Every character in a story is important, even minor ones. Actually, especially minor ones. When written well, they advance plot and/or develop a major character. If they’re not, well…we’ll get to that later.
But first, I’d like to discuss three simple ways minor characters make a story. Pay close attention, and you might learn the weak link in your novel – or an easy way to spice up some important scenes!
Let’s Talk Books
Author Donna Tartt noticed the art of minor characters in Charles Dickens, valuing his tradition, “where even the minor walk-on characters are twitching and particular and alive.” And although today’s readers don’t expect (necessarily) the estimated thirty-thousand characters (thirty-thousand!) Dickens developed, writers can strengthen plot by strategically and artistically placing minor characters in their scenes.
Now, I’m not suggesting you go off and write eight-hundred and fifty-two randoms in your story just to fill up space. Minor characters, as effective as they can be, should not play a major role in your book. What they should do, however, can be summed up with three major points:
- Propel the plot forward.
- Reveal information or give additional insight about major characters
- Set the tone of a scene
How, you ask? To answer that let’s lean on an old classic, with a minor character who has been quoted throughout Christmas season for decades.
Write a scene where a minor character either propels your plot forward, reveals information about a major character, and/or sets the tone of a scene.
- How does my minor character propel the plot?
- What information or backstory does my minor character reveal about my protagonist? Is this information redundant? Could it be told in a stronger way? If not, how does my minor character reveal this information in a way no other scene could?
- What behaviors, attitudes, and/or idiosyncrasies of my minor character set the tone of the scene?
A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
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.
-James Scott Bell
It’s true. Minor characters can make or break a story. Add minor characters with a purpose, and you can establish a protagonist or polish a memorable scene. Add too much detail about a minor character or drown your story with too many of them, and your novel might self-implode.
Charles Dickens in his classic A Christmas Carol understood this, and understood it well. How do I know? With proof, of course. Who could forget Tiny Tim?!
A Christmas Carol
“God bless us every one!” said Tiny Tim, the last of all.
He sat very close to his father’s side upon his little stool. Bob held his withered little hand in his, as if he loved the child, and wished to keep him by his side, dreaded that he might be taken from him.
“Spirit,” said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before, “tell me if Tiny Tim will live.”
“I see a vacant seat,” replied the Ghost, “in the poor chimney-corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.”
“No, no,” said Scrooge. “Oh, no, kind Spirit! Say he will be spared.”
How Tiny Tim follows the Three Roles of Minor Characters
As mentioned previously, there are three major roles of minor characters that add great value to a novel, through plot, character, and tone. For example, let’s jump back to Tiny Tim who nails all three roles (hence, one reason why this story is a classic!).
He Advances the Plot
Tiny Tim acts as a trigger for Scrooge’s sympathy. He “interests” Scrooge in a way the reader hasn’t seen yet in the plot – but should expect more of!
He Reveals insight about Scrooge
Although Tiny Tim never speaks directly to Scrooge in Dicken’s classic, he unhooks insight into the man Scrooge could be if he abandons his coldhearted, selfish ways illustrated in act one. This gives hope for Scrooge’s fate, and stirs sympathy in the reader for Scrooge. Think how different this scene would be if Scrooge did not care about Tiny Tim’s fate, but wished it instead.
He Sets the Setting/Tone
Minor characters can easily set the tone for a scene in a novel in a way that impacts how readers feel about a character, for increases tension. In this case, Tiny Tim sheds innocence, kindness, love, and hope into the story in a way that Scrooge foils. Despite his sickness, Tiny Tim wants to bless everyone…compared to Scrooge, who cursed people and praised gold coins. Tiny Tim suggests that there’s hope in the scene, and yet, everything is quickly destroyed when the spirit reveals Tiny Tim’s fate…that is, if Scrooge refuses to change. Help him, Scrooge! Save sweet Tiny Tim!
Making Minor Characters Count
Minor characters in your story must serve a purpose, otherwise bite the bullet and cut them. I know that sounds rough, but without purpose to a minor character, you’ll only slow your story down. If you know A Christmas Carol, notice how Tiny Tim has brothers and sisters but they are barely mentioned. There’s a reason for this. Just as there is a reason for giving Tiny Tim his day in the sun.
How Tiny Tim Counts
By the time Scrooge sees Tiny Tim, he has already ventured to his forgotten past with the Ghost of Christmas Past. Hence, Scrooge’s transformation has already begun and the plot advances to Christmas present…to this scene, where Scrooge ends troubled, terrified of the fate that may follow it.
Like all strong minor characters, they should say or do something that deeply impacts the protagonist in a reflective (internal) or active (external) way (maybe both!). For instance, after Scrooge watches Tiny Tim with the Ghost of Christmas Present, we witness a moment that Scrooge has “never felt before”. He grows fearful for the child of his old employee, and begs the spirit to tell him the child’s fate. What’s even more shocking is that Scrooge is emotionally disturbed by the spirit’s response, unlike our introduction to Scrooge in the first act. We see a transformation well on its way as our plot advances.
But what does this say about Tiny Tim’s role? Well, for starter’s Tiny Tim is, literally, a crutch in Scrooge’s character transformation and the plot’s resolution. It is Tiny Tim’s family, after all, who Scrooge purchases a prize-winning turkey for in the end. Tiny Tim who, despite his small role in three total scenes, touches Scrooge’s heart in a way that makes him “better than his word…and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father.”
Now, that’s what I call a minor character with purpose.
God bless us, Minor Characters and all!
Now that you know all about the major roles of minor characters, try writing a short scene for your novel that includes a supporting character who propels the plot forward. Feel free to share it in the comments section below!
Abigail K. Perry is a commercial fiction writer living in Massachusetts where she teaches creative writing and film production. She received her B.S. in TV, Radio, and Film from Syracuse University and her Master’s in Education from Endicott College, and has worked as a creative production intern in for Overbrook Entertainment and as a marketing and sales intern for Charlesbridge Publishing.
In addition to writing, Abigail plans to teach screenwriting at An Unlikely Story (the priceless local bookstore owned by Diary of a Wimpy Kid’s Jeff Kinney) in Plainville, MA. This class is in development and will launch soon!
Abigail is a member of the DIY MFA street team and a loyal follower of Writer’s Digest. You can read more about her work on this website or follow her on Twitter @A_K_Perry