Home » Fiction Fundamentals, Writing Advice » 6 Tips for Writing Minor Characters

6 Tips for Writing Minor Characters

28 September 2014

From Writeonsisters.com:

I’m sure most writers know how to craft a major character; they understand the importance of their leads and that they should occupy the most page space. Yet every story needs supporting characters. Today, it’s all about the minor players, those characters we see briefly and yet are so well written they’ll stick with us.

. . . .

Give them a reason for being there. I know it’s tempting to flood your pages with all the colorful characters your mind can dream up, but if characters have no role to play in the plot, they need to go. Remember it can be a small part, or even an addition to the subplot, but they should serve a purpose.

. . . .

Tie them to a fixed place or single role. Context helps readers keep characters straight. If you confine the minor character to a single location or the same job the reader is more likely to remember them. Keep that helpful teacher at school, or make confusion over seeing the teacher in a new context part of the exchange.

. . . .

Although great minor characters help every book, in series books they become an even bigger asset. Put simply, minor characters make your world building feel real.

Link to the rest at From Writeonsisters.com

Fiction Fundamentals, Writing Advice

8 Comments to “6 Tips for Writing Minor Characters”

  1. In my writing, any minor character who gets more than a passing mention serves a very specific purpose: to oppose the main character in a meaningful way, or to act as an important ally to the main character.

    Opposing characters aren’t always “antagonists” in the usual sense of the word. Sometimes they’re allies who tell the main character something he doesn’t want to face, but needs to face.

    For example, in Tidewater, Matthew Scrivener is the only person who John Smith will even halfway listen to when he says, “No, really, John — the reason why nobody likes you is because you’re a total jerk.” Winganuske exists because her effortless attainment of status is a constant reminder to Pocahontas of what she also wants for her life (and can’t have without an extreme amount of effort.)

    These minor characters are crucial to writing rich fiction, and I think we all “get” that intuitively, but a lot of writers think that minor characters make fiction rich because they’re quirky and interesting. But in reality, every single character, every movement of the plot, and every symbolic image should work directly on your main character’s (or characters’) progression from flawed to fixed.

    What makes fiction feel rich and deep isn’t layers of random quirkiness, but an entire universe that reflects and facilitates the struggle and change of your central figure. That goes extra for minor characters.

    • I’m glad I already do this pretty well without having come across such advice before. And that I’m coming across it while tired. If I wasn’t tired, this would probably block me until I figured out if I’m already doing it.

      And, Libby, I try to do what you suggest as well. If a side character doesn’t directly affect my Main Character(s), they serve as the “gate” to a situation or another character who does affect my character somehow–or, as you say, will lead them from flawed to fixed.

  2. I don’t need 6 tips for writing minor characters.

    My characters — major and minor — are people to me, not one-dimensional stick figures that I move about. I write people. Some have major parts in the story. Some have minor parts in the story. I reveal only the part of them necessary for the story, but the whole is still there, and I am aware of it.

    • Agreed. I’m thinking of writing an article “You may be a hack book marketer if you’re writing these kind of blog posts.”

      Lists containing thin advice like this read fine, but demonstrate that not much thought or experience has gone into it. It’s as if a marketer decides to write one book, then set themselves up as an expert.

      What’s especially funny is going back to one person’s site after few years after he/she did a presentation at a writer’s conference. This person has several books in a series out, yet her website hasn’t been updated to reflect it.

      By sheer coincidence, a writer with far more credibility wrote a column about minor characters that’s far more interesting than this one: “Crew No-Nos” at Paperback Writer.

    • My characters — major and minor — are people to me, not one-dimensional stick figures…

      Same. I never think up a plot and then try to move all the pieces around to bring it off. I’d be bored to tears by that. I enjoy the “loose cannon on deck” experience for writing. “Real” people walk into my head and bump up against one another and the “realities” of my setting, and the story ensues.

  3. There’s nothing more frustrating, to me, than to read a book or a series where the ‘minor characters’ take over the plot. The main plot is frozen while these characters are on stage.

    If I need a score card to track characters, there are too many. Roles should be combined, if the author wants to give the supporting characters more ‘screen time’ fine, cut some of the other characters.

    I was fortunate to learn this lesson with the first novel that I published. Combining characters turned it from a cast of 20 to a cast of 10 with one character taking in most of the supporting roles.

    I’m reading a famous fantasy series right now and I’m really disappointed to have purchased one of the books to find it was nothing but the collected POV’s of minor characters – nothing that happened in that volume advanced the plot one inch. The ‘never ending story with the cast of thousands’ is a fantasy cliche.

    At least I didn’t purchase the hardback. I’d be wanting my money back.

    • If I need a score card to track characters, there are too many.

      You speak the truth you know, and I, the truth I know.
      –Ursula LeGuin, The Word for World Is Forest

      How do you define minor character?

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