Want an Unforgettable Protagonist? Your Minor Characters Are the Secret

Want an Unforgettable Protagonist? Your Minor Characters Are the Secret

This week’s video explains that one of the reasons Deputy Barney Fife was such a great character was because of the other minor characters on the show—and how you can use your minor characters to make your protagonist even more amazing.

Video Transcript:

Your characters are the basic puzzle pieces in any story. You’re going to have anywhere from a couple to dozens of minor charactersall of whom are important because of their relationships with the protagonist.

Need somebody to help your protagonist or get in your protagonist’s way—or just somebody for him to talk to? All you gotta do is introduce one of those minor characters. But in doing so, make sure not to overlook one of your best opportunities for revealing layers of depth in your protagonist.

So what is this great opportunity?

It rests within the kind of relationship your protagonist has with each of the minor characters. You want variety. You want your protagonist’s relationship with each of the minor characters to be different. You want each minor character to reflect upon your protagonist in a way that is totally different from all the other characters. And if he isn’t creating a different kind of relationship, then you have to ask yourself why he’s in there at all.

The classic sitcom The Andy Griffith Show is a brilliant example of this. Sidekick Deputy Barney Fife is often a protagonist in his own right. It’s worthwhile to note how different his relationships are with the other characters.

  • You’ve got the sheriff Andy Taylor, who is Barney’s superior, whom Barney looks up to, but to whom he’s also always trying to prove himself an equal. That’s the main relationship.

Andy Taylor and Barney Fife Up in Barney's Room

  • Then you’ve got the dopey filling station attendant Gomer Pyle, who in turn blindly looks up to Barney and whom Barney clearly relishes treating as his sidekick.

Andy Taylor Gomer Pyle Barney Fife Big House

  • And then there’s the town drunk Otis Campbell, to whom Barney obviously feels superior but who refuses, much to Barney’s frustration, to take any guff off Barney.

Barney Fife Otis Campbell

And the list goes on and on. Not only does this provide the show with many varied opportunities for conflict, it also does a wonderful job developing the main character of Barney by showing him reacting to many different kinds of relationships. Give it a try in your story.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How are your protagonist’s relationships with the minor characters different from one another? Tell me in the comments!

Want an Unforgettable Protagonist? Your Minor Characters Are the Secret

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. K.M., sometimes I think you’re reading my mind in terms of the timing of your posts.

    I’m just about to develop the relationship between my protagonist and her fraternal twin. Your post has given me a new insight about this relationship, and how I can use it to deepen my protag’s characterization, and especially how important it will be to add more layers to her characterization.

    Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’ve never written twins, but they seem like they would be fraught with interesting possibilities, both relationally and thematically. Have fun!

  2. I completely agree with this. this is something that I had / have trouble with between 2 support characters, and something that one of my beta readers brought up. They both have a separate purpose but their characters were too similar in my draft.
    My beta reader pointed out Harry Potter, and how individual the characters are in the personalities between Ron and Hermione. If you read one line of dialog, you’re likely able to guess who said it just by how they said it. And they both bring out something completely different in Harry. I think that’s a great example and something to aspire to.
    Great points K.M.! 😀

  3. Louis Wilberger says:

    The best way I can demonstrate this is to look at your own personal relationships. When you are with your spouse, Maurice, the guy that you banter and joke with sees a totally different person. In other words you adjust to each person you come in contact with according to the situation. This is especially important when it comes to the antagonists. My bad guy, Randy, jokes about buying Girl Scout Cookies with Naomi, the waitress at his favorite restaurant one minute and robs a convenience store the next. Give ’em all real lives. Who doesn’t know the joker, the flirt, the complainer, or the super serious A type. Stephen King is one of the best at building interesting characters.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s true – and the more people who are in the room, the more the dynamic changes. The character might be one person with his wife, one person with Maurice, and someone else when they’re both present.

  4. I was just thinking about this a couple weeks ago when I was writing a post for another writer. Minor characters are a great way to reveal the character of the protagonist. When I think about minor characters, I think about how the protagonist treats a waitress at dinner. Whether he treats her with respect or treats her as a servant, the interaction tells us something about the character. I always say you want you want to give serious thought to your main characters so that they serve a purpose in revealing something about your main characters. You don’t want random characters walking onto the pages of your story and taking up precious space. In one of my stories, I have a dominant character talking with a minor character who’s a assistant type, and that interaction highlights his dominant personality.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is an excellent point. We tend to think of minor characters as plot devices, and they certainly are to some extent. But in the best stories, they are always more: they’re always a reflection of the protagonist in some important way.

