In order to create a cast of minor characters that can stand toe to toe with our protagonists and broaden the thematic resonance of the story, we must recognize each minor character—no matter how small his role in the story—as a personality just as complete and complex as the most elaborate main character. Everyone is the hero of his own story, and in a different version of your historical drama, the train conductor who garners just one sentence could have been the protagonist. (Some wildly successful books have taken a deeper look at famous minor characters. Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Seafeatured Rochester’s mad wife from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and Geoffrey Maguire’s Wicked took a look at L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Ozfrom the Wicked Witch’s viewpoint.)
Following are five steps for creating minor characters that dazzle with color and personality:
1. Think beyond the cliché. Instead of a taxi cab driver who navigates the Chicago streets like a maniac, why not one who’s so timid he can barely creep across the intersection during a light? Instead of a wide-eyed young woman who comes to New York dreaming of acting on Broadway, why not one who dreams of building skyscrapers?
2. Give him a unique personality. If your protagonist is playing the straight man, you can often have fun with outrageous minor characters. Sidekicks, in particular, often get to fill this role. But even what author Sandra Dark calls “dead-end characters” should be brimming with unique personalities. She writes in her article “Life After Death” (Writer’s Digest, August 2005) about how Stephen King’s use of dead-end characters “ratchets up suspense by not telegraphing who will survive the story.”
3. Give him a goal. Nothing brings a character to life more quickly than a desire. If this desire can mirror your protagonist’s to strengthen the thematic arc or oppose your protagonist’s to increase the conflict, so much the better.
4. Give him stakes. What happens if he doesn’t reach his goal? Memoirist Melissa Hart writes in her article “What’s at stake?” (The Writer, August 2010) that “the reader must be aware of what’s at stake for every character,” not just the protagonist.
5. Give him an arc. If he has a goal and a stake, why not a full-blown character arc? If you can give one or two prominent minor characters a mini arc that either echoes or contrasts the protagonist’s, you’ll be able to deepen the meaning and complexity of both the main character’s journey and the thematic arc as a whole.
For every vivid minor character with whom you surround your protagonist, you’ll be able to give readers one more reason not to put your story down.
Related Posts: The Major Role of Minor Characters
Why Character Stereotypes Are a Good Thing
The All-Important Link Between Theme and Character
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Story by K.M. Weiland