5 Steps to Dazzling Minor Characters

5 Steps to Writing Minor Characters That Dazzle

5 Steps to Dazzling Minor CharactersIn writing minor characters, authors must provide the color and conflict that fill the protagonist’s worlds. Because minor characters aren’t always confined to the necessities of a character arc or the demands of the plot, they often have the opportunity to be some of the most exciting personalities on the page.

In my own stories, many of my favorite characters filled the role of second banana: Peregrine Marek, the cheeky indentured servant in Behold the Dawn; Orias Tarn, the lone-wolf Cherazim warrior caught between two impossible choices in my fantasy Dreamlander; and Griff Hitchcock, the stand-up but deeply wounded brother of my free-flying protagonist in Storming.

K.M. Weiland Novels Behold the Dawn Dreamlander Behold the Dawn

In order to create a cast of minor characters that can stand toe to toe with your protagonists and broaden the thematic resonance of the story, you 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.

For example:

bertha mason rochester jane eyre

wicked broadway musical

5 Ways to Approach Writing Minor Characters

Following are five steps for writing minor characters that dazzle with color and personality.

1. Think Beyond the Cliché

Instead of a taxi 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 Minor Characters Unique Personalities

If your protagonist is playing the straight man, that provides the opportunity to 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 August 2005 Writer’s Digest article “Life After Death” about how:

…[Stephen King’s use of dead-end characters] ratchets up suspense by not telegraphing who will survive the story.

3. Give Minor Characters Goals

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 Minor Characters Stakes

What happens if she doesn’t reach her goal? Memoirist Melissa Hart writes in her August 2010 Writer article “What’s at stake?” that:

…the reader must be aware of what’s at stake for every character.

5. Give Minor Characters Arcs

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.

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Indeed – as does everything in the writing game. But good characters seem have to the occasionally magic ability to transcend problematic writing.

  2. I have always loved your minor characters. When they’re on the scene, they shine like the spotlight is exclusively on them. Great post, wonderful advice!

  3. Thanks. Your encouragement is always special! I know you like the comic relief bits!

  4. Wow! Awesome and UNIQUE post that is really worthwhile. Thank you so much!

  5. So glad you found it worth your time!

  6. By far, I don’t have a good cast of minor characters in my WIP. But that doesn’t mean that I won’t add any.
    Then these tips will surely be helpful 🙂

  7. Also make the story a whole lot more worldly. If one makes a character and just keep writing about him, it will be quite narrow. All of real peoples personal evolution contains many stories of others as well. No one is brought to world alone or died alone 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Not that isn’t *possible* to write a story with just one character, but there are few instances where we’d actually want to.

  8. Shane R Dean says

    Great tips. I do some of this already, but this was a good reminder, plus a few things I haven’t paid a lot of attention to. Thanks for this!

  9. Hannah Killian says

    Not sure how minor he is, but the highschool bully in one of my prequels ended up with a redemption arc somehow. He becomes the voice of reason character, and has a good dose of sarcasm and snark.

  10. M.L. Bull says

    Interesting post with good helpful tips! Minor characters are like the toppings on a huge ice cream sundae, making it taste a little better. They can use them in many creative ways in a story.

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