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. Sometimes the minor characters can steal the show. It’s not uncommon for TV shows to migrate a single episode character into a recurring one because viewers demand more.
Follow these tips and you’ll create a few background characters worthy of a readers’ attention.
- 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.
- Make them relate to the protagonist or antagonist in a meaningful way. It helps to use them as a contrasting character point. If your protagonist is a stickler for details who methodically follows a ten year life plan, running across someone who never has a plan might be the ideal situation for creating an emotional shake-up.
- 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.
- Use them more then once. This is not a hard and fast rule, but it helps. One effective method is to mention the character’s name in passing before or after you’ve show them to the reader. As I pointed out last week, talking about absent characters is a great way to help readers remember them.
- Include some personal details. It’s best if you use both physical details and emotional ones. You don’t need to tell the reader everything about a minor character, it might be better if you didn’t, but you should know their backstory. With minor characters I tend to think the writer should include a ballpark age, a hint to temperament and one standout physical detail or quirky trait.
- Keep in mind this is a minor character, so don’t go crazy. You may not want them overshadowing the protagonist. Or maybe you do. Sometimes minor characters have a viewpoint to share that changes the story in an exciting way. If they refuse to stay silent, maybe they have the makings of a secondary character.
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. You don’t need to make every character walking down the street a work of art, but giving the reader a few fresh, funky, powerful minor players is fun and appreciated by most readers. Who knows, you just might create a character worthy of staring in your next book.