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:

  • Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea featured Rochester’s mad wife from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.

bertha mason rochester jane eyre

  • Geoffrey Maguire’s Wicked took a look at L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz from the Wicked Witch’s viewpoint.

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. Great tips! 🙂 I just started editing my book about a week ago, and I plan on making the minor characters more ‘dazzling’. So far I think my most memorable minor characters are a pastor in the book I’m working on now, and a 10-year-old little girl in another of my books. I had fun breaking up the stereotypes and making the characters deeper than they first appear 😉

  2. “Everyone is the hero of his own story”–a good perspective to take with us when we consider these minor characters of ours. Thanks for the insight! And love the picture. Perfect for the subject 🙂

  3. @Mia: Main characters are where writers have to get serious, but minors can be a bit of a playground.

    @Kenda: Sometimes minor characters really do take over stories, in ways we never planned.

  4. The poll results (with 6 responses) was quite interesting.

    If you take your time during the design (outlining) phase, you should be able to readily determine which characters need the workup. You can then start puting in the same type of artistic twists to the more important secondary characters such as the sidekick, the school teacher and the family cat.

  5. Whoa, I’m going back right now and put some dazzle into a couple of my bit players. One in particular. And really, I owe it to him, since I kill him off later.

  6. @Bruce: Emergent minor characters are almost always prominent for me even before I take it to the outline phase. If they’re prominent enough, I’ll even submit them to the in-depth character interviews I designed for my MCs.

    @Melanie: If you plan to kill off a character, all the more reason to dazzle him up early. That way, readers will be more likely to have an emotional investment in him and care when you snuff him out.

  7. awesome post, KM! Thanks for the reminder AND the ideas. you rule~ :o)

  8. @Melanie: If you plan to kill off a character, all the more reason to dazzle him up early. That way, readers will be more likely to have an emotional investment in him and care when you snuff him out.

    I did that with one of my minor charries, almost by accident. And when the character died–one of the first to do so–my friend was so mad at me. I found it ironic, because I knew all along she wouldn’t survive…

  9. @LTM: Glad they were helpful!

    @Galadriel: I’ve had the same thing happen. I had one beta reader who almost called me in the middle of the night after the death of one of my minor characters.

  10. Great advice. I never considered giving a minor character a want or a goal, but all the more reason if you plan to kill them later. 🙂

  11. Uh-oh, sounds like you’ve got some bloodthirsty plans in store!

  12. Some excellent advice in this list and well worth considering. Minor characters really can make or break the enjoyment of the story and it is nice to see some good advice on how to create characters with meaning. Thanks so much for sharing.

  13. Good points. I love minor characters. I think they give us more freedom to bend rules, and we can have fun with them. They usually end up wanting their own stories, though. Then they’re stuck with the rules again.

    Terry
    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

  14. ‘Burly, bodacious, cheeky.’ These words add flavor and inspire envy. Well played, Katie, well played!

  15. Anonymous says

    Huh?

    You say: “Because they aren’t 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.”

    Step 5: Give him an arc

    I don’t get it..

  16. I took that to mean, ‘Because (minor characters) aren’t confined to the necessities of a (major character’s) character arc…

    Typically, minor characters exist solely to provide an assist to a major character’s own character arc and to add humor or pathos or detail to someone else’s story. If I understand Katie correctly, she’s saying to take a little liberty with this habit and give a minor character their own mini-arc to flesh them out and make them more a interesting and richer character.

    If I remember correctly, the major character in The Three Musketeers is actually d’Artagnan, and Aramis, Porthos, and Athos are actually minor characters who play critical roles in d’Artagnan’s story. In one chapter, the POV strayed from d’Artagnan and followed Porthos and his exploits in a tavern of some sort. In stringently plotted stories, the author would resist the temptation to let the POV stray from the main character, however, you can be missing a trick by doing so. In Dumas’ case, we learn something new about both Porthos and events going on in Paris as d’Artagnan is out doing something or other, so the diversion advances the overall plot even while the POV is temporarily off-stage.

    It’s a bold idea, and worth a shot for novelists.

  17. @Cassandra: Minor characters are kind of like a good side dish at a meal. You don’t *need* them if the main dish is good, but they definitely add extra enjoyment.

    @Terry: Writers, as a rule, tend to be too rule-bound, I think. Minors do give us an opportunity to let our hair down a little.

    @Anonymous: Minor characters, by definition, are *not* confined to a traditional character arc. We’re free to let them be as whimsical and random as we like. But that doesn’t mean we can’t occasionally choose to deepen a minor character to the extent of giving him an arc of his own.

    @Phy: Good example. The Three Musketeers sports a marvelously well-rounded cast. Athos, in particular, bears a interestingly deep character arc of his own.

  18. I was going to mention that Tom Stoppard’s ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’ is a brilliant look at what minor Shakespearean characters do when they aren’t on stage as part of the production of Hamlet.

    “The play concerns the misadventures and musings of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two minor characters from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet who are childhood friends of the Prince, focusing on their actions with the events of Hamlet as background. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is structured as the inverse of Hamlet; the title characters are the leads, not supporting players, and Hamlet himself has only a small part. The duo appears on stage here when they are off-stage in Shakespeare’s play, with the exception of a few short scenes in which the dramatic events of both plays coincide. In Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are used by the King in an attempt to discover Hamlet’s motives and to plot against him. Hamlet, however, mocks them derisively and outwits them, so that they, rather than he, are killed in the end. Thus, from Rosencrantz’s and Guildenstern’s perspective, the action in Hamlet is largely nonsensically comical.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosencrantz_and_Guildenstern_Are_Dead

  19. Sounds good. I have a fondness for stories that riff on well-known classics.

  20. The film version is worth chasing down, and stars Tim Roth, Gary Oldman, and Richard Dreyfuss:

    http://www.netflix.com/WiMovie/Rosencrantz_and_Guildenstern_Are_Dead/60034967?strackid=3058dda1a4da5e99_0_srl&strkid=1138246616_0_0&trkid=438381

    The write-up at Movie Guide is actually pretty good:
    http://www.movieguide.org/archive/32/7308

    “Loping their way to Elsinore on donkeys, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern toss coins as a test of probability theory (eerily, heads always wins). Moreover, they inadvertently make many discoveries in physics and even “invent” the paper airplane. They also play a kind of word-tennis rather like an Abbott and Costello routine, a game of verbal one-upmanship on a badminton court.”

    I loved the unique, bizarre cadence of the film. While it is a minor film about minor characters, some of the scenes are instant classics and some of the questions raised by the story stayed with me long after lesser comedies were forgotten. So that’s something.

  21. All right, I’m hooked. I’ll have to read the book, just so I can let myself watch a movie with Tim Roth and Gary Oldman in it.

  22. Excellent points! I particularly like the idea of a minor character getting an arc that echoes or contrasts with the MC’s arc. That could be very useful in my WIP.

  23. The strongest stories are those that are able to develop their thematic arcs in many different layers. Minor characters can be fantastically useful in this regard.

  24. Great post but I think that a lot of it has to do with how you convey those things to the reader. A lot of that comes down to word choice. I find tools like The Thinker’s Thesaurus by Peter Meltzer to be very useful to me as a writer.

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

  26. 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!

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

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

  29. So glad you found it worth your time!

  30. 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 🙂

  31. 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.

  32. 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!

  33. 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.

  34. 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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