Any great story involves a cast of varied characters who each play an integral role. But ‘minor’ characters are an often overlooked element of storytelling.
Many prospective writers position secondary characters in the proverbial trunk of the narrative vehicle, merely an afterthought to the key protagonists.
Some may believe that if characters aren’t integral to the plot, they have no place being there. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Minor characters can take many forms. Overt or subtle, in the shadows or the foreground, an individual or a representation of an idea – endless opportunities exist to create compelling secondary characters.
Honing your ability to make minor characters matter can truly elevate your story. Luckily, there are many simple techniques you can learn, practise and implement.
The following tips are designed to support writers of all levels in creating great secondary characters.
1. Ensure they have an impact on the story
Before you rush to introduce your minor characters, take a moment to ponder their intended impact. Positive, negative or neutral, this impact defines the reader’s perception and memory of each character.
Even if a character only appears once or twice, their impact allows them to live on, spurring further interest, admiration or intrigue.
Impact can be direct or indirect. A minor character can set a course of events in motion that eventually catches up to the main protagonists, or they can interact with protagonists directly.
Whether you choose to make them overt, loud and disruptive or minimal, subtle and subdued, embedding each character with their own unique impact will allow even the most minor to stand out.
2. Give them purpose
The addition of minor characters without a clear purpose has the potential to disrupt the flow of your story or overload it with unnecessary complication.
Giving minor characters purpose does not mean that every individual must alter the course of the storyline. A character’s purpose could be to maintain the status quo, or simply to witness events on the sideline.
They may point the primary characters in a certain direction, deliver key plot information, or reveal traits in the chief protagonist.
In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, an array of minor characters exists, with many playing an integral role in aiding, guiding, protecting or delaying Frodo along his journey.
In a family drama or a romantic comedy, however, minor characters may serve the purpose of revealing or highlighting a relationship history, whether it be in a positive or a negative light.
In both cases, characters may only appear for a short time. But equipped with a clear and defined purpose, they become an important part of the story instead of existing just for the sake of existing.
3. Consider their relationship to the main characters
Unless you intend to write a story featuring only one character, your protagonist/s are bound to interact with many others throughout the story.
Within this vast spectrum of interactions, many varying forms of character relationships will exist – from friends, lovers or family members to colleagues, acquaintances and strangers.
By establishing a minor character's relationship to a main character, you'll reinforce their value in the story, giving their presence meaning and value and adding layers to the narrative.
Once the importance of the relationship between a minor and major character is established, the minor character will take on more significance in the eyes of the reader as they become invested in that character's story.
4. Have them represent a motif/theme
Family, love, jealousy, regret, leadership, revenge, evil – all of these themes and more can be represented by the presence of a minor character.
Major themes in literature aren't only relevant to the main characters. Through their actions or underlying motivations, each and every character in a story can embody a theme in a literal or subliminal fashion.
A common technique among Shakespeare's works and those of many other writers is to utilise minor characters primarily to represent a key theme or motif.
Connection to a motif or theme is an excellent way to make your minor characters matter in a broader thematic sense.
5. Give them clearly defined traits
Another approach lies in accentuating minor characters' defining traits.
Whether it be on the physical level (appearance or actions) or mental (thoughts, ideas and dialogue), well-drawn features enable even the most minor of characters to stand out from the crowd.
When executed correctly, the process of clearly defining an individual’s characteristics creates a vivid, realistic portrait of the character, embedding them in readers' memories.
This does not mean that these characters must always be exaggerated or outlandish to make an impression.
For instance, a character’s defining trait could be their lack of communication or subdued nature. Perhaps they always wear the same outfit, are strikingly tall or constantly crack jokes.
Clearly defined traits offer an excellent method to distinguish important minor characters in your story.
6. Define their role in the story
As you begin to formulate and flesh out your narrative, consider the role and purpose of each and every character.
Remember that it can be very easy to dismiss the smaller characters and in turn render them voiceless, tedious or unnecessary.
Instead, take a proactive approach to defining their role. What part will they ultimately play and why?
In the case of both fantasy and crime novels, for example, a raft of minor characters often pop in and out of the narrative.
This may include a minor character who witnesses a crime, assists the protagonist on their quest, or provides information that influences the main character's path (in a good or bad way).
These characters each play an integral role in the plot progression, whether they're disrupting or assisting the central characters on their journey, or revealing key information vital to the storyline.
While a minor character may only appear once or twice throughout the course of the story, their actions can still have a significant impact on the path of the protagonist/s.
When creating your cast of characters, establish a definitive role for each and every individual.
7. Give them a signature dialogue style
As an integral element of character development, dialogue style can help to define and distinguish each character from the next.
Equipping a minor character with their own distinctive dialogue patterns can accentuate their difference from those around them. Through their cadence and choice of words, they can be made truly memorable despite how minor their role may be.
The way we speak can provide a great deal of insight into our character. Formal or informal, local slang and terminology, animated or calm – taking time to consider how each of your characters speaks adds a great deal of depth to the story you tell.
Consider the unique traits, interests and background of each character. Where are they from? How old are they? What major events and experiences have shaped their personality?
All of these factors play a part in shaping their style of dialogue.
Also consider their projection and speech patterns.
One character may stutter while another may speak rapidly without any trepidation. One may be loose and carefree, while another may be uptight and closed-off.
8. Limit their exposure
At face value, this might seem like a contradictory statement. How exactly can a minor character matter if they are barely exposed to the audience?
The answer lies at the heart of the phrase ‘sometimes less is more’.
The technique of limiting a character’s exposure can actually increase their impact. Creating an air of mystery or intrigue is one effective way to implement this approach.
Perhaps the other characters have heard of this individual before, but have never caught a glimpse in person. Or perhaps their interactions with a key protagonist had a profound effect on that protagonist.
Limited exposure can typically take the form of a character who floats by on the edges of the narrative, serving a purpose within one chapter/scene, or even through disappearance or death early in the story.
9. Think outside the box
When formulating your minor characters, remember that the very idea of a character does not have to fall in line with tradition.
Outside of the confines of a human being, a minor character can manifest itself in the form of an animal, a creature, an idea, an object or a movement.
As readers and viewers, we are often conditioned into thinking that characters only come in the human form. But even outside of the realm of speculative fiction, the idea of a 'character' can take various forms and operate in various ways.
For instance, a political movement, sentiment or uprising can essentially act as a minor character within a narrative, altering the existence and experiences of the key protagonists much as a human character could.
The next time you're sitting down to flesh out your cast of characters, try out some of the above tips for creating minor characters that matter.
Before you know it, your story will be populated with compelling, memorable characters who have both major and minor roles.