Making Memorable Minor Characters

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been reading the classic book Ginger Pye with my children. It’s a Newbery Medal winner, written by Eleanor Estes in 1950. Of course there are some dated fiction techniques, things that we modern writers can’t emulate if we hope to have a publishable book.

But one thing that Estes does really well is that she makes her minor characters memorable. As the story unfolded, I couldn’t keep from studying the brilliant way she handled those ancillaries.

So often writers have the tendency to put a lot of attention and care into shaping major characters. And we neglect our minors who then end up resembling cardboard cutouts. At the opposite extreme, we can try too hard to bring our minors to life and allow them to take over the story altogether.

How can we find a balance when creating our secondary characters? Here are just a few techniques I use:

1. Find a unique name.  

In Ginger Pye, Estes uses names like Uncle Bennie (for a 3 year old child who happens to be the uncle to the hero & heroine), Sam Doody, and Mrs. Speedy. The names aren’t overdone, but they’re still unique enough that combined with other elements can help set the characters apart.

In The Doctor’s Lady, one of my favorite minor characters is named Black Squire. What initial impression does Black Squire create? Does he sound like a good guy or bad guy? Names can evoke an initial impression, that may or may not be true. But they help solidify the character in our reader’s mind.

2. Give them tags. 

In Ginger Pye, Sam Doody’s tag is that he’s really tall. Estes describes him by saying, “Every time any little boy or girl met him they always asked him how the air was up there.” And later in the book, when Sam Doody is helping to look for the stolen puppy, he promises to look over all the tall fences for the dog. The tallness tag helps to make Sam Doody memorable whenever he appears. We aren’t left wondering who he was.

Tags are unique descriptions that we use almost every time that person shows up on the stage. And when planning our minor characters tags, we should search beyond the cliché and ordinary for actions, speech patterns, characteristics, physical descriptions that identify the character.

3. Place them on stage strategically.

In Ginger Pye, Estes skillfully plants Uncle Bennie (the blankie-loving three-year-old) at various points in the book. At the end, he’s the character who helps find the missing dog. He’s placed in the story with his squeaky cart in such a way that when he finds the dog it makes logical sense.

When our minor characters show up on stage, they need to serve a purpose within the scene in some way in the short term, but we also need to keep the long term vision for why they’re there. In what ways are they helping to bring about the conclusion of the story?

4. Give them levels of importance. 

We’ll have some minor characters that may only make an appearance once or twice and won’t be worth the time to describe. And then we’ll have other minor characters that we can use for a variety of purposes.

Before adding a new minor character, I try to evaluate if another character who is already on the stage can do the “job” first. When we have too many miscellaneous people standing around, they can clutter up and detract from what’s happening. The fewer the characters, the more memorable we can make each one.

The key is finding a way, like Estes did, to imprint an image of our secondary characters onto reader minds that’s clear and memorable, but not more vibrant than our hero and heroines.

How about you? How memorable are you making your minor characters? What is one of the most memorable minor characters you’ve read about lately? What made that character stand out?

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  1. Hmmm, I'm not sure how well I handle minor characters but I posted today about Jule Lessman's most recent book and I really love her character Gabe.

  2. Nora Roberts always seems to have really memorably minor characters. I just read (okay, skimmed) Where the Heart Is by Billie Lettes, and the minor characters struck me right away. I mean, she has a character named Sister Husband with blue hair who gives the protagonist a gift basket with a calendar in it and then says how the protagonist is to ignore the couple AA meetings she scheduled in there. Don't think I'll be forgetting Sister Husband any time soon. :-)

    And yes, I need to get better at making my own secondary characters stand out. I seem to add tags at the beginning of the novel but don't carry them through the rest of the story.

  3. Good morning Jessica and Naomi!
    It was great to see you at ACFW, Jessica! And Naomi, how did I miss seeing you there? Boy, what a bummer that we didn't meet! It is hard to remember to carry out those tags throughout the book. I sketch out a few important things about my minor characters and refer back to my list throughout the book. I also don't want to overdo the tags! There's such a balancing act, isn't there?

