Basics of Writing, part XII: Creating Minor Characters

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We write a lot about main characters here at MW, and, of course, we spend a good deal of time discussing villains as well.  And there are good reasons for doing both.  A believable, compelling protagonist can carry a story a long way.  There are few things more fun in literature than a truly frightening and evil villain.

Today, though, I’d like to shift attention away from the stars of our books to the secondary characters, the people who spend as much time in the background of our books as they do in the limelight.  Because while the protagonists and villains may drive the narrative, it is often the secondary characters who are most memorable. 

Unfortunately, there are also times when, while reading a novel, I’ll find that the main characters have been crafted with care, but the secondary characters are flat, like cardboard cutouts.  Just as well-drawn minor characters can enrich a novel, poorly drawn ones can sap the energy out of our narrative and ruin an otherwise excellent story.

I’ve written before about the things I do to build my characters.  I won’t bother with all those details again, but I would urge you to go back and read the post I’ve linked to on the ABCs of Character Development.  Because the first key to creating good minor characters is to spend as much time and energy drawing them — developing their backgrounds, their traits, their motivations — as we do working on our main characters.  There are no shortcuts to good character development.  It takes work, it takes time.  The payoff for that work, though, is a constellation of stars in our work instead of just one or two.  Do the major characters matter more?  I suppose the answer is yes, in an absolute sense.  They’re in almost every scene.  If they are our POV characters, then their voices are crucial to the success of our books.  It’s easy to conclude that their development is most important.

But there is another way to look at this:  every character is the star or co-star of whatever scene she is in.  For that moment in the narrative when any given character appears, she will be the focus of our readers’ attention.  And since we don’t want our narrative to flag at any point in the book, since we want to keep our readers engaged at all times, we can’t afford to let any character seem flat or poorly drawn.  Again, this may seem basic, but you would be amazed by the number of writers who don’t give all of their characters the attention they deserve and need.

To avoid this, I often like to take the idea of giving careful attention to my secondary characters a step further.  I hope that my main characters — my hero and villain — will be memorable on their own terms.  Their roles in the plotting of my books almost guarantee that this is so.  But in order to make those minor characters shine a bit more brightly, I like to take chances with them.  I might make them especially quirky — giving them unusual ways or speaking, or uncommon physical traits.  I might bury something in their backgrounds or in their current circumstances that will ensure that they play a crucial role in the resolution of my central conflict.  There are no limits to what I can do with them; the very fact that they are minor characters gives me the freedom to challenge myself, to do something truly unusual.  And, as you might expect, that makes them especially fun to play with. 

The other thing I like to do with my minor characters, particularly in my multi-thread, multi-POV epic fantasy work, is use them as point of view characters.  Why?  A couple of reasons.  First, I believe it can be effective occasionally (not too often) to see my main characters through the eyes of other people.  This gives my reader a different perspective on those key characters, and it gives some variety to the voices telling my story.  Second, depending on what those minor characters do for a living, what role they play in my world and my plot, telling a piece of the story through their eyes can give my readers a new and unique perspective on my worldbuilding, and on the twists and turns of my narrative.

All of us have encountered those memorable minor characters in our reading.  Neville Longbottom and Luna Lovegood in the Harry Potter books; Bean in ENDER’S GAME; Gurney Halleck and Duncan Idaho in DUNE.  As readers, we know how much they can add to a book or series.  As writers, we should put that knowledge to work.  We should take the extra time to develop those characters, to make them as real, as interesting, as sympathetic as the main characters to whom we devote so much time and effort.

So, who are some of your favorite minor characters from books you’re read?  And what do you do to make your minor characters stand out?

This will be my last post for a couple of weeks.  I’ll see you all again in August.

David B. Coe
http://davidbcoe.livejournal.com
http://www.DavidBCoe.com
http://magicalwords.net

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20 comments to Basics of Writing, part XII: Creating Minor Characters

  • I absolutely loved the witch Morwen from Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing With Dragons series.

    As for my own minor characters, I just like to think a lot about their own backstory, to give them a good reason for why they are where they are and act the way they do.

    Have a nice break/vacation! Total aside, but do you know if you will all be at ConCarolinas again next year? (Just planning for financial reasons. If you don’t know yet, no worries.)

  • I’m actually doing this right now, trying to dream up a minor character to bring a little color to a portion of the story which needs something. I’m not even sure what tehir function will be yet, though they will certainly have one. Right now the character is almost an extension of world building, if you know what I mean.

