Character Studies: Minor Characters

Minor characters are complex creatures, sometimes even moreso than the protagonist. When making story decisions, the protagonist’s decisions, motivations, and personal growth are what shape the tale. The story is built around them. Minor characters, however, are built around both the protagonist and the story in equal importance. They should draw the reader’s attention to things that are specific and significant, that otherwise might not be brought out as clearly.

Not all minor characters have the same level of importance. Some of them are major minor characters or minor major characters. In general, this post concerns those two types – the minor characters who are side-by-side with your protagonist for large portions of, or significant events in the story.

There is a keen difference between minor characters and background characters, or extras. Minor characters aren’t the cabbie in the story for the length of a single car ride, or the bartender who just happens to be serving when your protagonist is out for the night in a place they’ve never been before.

Making minor characters both useful and interesting while allowing them the same amount of independence as your protagonist is a challenge, but having those aspects will make them vital and memorable to the story.

A quick reference for evaluating minor characters serving their roles properly…
(Minor characters don’t need to be able to answer all of these, but preferably at least one from each section.)

  • Usefulness: What do they represent in the story?
    • Do their interactions with the protagonist reflect the theme of the story?
    • Can they be used to benchmark the protagonist’s growth – either negatively or positively?
    • How do they represent the big choice the protagonist needs to make?
    • Are they an example of the consequence for the protagonist failing to meet the story goal?
    • Do they highlight or somehow bring out a critical aspect of the protagonist?
  • Interesting: Who are they?
    • Do they have an origin story?
    • What is their defining characteristic? Do they have at least one?
    • What do they mean to your protagonist?
  • Independence: What decisions do they make that influence the story?
    • Do they have a character arc? (Meaning, do they experience growth during the story?)
    • In what ways do they clash with the protagonist?
    • How do they feel about the protagonist?

Another thing to evaluate your minor characters should be the question of: Are they more than just the voice of reason, or the voice of pessimism, in the story? If they are the angel or devil on the protagonist’s shoulder, be careful they aren’t two dimensional – those sorts of characters can be easily forgettable, and that means they aren’t true minor characters.

Do you have a favorite minor character from a book or movie? Are they a minor major character or a major minor character? What made they unforgettable to you? Can you use that feeling to create a minor character of your own? Comments are always open.

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