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