Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Thinking About Minor Characters

When I'm writing, I pay the most attention to the main characters. Minor characters are kind of there, in the background, emerging when I need them. But I'm realizing they need some serious attention.

I don't want a lot of characters cluttering up the thoughts of my reader and getting in the way of the story. (As a reader, I sometimes put down a book if it has too many characters to keep straight). So how do I know if these minor characters should even be in my novel?

1) Is the minor character necessary?

In the chapter I'm working on, there are two or three minor characters that don't appear anywhere else in the story. When I think about it, they do have a purpose. They add to the realism and authenticity of the story (they show the point of view character isn't socially awkward, see my post on friends in middle grade novels for more on this). They also pass along some information to the POV character.

But are there other ways the main character could get the information? Of course. She could overhear a conversation or interact with a more important character. Or maybe there's another, more creative way (time for more brainstorming). A good way to test if a minor character is necessary is to re-write the scene or chapter without them and see if it works.

2) If the minor character is necessary, how much detail should I include?

For me, the more details I include about a character, the more importance they take on in the story.

A detail that I'm struggling with is the minor character's name. If the POV character knows this person, she's going to think of them by name, not by some reader-friendly description like "the girl in bunk 4 in my cabin at summer camp." As a reader, I really hate that.  But if my main character references the minor character by name, will my reader expect the minor character to be significant in the story? Will readers feel cheated if they don't see the named character again after this chapter? I don't have the answers yet, but I'm working on it.

Do you have any tips for dealing with minor characters? Do you include their names?

If you want to know more about minor characters, I recently found this article by David B. Coe, Basics of Writing part XII: Creating Minor Characters.


  1. I love well developed secondary character with their own arc. I try and plan out the story as if they were the main character. What are they struggling with and how can that fit and affect the main char.

  2. If I have a minor character who is never going to appear again, I usually use their name (for the reason you noted) but don't give any other details. In fact, I rarely describe what a character looks like unless it's important. (There's an interesting blog topic - do we need to know what a character looks like? ":-0 )

  3. Thanks for the link. I'll have to check it out. I'm also like Carmella, if the character is truly minor, I may not even give them a name or phsycial details.

  4. All the supplemental stuff like how they look, background, interests etc. the more you have the more important the reader will consider them to be. The way to make them memorable but not distracting is by what they do. If they're just hanging about to add colour to a scene, like kids in a school hallway, they're just furniture. If they have a role to play, how they play that role should give the reader all the info they need.

    Moody Writing

  5. I like quirky minor characters that lighten up the scene or bring out a certain quality in the main character. You know, the sidekick or best buddy. It's fun to write a counterpart to your MC because who they associate with shows a lot about their character.

  6. Some interesting points here!

    Karen, there are some characters where it would be easy to just say "the mailman" or "that writer in the coffeeshop". Maybe whether they are named or not depends on the situation.

  7. I love minor characters so much, they sometimes upstage the main characters. I guess they need their own books.



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