  5. Valarie Bradshaw says:

    I’m really excited about finding your blog! I discovered it on pinterest last night, and I was up until like 2 AM reading content. I’m about 20,000 words into a first draft I started last week, and I know first drafts are just getting the words out, but I was feeling lost and wondering how am I going to pull it together during revising and editing? I feel like I’m going off in odd directions sometimes, and my minor characters have had their roles in the story change quite fast too.
    I did an outline in scrivener, and read something about doing a reverse outline at the end and then fixing everything up, but still I was feel really lost about how to do that (still months away, but still it was stressing me out already, ha!). I was up reading your most common mistakes list and how to structure your story, and I really feel like I’ll be able to use a lot of your advice to flesh out and edit my story in the end.
    Thank you!
    -A New Faithful Reader

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s awesome to hear! So glad you’ve found the posts useful and are seeing a way forward with your story. Sorry about the lost sleep though. 😉

  6. Quinn Fforde says:

    In truth, Don Knotts nearly stole the show from Andy Griffith. I grew up in NC, so I have seen every episode dozens of times. When we discuss our favorite episodes, Barney comes up the most often. (Opie is second, I think.) Andy holds the show together, but Barney captures our attention every time. Great example for your points!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think it’s fair to say he *did* steal the show – and thank heavens he did! The first season, in which Andy plays the (not-so) humorous hick, is by far the weakest of the five seasons in which Don Knotts co-stars. Once the writers figured out the potential of the brilliant dynamic with Andy as the steady straight-man, that’s when the characters really took off.

  7. thomas h cullen says:

    They have absolutely no bearing, whatsoever, on either Croyan or on Mariel’s being, therefore the two business partners in the latter’s Arbitration exam are given barely any characterisation. The same with the Overseers, the same with the four young adults, and the same with Mariel’s mother, etc..

    There was a self-consciousness, in writing The Representative, about the minor characters; I’m just so glad that I managed to rein all this kind of material in, just as I had with the devices, such as the Lane Cycler, or the Reference Centre, or the Trokan of Stegna – or like Croyan’s “33rd Community”.

    If I’d obeyed convention, and wrote a far more publisher-friendly length of text, then of course the reality would’ve been far more different.. As a concept, minor characters would’ve had to have had a far greater presence, thus ruining the fiction.

    (It’s been almost a year, Katie, since I first began to use this site: you have my respect.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s a good rule of thumb: if the minor characters don’t matter, then don’t lead writers to believe they do by giving them too much emphasis upfront.

  8. K.M.W… This is a fantastic insight into what makes good story. By relating differently to the different minor characters, the protagonist is thrown into 3-D relief. Each character is an opportunity to reveal the many layers of the hero’s belief systems. I’m pasting this lesson to the wall above my work station.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’ve been catching Andy Griffith reruns lately, and even though I’ve seen every episode often enough to practically memorize it, I find myself being impressed all over again with how brilliant this show is on so many levels. Lots of inspiration to be found!

  9. What happens if your protagonist if a loner? Especially if he creates his own inner world because he can’t cope with the real one he’s in.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Stories are about conflict, and interpersonal conflict is often the most interesting kind of conflict. But that doesn’t mean you *have* to include that aspect in your story. Many great books are about protagonists who are primarily on their own. The trick is to create a deep and rich inner world for the character, so that readers will remain interested even in the absence of personal interactions.

  10. Barney Fife is an excellent example of the three dimensions of character — the face we show to the world, the face we want others to see, and then one’s true character. Not to mention just looking at Don Knotts makes me laugh. Great post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      He’s a neurotic mess, of course. But maybe that’s why we all resonate with him so much. :p

  11. Barney was a great example. Now I need to go to the drawing board and come up with characters from Bestselling novels to illustrate myself! THANKS!!

  12. Another very stimulating bit of advice. Another round of revision is called for! Thanks, Katie.

  13. Probably the most important relationship of all is the one the writer has with the minor characters. It is very easy to just have the landlord of the tavern say something nice to the hero before disappearing on his way, but, as you point out, there should be a momentary relationship between the two.

    For me, that means that I need to have a relationship with that landlord. When we leave the tavern I want to miss that character and think, I would like to go back there one day. Or, conversely, he was an idiot and I ain’t going back there ever! But I need to feel something.

    That way it helps me with how the hero deals with the character.

    Getting to know your characters is vital, one way or another.

