“Security was a treacherous rug that people kept pulling out from under her, and now someone was getting ready to jerk the rug again.”’

These characters may be helpful in small plots. They might cause a problem and then leave or assist another character briefly.

Hugo, the drinking buddy of the protagonist’s father, drags the father home after a night on the town, warns the protagonist of trouble with the father in the morning, and then leaves, never to be found in the story again. (From a work in progress.)

The following tips can help to create great secondary characters.

1. Give them a reason for being

Minor characters without a clear purpose have the potential to unnecessarily complicate and disrupt the flow of your story.

Giving minor characters a reason for being doesn’t mean that each has to change the course of the storyline. A character’s purpose could be to support the protagonist, witness events, or point the main characters in a particular direction.

  • In The Hunger Games, minor characters play a role in aiding, guiding, or hindering Katniss along her journey through the games.
  • For a romantic comedy or family drama, the purpose of the minor characters can be to convey relationship history.
  • A minor character in conflict with the main character helps create tension and keeps the readers turning the pages. No conflict—no story.

In each case, characters may have brief appearances. Having a defined purpose, they become an essential part of the story instead of window dressing.

2. Give them clearly defined traits

Whether on the physical or mental level, well-crafted features let even the most minor characters stand out from the crowd.

  • Clearly defining an individual’s characteristics paints a vivid picture, fixing them in readers’ memories.
  • A character’s defining trait could be their lack of tact. This person may own a closet filled with the same outfit, have an unusual physical attribute, or gesture wildly with their hands.
  • Plainly defined traits help distinguish critical minor characters in your story.

3.   Have them impact the story

Consider their impact. Positive, negative, or neutral, this impact affects the reader’s perception and memory of a character.

  • Even if a character only appears for a short time, their impact lives on, encouraging interest.
  • Impact can be indirect or direct. A minor character can set events in motion that catch up to the protagonists, or they can directly interact with the protagonist.
  • Whether wild and crazy or subtle and subdued, imbuing each character with their unique impact will cause the most minor of players to stand out.

4. Consider their relationship to the protagonist

Unless you plan to write a story using one character, your protagonist(s) will interact with many characters and represent all kinds of relationships: family, friends, lovers, colleagues, acquaintances, and strangers.

  • Tying a minor character’s relationship to the main character reinforces their worth in the story, giving them meaning and adding to the tale.
  • Once the relationship between a minor and major character is established, the reader becomes more invested in minor character.

5. Give them a personal dialogue style

As a fundamental element of character development, dialogue can help define and distinguish one character from the next.

Giving a minor character distinctive dialogue patterns distinguishes them from the others, making them memorable no matter how small their role is.

The way they speak provides insight into our character.

  • Formal or informal
  • Use of more than one language
  • Slang
  • Lively or mellow – how each character speaks adds depth to your story.

Think about the unique interests, traits, and background of each character. How old are they? Where are they from? What happened in their lives to develop their personalities?

Also, consider their voice and speech patterns.

One character may speak a mile a minute while another may speak with great care due to a stutter. One may blab on incessantly, while another may be a person of few words.

The next time you consider your cast of characters, see if any of the above tips helps in writing minor characters that matter.

What types of roles do your secondary characters have? How do you differentiate your characters? Do you have a favorite secondary character?

* * * * * *

About Ellen

Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents and a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Works In Progress are The Hobo Code, YA historical fiction and Crystal Memories, YA paranormal fantasy.

Find her at https://ellenbuikema.com or on Amazon.

Top Image by Sam Williams from Pixabay

15 comments on “Writing Minor Characters That Matter”

  1. Great discussion, Ellen. I really struggled at first with my secondary characters. It’s much easier to focus on the protagonist. But I finally learned to gently sprinkle secondary characters into portions of the story to give it a deeper dimension. My current favorite is the dad trying to keep his daughter from dating my protagonists. He helps to set up a Romeo and Juliet-like scenario.

  2. Hi Ellen,
    Thanks for more insight into building interesting side characters.

    One of my favorite side characters from Hunger Games (as you mentioned) is Roo. Her sacrifice or demise presses Katniss into the main fight against the government even more.

    Great post and reminders!

    1. Hi Kris,

      I'm glad the post is helpful! Those secondary characters sometimes send the protagonists to where they might otherwise not have gone.

  3. I LOVE minor characters - sometimes too much! Some of my minor characters need a lot of corraling until they get their own book. Thanks for this lovely post. I think, especially for newer writers, it will give them some good guideposts for how to get the most out of their minor characters. I needed those guideposts when I was a new writer!

    1. Hi Jenny,
      I understand what you mean! Sometimes the secondary characters have lots of personality and really come on strong.

  4. I have a secondary character in my six-novel Love in Wine Country series. It's the grandmother to the protagonists (three females who are cousins to three males) and she makes an appearance in each book. Wild and unpredictable, she is the glue that holds the family together and is a point of connection to the rest of the series in each book.

  5. The best friend is always a great secondary character because they know the main character so well, they can provide information.

  6. I can’t imagine completing my stories without the help of my many minor characters. Some are key to progressing the plot, so get a few scenes. But some are ‘one scene wonders’ who help denote the passage of time or reflect effects of my protagonists upon the world-at-large, thereby also showing the progression of the plot.

    Particularly in this second novel of my ‘Prelude’ series, the scientific and political impact of my protanists’ actions are world changing, as they are trying to bring about a delicate alliance between nations. Therefore, if world support falters, my protagonists could fail. So, it is these small side portrayals which help measure the pulse and foreshadow the risks they face.

    They also underscore one of my basic themes-the world if a complex place and we are all the Master’s of its fate.

  7. Excellent post, Ellen! Yeah, minor characters are more important than you might think, and these are all good tips. I especially like "Give them a reason for being."
    Reaching way back for an example, look at Fess Parker in the 1950's sf classic, "Them." He's the pilot who was buzzed by the queen ant. He's not just a walk-on, he's a character with a personality and a history.
    Thanks for cool essay.

  8. I love secondary characters! lol Sometimes I love them too much and they refuse to exit when requested. Totally agree with all the points you raise too. Even if these characters only have a bit part, they have to have well rounded personalities so the author can pick and choose /which/ traits to show the Reader. 🙂

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