  • One of favorites is Marvin the Robot from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

    In tha tlight, one aspect of a minor character can be to play counterpoint to the MC ‘s traits or personality. If your MC is dark and broody, make the minor be happy-go-lucky. If teh MC is friendly, make the minor be emotionally closed off. That way you get to have the character play off one another and potentially make some conflict points in the story.

  • P.S. – Hurry back, David! You will be missed!

  • David, I have more fun creating 2ndary characters than almost anything else. It is enlivening, especially when a series is 4 or 5 books along and the story arcs need new push, new intensity.

    I joke about killing someone when that happens, and when I do kill off an existing character, it does open up new slots in the word count for new characters, who bring their own problems and conflicts into the mix. That adds so many unexpected twists and turns.

    The book I’m currently rewriting uses the Everhart sisters and the Trueblood family, with a big dash this time of Big Evan Trueblood, a character who has been pushed to the background all too often. Now he is in the foreground, and is lot to deal with.

    Have a great vacation and time off, and come back to us refreshed!

  • One of my all-time favorite secondary characters is the giant, Saltheart Foamfollower, from the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. His death in the third book of that series affected me as much as the death of any character I’ve ever read. Heck, I haven’t read those books since high school, but Saltheart’s name is right there on the tip of my tongue. It may be necessary to go back ad re-read those books to see if I can figure out why…

    You hit on one thing I’ve thought before, too, David, in that you can give secondary characters quirks and mannerisms that are very unusual. So unusual, in fact, that if we gave those quirks and mannerisms to main character, they would quickly grow annoying. It’s got to be done judiciously: in my opinion the more extreme the quirk is, the more infrequently that character ought to appear.

  • Laura, thanks. Looking forward to a little time off. And yes, right now my plan is to be at ConCarolinas, and I believe my fellow MWers will be there, too.

    A.J., yes, I know exactly what you mean. There is definitely a sense of worldbuilding in the work I do on secondary characters. When drawn well, they not only reinforce character work and plotting, but they also contribute to the ambiance of the entire work.

    Mark, I agree. Just as a good villain can sometimes be either very much like the main character or his/her exact opposite, so can a good secondary character. Those links deepen and enrich the relationships among characters. And thanks for the good wishes.

    Faith, thanks. I feel the same way. I LOVE creating and writing secondary characters. There is just so much you can do with them. Can’t wait to read your new WIP.

    Edmund, I know what you mean and fear that at times I have overworked some quirks in the way you describe. As with so many things, there is a balance to be found. It’s not always easy to locate, but it’s there, somewhere. I also have to agree that Foamfollower has always been one of my favorite characters. His death was beautifully done and hit me hard, too.

  • Lately I’ve been doing the same sort of development work for my secondary characters as for my main characters – I’ve been doing a two-part character bio and 1st-person POV introduction of each character. But I hadn’t thought so much about the “quirks” thing. That seems like a good little trick to use.

  • I think the giants in the Thomas Covenant series represented Thomas’ more noble side until such times as he got over being such a dic*wad. Pitchwife was my favourite among them.

  • henderson

    David,

    Enjoy the break.

    Interesting topic and very helpful. What happens if the story does not have a clearly identifiable main character or main characters? Do treat each character as a minor character?

  • Razziecat

    Developing characters is probably my favorite part of writing. I don’t think of my non-MC people as “minor,” especially if they’re the MC’s best friend or spouse. I, too, like to give them qualities that complement or conflict with the MC; in fact sometimes they conflict with some important aspect of the world itself. Makes life interesting for the MC and for me as well!:)

    I think Pippin in Lord of the Rings is my favorite “minor” character, although he’s only minor in that he never carries the ring. And I really get a kick out of CMOT Dibbler in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels! He’s never the MC or the focus of the story, but he’s always around somewhere.

  • I cried when Foamfollower died, and put the book down for almost a week! And in the second trilogy, when ALL the giants were dead – I was crushed!
    Sometimes it’s fun, too, when a secondary characters exists merely to bug the main character. We all have those people in our lives who just rub us the wrong way. We don’t know why we don’t like their company, we just don’t. Anti-pherenomes? These are much harder to write, and justify, but when done right, it makes for fun reading.

  • Stephen, the bio and first person approach sounds like a great way to get to know your characters. As for the quirks thing, as ED says, it can be overdone. But it moderation, yeah, it’s a lot of fun.

    Widder, I agree. The giants were just great characters, even the bad Raver giants in the second series. I liked Pitchwife, too.

