major role of minor characters

The Major Role of Minor Characters

Minor characters can make or break a story just as surely as can a protagonist. I’ve been thinking lately of two decidedly minor characters in two of my works-in-progress. Although both impact the plot in crucial ways, neither is irreplaceable or deserving of more than a handful of scenes. But both of them taught me some vital lessons in the art of the minor character.

Minor Character #1: Lady Eloise in Behold the Dawn

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Lady Eloise stormed her way into my novel of the Third Crusade, Behold the Dawn, as the wife of Lord Stephen of Essex, the man who would provide sanctuary to my hero’s beleaguered wife, Mairead. Eloise’s only necessary role in the story was to indicate Lord Stephen’s matrimonial state and, perhaps, give Mairead someone to converse with. She could so easily have become a vapid, two-dimensional talking head: a sweet, meek old woman in a wimple. But, thanks to a reminder from bestselling author James Scott Bell, such was not to be Eloise’s fate.

Minutes before sitting down to write Eloise’s introduction, I read Bell’s article “Second to None” (Writer’s Digest, June 2005), in which he reminded writers:

Minor characters should add spice to your novel, not dull it down. Well-conceived minor characters add an extra spark that distinguishes the best fiction from everything else.

With his words ringing in my head, I approached Eloise’s scene from an entirely new vantage point. What could I do to bring this seemingly irrelevant character to life? How could I keep her from falling into the role of a stereotypical talking head? What would make her pop?

From there on, Eloise (like all good characters) took over:

The door banged open again, and a silver-headed woman bustled into the room. Quick gray eyes took in the two visitors and landed with visible delight on Mairead. She bowed to the room at large and turned back to Annan. “Master Annan—delighted to see you, of course. I rather expected you to be dead by now.”

Her unexpected and acerbic comments, her physical energy, and her unequivocal opinions made her jump off the page. She wasn’t a likable character; she forced her unwanted opinions on other characters too often for that. But she was a real character. Her foibles and her quirks were balanced by a stout moral core. Eloise did whatever she thought was right and hanged the consequences. The fact that she wasn’t always right only deepened her dimensions.

Minor Character #1: Brooke Andreola in Dreamlander

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The lesson Lady Eloise taught me in the summer of 2005 was brought home again more recently by another character. Dreamlander, a then active work-in-progress, demanded a relatively minor character to fill the role of my hero’s best friend’s sister. The story itself has undergone dramatic changes since its conception, but somehow Brooke Andreola had failed to change along with them.

In early sketches, she appeared on the page as a blonde Barbie type: self-centered, arrogant, and even vampish. She was stereotypical, at best. Worse, she refused to act on the page in anything even approaching three dimensions. Surgery was obviously the order of the day. I didn’t want a Paris Hilton carbon copy roaming my pages.

Suddenly, Brooke’s hair went from long and sleek to crazy and curly. She sprouted freckles and dimples. She became cute and spontaneous, and I was immediately drawn to her. But she was also a little ditzy. Gone is the aloof clothing designer, and in her place quivers the manic energy of an earnest do-gooder. She’s flaky, a smidge crazy, and entirely moony over the hero. In other words, she’s perfect.

Like Eloise, Brooke is now a well-rounded, three-dimensional character. Both characters have a healthy balance of good traits and bad traits. Both characters add to their scenes, instead of adding so much dead weight. And—I can only hope—both characters are capable of bringing that extra spark of which James Scott Bell fortuitously reminded me years ago. May his words remind you too.

Tell me your opinion: What brings to life your favorite minor character in your work-in-progress?

major role of minor characters

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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.


  1. Hey kiddo!

    Yeah, I loved Eloise — you did an excellent job on her! Lotsa snap and crackle with her around.

    You ever gonna give me a peek at Dreamers Come? It sounds interesting.


  2. Now I will also have to read your novels too. You are turning out to be a lot of work on your own :3

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