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.
“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
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.
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.”’
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.)
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 each case, characters may have brief appearances. Having a defined purpose, they become an essential part of the story instead of window dressing.
Whether on the physical or mental level, well-crafted features let even the most minor characters stand out from the crowd.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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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.
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