    Henderson, it’s probably a matter of semantics, given what I’ve written in this post, but if I was writing a piece with no identifiable “major” characters, but rather a pantheon of lead characters, I would treat them all like major characters. I would take extra care to make certain that each was as fully drawn and developed as possible. And I sense that this is just what you were suggesting with your question. As I say, semantics. Thanks for the comment.

    Razz, I know just what you mean, and I had some qualms about the terminology I used in the title and in the post. As you can tell from the substance of what I’ve written, I believe, as you do, that there really aren’t any “minor” characters. Luna and Neville aren’t really minor any more than Pippen is (I always preferred Merry, by the way). I think we’re both basically saying the same thing. Treat every character as a fully developed person, and your work will benefit; your readers will care more. Thanks.

    Lyn, yes, that’s another great way to use the “minor” characters: as a foil, of a sort for your hero. Not a full-blown nemesis, but just someone who gets under his or her skin. The larger point, I think, is that minor characters can enrich a book in as many ways as we writers can imagine.

  • I admit, when one of the weasley twins (and I can’t remember which, George?) died, I cried in the book. I also wrote a scene in our WIP today where an animal (maybe) dies. Our MC’s puppy. Yeah, that wasn’t easy to write–the dog had quite the personality. :)

    My fav. minor characters–I like zombie Reg Shoe in the Sam Vines Pratchett books, and I love the woman that Vetnari plays Thud with… Corporal Nobbs, Captain Colon, those seem like minor characters, but they aren’t. Nobby may be a bit early on, but by the end of the series, he’s quite important. I think Pratchett does an excellent job of using minor character, like David suggested, as worldbuilding as much as character building. Locals can help show what a world is like as much as the MC experiencing it for him or herself (esp. if he or she is new to the world).

    Anyway, good stuff to keep in mind as I revise my WIP! :) Thanks David!

  • pepperthorn

    I think JK Rowling is the master of minor characters. There’s not a single named character in the entire series that I don’t have a pretty strong opinion about. When Molly pulled out her wand to take on Bellatrix, I cheered (and totally startled my poor cat). When Prof. Flitwick pretends that he can’t get rid of the Weasley twins charmed swamp, I nearly choked on my tea from laughing. I need to go back and study some of the early books and see how she does it.

  • I adore The Dead Man from Glen Cook’s Garrett P.I. series. He’s not actually a man (he’s a Loghyr, which is a species that resembles what would happen if a man mated with a small elephant) and even though he’s dead, he’s still conscious. He’s telepathic and telekinetic and sarcastic as hell, the way a gumshoe detective’s right-hand man ought to be.

  • Jeremy Beltran

    my favorite secondary characters have to be Cherry Cat from John Steakley’s Vampire$, Karrin Murphy & Thomas Raith from the Dresden Files, and its a toss up John Pritkin (who is nearly a main character) and Mircea Basarab from Karen Chance’s Novels. I came to her novels because of Mircea. I had been researching his life for a novel idea for years before I did an internet search and found out about her novels. I wanted to see if she had the same take on him as by then I could describe him and his personality better than I could my best friends. While he is a historical figure to me he had become a real live person with as many faults as favors.

    I seem to make characters the best of anything I do. I give the minor ones their fair share they need to come alive. but the MC I try to live and breathe them. As i said earlier I’ve researched Mircea for a long time I started grabbing every book I could find on him and his family since 1989. I know its a long time. And he isnt even the MC of current WIP. I want to give him his own novel but for this one hes a minor character.

    I just wish I could figure out this plot. my current WIP has stopped and started so many times that my characters are gonna go on strike soon if I dont figure out where were going.

  • Wow is this timely. As I wait for the last of my beta feedback to come in for SONG OF FURY, I’ve been trying to figure out how much to flesh out the cast.

    When I started, the story was about the MC, but since he’s thrown in with a bunch of other people (30), I fleshed out a few around him. I’m worried that the deaths of the minor characters will fall flat without knowing enough about them, but too much time in their world will detract from the MCs story. Or will it? Balancing act required.

    While I wait, I’ve been making notes, drafting deeper backgrounds, and trying to make these people real in my head, then when I revise, I can add the details that count and hopefully breathe some life into the cardboard cutouts.

    Cheers,
    NGD
    (o)=====]O[============>
    http://actionadventurefantasy.com/

  • @NewGuyDave: Your ascii sword is tres cool.

  • David,

    Thank you for your help. I never quite felt right with my secondary characters and I think that this has helped me.

    -Ian
    http://iandscofield.com