  4. I love minor characters. They're subtle, yet without them I don't think the book would be as good.

    And I think that having minor characters with unique names gives them more creedence on the page. Makes you never forget them.

  5. I had such fun with the minor characters in my debut novel. My desire was to make each of them unique and memorable but not so much so that any of them stole the show. One of the biggest validations that I did OK was that my publisher used two of the secondary characters in my marketing copy. The marketing team seemed to really "get" the characters, presenting them exactly as I'd envisioned them. It's my hope that readers will enjoy them and what they add to the story.

  6. Hi Anne & Keli! I truly do think that our minor characters add a layer of richness to our stories that major characters alone can't do. And it's definitely something I'm becoming more conscious of improving with each book!

  7. This is so helpful, thanks a bunch for pointing these things out. Also I will have to get this book now. :)

  8. I love creating minor characters. They help shape the main character, help push or pull him/her along to achieve the goal. Without minor characters, books would fall flat.

    Happy Wednesday!

  9. Hmm, I never gave minor characters this much thought. I mean, I think about them when I'm writing and usually give them a tag and specific purpose, but otherwise left them be.

    This is an encouraging and eye-opening list--thanks, Jody!

  10. I just invented a minor character who is a cemetery groundskeeper and remembered where everyone was buried. I had fun with that one. This is a helpful post! Thanks Jody!

  11. Hi everyone! So glad the list is helpful! And Liza, a cemetery groundskeeper sounds VERY memorable! Love it! :-)

  12. Thanks Jodie, I found this post extremely helpful and thought provoking. Thanks for sharing!

  13. I'd like to think that not many of my minor characters fall into the 'cardboard' realm...

    But as far as the other side of the scale goes... *clears throat*

    One of my minor characters has become my favorite character ever. Her backstory is this year's NaNoWriMO novel.

    Does it count as 'taking over the story' if they become the main character of the next book -- the prequel?

  14. Hi @Silent Pages! I don't think we want to confuse our readers about who our main characters are. We want them to clearly be rooting for the hero and heroines of our stories. So while we need to bring our minors to life, they can't outshine the real heroes! But, I know plenty of authors who pull a minor out of the book to use in the next book. I definitely think that's workable (and we can give our readers somewhat of a teaser or the desire to keep reading the next book to find out what happens). But even with that, they can't take over the story, ya know? :-)

  15. This is one of my favorite books, and such a good example of each point you've made.

    Have a great week. :)

  16. Ginger Pye is one of my favorite books, and Uncle Bennie a favorite as well. I recommend The Middle Moffat by the same author. Another favorite book with good secondary characters is A Single Shard--an absolute gem. Crane man is used in multiple ways from the irony of his name to the life lessons he teaches the protagonist.

    I think these unique minor characters really infuse a richness into the great books.

  17. This is super timely for me-- I am just working on these very details right now. Love the idea of levels of importance- such a great way to look at it. Thanks for giving me a little more direction!

  18. Makes sense, Jody...

    My biggest problem is that my main characters always hide from me until I'm doing the rewrite. XD And a lot of times, I worry that they're not sympathetic enough for the reader... I'll have to work on keeping my minor characters in the background until it comes time for them to shine. :]

  19. Kudos to you for sharing books with your kids, instead of just keeping it your career. A teacher read "Swampy and Babs in the Okeenokee" by Zan Heyward to us during my elementary years. Those afternoons planted seeds that grew into my own desire to write. I recently found a signed copy of the book on Amazon for a few dollars. Good thing they had no idea what I would have paid for it.

  20. I loved Ginger Pye as a girl! Pinky Pye, too.

  21. YA author John Greene is brilliant at this. I've read his books, and each minor character still stands out in my mind. And I never got any of them confused because he did such a great job of making them unique.

  22. Estes does really well is that she makes her minor characters memorable.
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