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In fiction there’s a hierarchy when it comes to characters: the protagonist, antagonist, secondary characters, minor, walk-on, and stock characters. Let’s focus more on minor characters, shall we? Writers who neglect minor characters are neglecting essential ingredients to their works. It would be like omitting garlic or oregano from pasta sauce or cumin from a pot of chili.
Minor characters, like secondary characters, operate in a strictly supporting role.
- They are rarely viewpoint characters.
- Don’t take up a lot of ‘stage time’ and readers generally don’t care about them a lot.
- Do not have a subplot.
- This means they’re usually ‘flat’ that is, they won’t change over the course of the story and they’re not fully dimensional. (There are exceptions to this.)
HOWEVER: Minor characters add color, verve, spice, eccentricity.
- Make things happen, help advance the plot.
- Establish the setting.
- Provide insights or information about major characters. Without secondary and minor characters the protagonist would be isolated.
- Prove that the protagonist has grown or changed.
- Support the mood or atmosphere in a scene.
- Breathe life into the story.
- Disprove stereotypes.
- Support themes.
To Kill a Mockingbird: Heck Tate, Calpurnia, Judge John Taylor, Miss Maudie Atkinson, Dolphus Raymond
A Christmas Carol: Tiny Tim, Belle, Scrooge’s former fiance, Fred, Scrooge’s nephew, Fezziwig
Harry Potter series: Colin Creevey, Katie Bell, Pansy Parkinson, Padmil & Parvati Patil, Neville Longbottom, Cho Chang (to name but a few)
Hunger Games series: Madge Undersee, Katniss’ friend who gave her the mockingjay pin, Caesar Flickerman the television host, Effie Trinket, the District 12 escort, other tributes–Cato, Thresh, Clove, Foxface, Glimmer, Marvel, (Rue is a secondary character)
A few more tips:
- While a minor character can be quirky or sexy, he or she shouldn’t distract readers from the main events and characters. Generally, the more you tell your reader about a minor character, the more you elevate his or her importance.
- Use minor characters for humor or breathers in the story.
- Minor characters should complete the story, create verisimilitude.
- Give them a ‘job’ to do, such as a witness in a crime novel. In The Hunger Games, Marvel, the tribute from District 1 kills Rue with a spear through her stomach. Later Katniss kills him. Although she’s already taken out several competitors, she is now a hunter, not the hunted, a significant shift in the story.
- Emulate J.K. Rowling and Charles Dickens and grant your minor characters silly, memorable, or suggestive names. As in Martin Chuzzlewit and Sophronia Akershem, and Uncle Pumblechook.
- Use minor characters to reveal class, ethnicity, culture, and the milieu of the story world.
A poignant example from Shawshank Redemption
Don’t be afraid to give them a poignant role or to motivate another character as Brooks does in Shawshank Redemption. Poor Brook is elderly when he’s paroled from Shawshank. Problem was, he didn’t have the youth or skills to cope on the outside and ends up hanging himself. He serves as Red’s ‘anti-mentor’ in the story. Later, when Red the narrator is also paroled after spending years in prison, readers and movie viewers are reminded of Brooks’ fate. Will Red follow him?
Tolkien reveals volumes about his Middle Earth with the different minor characters and their kind in Lord of the Rings.
Examples of Lord of the Rings’ Minor Characters that come to mind are:
- Barliman Butterbur, a man of Bree and a forgetful innkeeper where Gandalf frequented
- Shagrat, an Uruk orc (role of villain)
- Haldir, Elf of Lothlorien – He spoke the Common Tongue fluently so he was able to communicate with the Fellowship and to learn of their loss of Gandalf.
- Rosie Cotton, a hobbit who patiently awaited Samwise Gamgee’s return to the Shire
- Ugluk, a villain who was a leader of the Uruk-hai scouts and trusted servant of the evil wizard Saruman
- Theodred, Prince of Rohan – a nobleman of birth and bravery
- Goldberry, a female who embodied the spirit of Nature
Notice that I didn’t need to use images for LOTR minor characters; their names practically describes them and their roles.
If you are a fan of George R.R. Martin’s The Song of Fire and Ice series, you are well aware of his use of minor characters to move his series forward.
Stop back by for Part Two — Minor Characters – The Spice of Fiction from the Writers’ Toolbox Series
Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart. Jessica
Jessica Morrell is a top-tier developmental editor and a contributor to Chanticleer Reviews Media and to the Writer’s Digest magazine. She teaches Master Writing Craft Classes at the Chanticleer Authors Conference that is held annually along with teaching at Chanticleer writing workshops that are held throughout the year.
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