Every story needs minor characters to add layers of richness and dimension. But like every other element or technique that we employ in our stories, minor characters should be added with purpose.
There are three general TYPES of minor characters:
1. Pivotal minor characters who play an integral part in the story: the main character's sister, a old fling, a grandmotherly caretaker, etc. Almost always we give these minors a name and distinguishing tag.
2. Walk-on minor characters who are there for a moment and then gone: a cashier at the grocery store, a mad cab driver, a creepy neighbor, etc. Usually we don't need to name these characters or describe them, but we can if they appear more than once.
3. Background minor characters who are never named, but only referenced in general terms: other dancers, guests sitting at the tables, hordes of zombies, etc. These minors never need names or descriptions except in the most general terms.
We want to make sure that we're not overpopulating our manuscript with minor characters, otherwise readers may have a difficult time keeping names and faces straight. Before adding a new minor character, we can evaluate if another character that is already on the stage can do the “job” first or if we should simply have another background character that isn't named.
In other words, when we have too many miscellaneous people standing around, they can clutter up and detract from the really important story elements. In addition, the fewer the minor characters, the more memorable we can make each one.
As we narrow down those pivotal minor characters that truly need to be included in the story, sometimes it helps to discover what ROLE they will play in the major character's life. Here are some common roles that minor characters can have:
• Mentor: Wise counselor-type of people that the main characters (MCs) can turn to for wisdom, advice, or help. Mentors help the MCs realize the error of their ways, help them think through problems, or are instrumental in their spiritual growth. Often mentors help the MCs see the obstacles that are separating him or her from their true love.
• Competition: We may add in another man or woman to serve as competition to a budding romance, to a potential job promotion, or a coveted acting role.
• Tease/Humor: We might have one of our minor characters there to add some comedic relief or to lighten the mood especially during those tense moments in the character development and plot.
• Protector: This type of minor character is someone who watches over the MC, defends, provides financially, shelters, or fixes things. Perhaps the protector will even try to protect the heroine from the hero for a time.
• Contrast: We may have a minor character who reflects qualities that our character envies (like wealth, beauty, strength, wit). Or we may add a minor character whose negative qualities emphasize the heroic qualities of our MCs.
• Urchin: Adding in helpless children, an older relative, or someone dependent upon our MCs can help make the MCs more likeable. When readers see our MCs taking care of others, acting selflessly, sacrificing in order to help others, it builds empathy toward the MCs.
• Best Friend: A minor character can be used to reveal our MC's character or true nature. This is the friend, brother, or close confidant who knows our character on an intimate level and sees the person for who they really are, faults and all.
Obviously we don't need each role in every story. Sometimes minor characters can function in more than one role (i.e. acting as both a mentor and protector).
The main point is that we want to avoid randomly dropping minor characters into our stories. Rather we want the minor characters to intertwine integrally so that they enhance the major characters, the plot, and theme. The more we accomplish that, the more satisfying the reading experience we give our readers!
Do you have any pet peeves regarding minor characters? What should writers avoid or employ as they craft minor characters?