    Here is a waffly piece about it:

    http://cchogan.com/cuddling-your-characters/

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good way to look at it! Good characterization is all about making sure a character is a persona and not just plot device. Fortunately, that’s also one of the most fun parts of writing. Never know what gem of a personality you’re going to run across!

  14. I grew up with the good people of Mayberry and other shows of the time. Never once have I considered the character dynamics or how those dynamics could influence my writing today.

    But you’re right. Any television show or movie we watch–the well-written ones at any rate–provide the opportunities to study character dynamics if only writers take the time to really observe.

    Thanks for the tips!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Some authors talk about how they can’t read books or watch film because they can’t help being critical of the stories. But I *love* watching and reading with an eye to what the authors did brilliantly. It’s the best way to learn!

  15. I am slightly in love with the idea of writing novels from the POV of anyone but the main protagonist. I know there was this one YA novel that I loved about Medea which was written entirely from the point of view of her maid. One story I’ve started (I got plot-tied) had varying POV – none of them the MC. I felt it faceted his personality and gave a new insight on him each time. My current one focusses on a single first-person POV who is one of the main characters, because I felt it allows me to show the second MC in a particular light. Occasionally, off-screen scenes are ‘narrated’ by minor characters (I’m not certain if that second part really works; I’ll have to let my betas decide…) I just find it fascinating to see what other characters have to say about this character that I, as a writer, know so well – and curious about how well I can show who he is without actually going into his mind.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is actually a really great technique to use with a protagonist from whom you want some distance. This technique is great for offering outside perspectives about the character, but it also creates distance because it won’t allow you into that character’s head.

  16. Benjamin says:

    I had actually did something like this a couple of years ago. I drew a chart pointing out how my characters interacter with each other (For example, Character A is friendly to B, C is in love with D, E despises F’s smug attitude, G; C is mentoring A, B dislikes E’s brutish mannerisms, F is scared of D, and so on…).

    Glad to see I was on to something back then. Thanks for all these lessons.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Very smart. I believe John Truby recommends something along those lines for creating squares of conflict.

  17. Oh boy, this is so true it ain’t funny. It’s part of the reason I thought the movie Cast Away was a bit of a let-down: no people to interact with, at least not in real-time. The best stories are the ones with several diverse relationships for each main character.

    It speeds the writing process, too! One of my main characters, for example, has a long and complex relationship with each of her parents, and as a result is one of the easiest characters for me to write about. I feel like I know her as well as anyone in real life.

    It’s also true that when you write a scene from a minor character’s POV (which should be seldom), it’s important to keep the focus tight on their relationship to protagonist and/or antagonist. Everything starts and ends with the main characters.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Ah, c’mon, Wilson was awesome. 😉 Stories in which the protagonist is by himself are always a challenge. I actually thought Cast Away did pretty well, considering its challenges. Wilson the volleyball was a great idea.

      • If you really want the best example of how to develop characters through the experience of other characters, then just head for Under Milk Wood by Dylan thomas. It was written for radio originally, but through it you understand the relationships and characters of the small community by the comments from all the other characters.

        Little by little, each character is developed and becomes real, but not on their own – it shows that the all characters are reliant on all other characters. Perfect.

Trackbacks

  1. […] It rests within the kind of relationship your protagonist has with each of the minor characters. You want variety. You want your protagonist’s relationship with each of the minor characters to be different. You want each minor character to reflect upon your protagonist in a way that is totally different from all the other characters. And …read more […]

  2. […] 2. We all remember Deputy Barney Fife. Here is an awesome post from K.M. Weiland telling us not only why we remember Don Knots’s character, but how important secondary characters like him are: Want an Unforgettable Protagonist? Your Minor Characters Are the Secret […]

  3. […] A friend of mine has often told me that she really enjoys my secondary characters in my writing – sometimes too much, haha. Balance is, of course, important. We don’t want our secondary characters to be paper dolls or to exist only spotlight our protagonists. We should be able to see that they have lives of their own. That being said, they do need to have purpose in order to care more about our protagonists. Author KM Weiland talks more about how minor characters are the secret to unforgettable protagonists. […]

  4. […] Want an Unforgettable Protagonist? Your Minor Characters Are the Secret  by @KMWeiland […]

  5. […] Want an Unforgettable Protagonist? Your Minor Characters Are The Secret – K.M. Weiland […]

  6. […] Want an Unforgettable Protagonist? Your Minor Characters Are The Secret – K.M. Weiland […]

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