Last week, we talked a little about the three primary “types” of characters, and focused a little on the least-important ones, the walk-ons. Today, we’re going to talk about Minor Characters.
But first, a quick review: The three types of characters in terms of importance, and the distinctions between them:
- Walk-ons. You don’t develop these characters at all. They’re intended to be “just folk,” people in the background. They’re only purpose is to lend realism or perform a specific function, and then they’re gone, forgotten.
- Minor characters. These characters make a difference in the plot, but a reader isn’t supposed to get emotionally invested in them, whether positively or negatively. The reader doesn’t expect them to keep showing up in the story. Their desires and actions might cause a plot-twist, but they play no part in the unfolding drama. A minor character does one or two things in the story, and then disappears.
- Major characters. This is the cast of characters that readers care about; readers love them, readers hate them, readers cannot live without them. They inspire fear or hope, showing up again and again in the story. In one way or another, the story is about them: the reader expects to learn what happens to them in the end. The desires and actions of these characters drive the story forward and carry it through to its inevitable end, no matter how many twists and turns the story takes.
As we discussed last week, stereotypes, by and large, are a terrible way to develop characters simply because they are, by their nature, undeveloped. A stereotype, in its most neutral interpretation of the word, is an average, unexceptional, typical member of a group. When we say “gang-member,” “gangster,” “accountant,” “ship captain,” and “waitress” without any other qualifying descriptive terms, we are invoking just such a “type.” Faceless, colorless, without personality or motivation. We’re invoking a piece of furniture, a piece of the set-dressing behind our story.
Which, from a fiction perspective, might be fine. I don’t endorse stereotyping in real-life, and I advise against it in fiction as a rule, but when your main character gestures to “the waiter” for the bill, we just need to know that there’s someone in the restaurant whose job it is to fetch-and-carry. We don’t need to know the waiter’s height, weight, eye- and hair-color, mother’s maiden name, social security number, and motivation for waiting tables. We don’t need a whole song-and-dance about “the waiter.”
Unless we do.
When a background character, a walk-on, begins behaving “above his station” in our hierarchy of characters, when he “breaks type” and attracts the readers’ attention, that character is no longer a part of the background anymore. He’s graduated from walk-on to minor.
Which is fine so long as we, as writers, have some intention behind that promotion. If he makes himself strange and the readers are going to notice him, then they’re going to expect something from him. This is a perfectly reasonable reaction. But why have we let this character jump up in the hierarchy of importance? How does this character now serve the story? What is his function?
Remember, this isn’t a main character. The reader isn’t supposed to care much about him. He isn’t expected to play a continuing role in the story. But we’ve noticed him, so he has to have a purpose, even if he’s only involved in the action for a moment and then disappears again. This minor character has to set the mood, add humor, and/or make the milieu more interesting or complete.
But we have to be careful. If we overdevelop the character, the reader will expect even more from him in the story. If we under-develop him, he won’t be memorable later when the thing he did or added to the story becomes crucial.
Three Ways To Develop Minor Characters
There are (at least) three ways to handle such a character:
- Eccentricity: an unusual accent, a manner of speaking or behaving, a strange laugh, any character trait at all that is both strange and foreign to the reader can be enough to light up a character and make him pop for a moment. This might be all you need, a character who can momentarily steal the scene without distorting the story. Whether because he’s funny or sad or mad or something else entirely, the eccentric trait makes us notice him for a moment, but he makes no great difference to the path of the story. Remember, minor characters should not be deeply and carefully developed. They should pop, shine for a moment, and then fade away.
- Exaggeration: Another way to let a minor character shine is to take a perfectly normal trait, and then crank it up to 11. The character with the pudgy-face who seems like the soul of innocence? We highlight and then exaggerate those traits with one line: “Everybody believes Baby-Face, we’re in the clear, come on, let’s get a drink” and now we’ve got a minor character set up to do something memorable, like betray the hero when the posse doesn’t believe the sappy look on his lies, but he’ll fade back into the background once he’s done his job. Look, there’s the hero, get him! Baby-Face who?
- Obsession: When we are introduced to the minor character, he is on an errand for his obsession, whatever it may be. Maybe the waiter has a crush on the hero’s girlfriend and a few too many paparazzi friends who know a shady thing or three. He’s stalking her for love, but they’re stalking her for money. And the main character just met this waiter-with-a-crush and his crowd of rowdies while he and his lady were out on the town. The obsession of this minor character with the paparazzi hoodlums and the hero’s girlfriend can become that character’s signature trait. Or is it door-knob twisting? Does your MC’s little sister have a “nervous tic” about doorknobs? Why not bedknobs?
One thing I like about such characters is that they don’t carry all the weight of the story-world on their shoulders, the way the main characters do. They have room to be different, eccentric, notable. They can have a foreign accent, they can have a strange facial tic, they can be the supermen of their archetype. For this is now the territory you’re getting into, the territory of archetype.
If you’re not familiar with it, the work of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung took different directions. Carl Jung identified “archetypal” stages of the human conditions and roles that they play in society. He used symbolic literary archetypes, such as The Trickster, and developed psychological work on the subject of the human mind as almost a literary object, a book to be read. If you’re not familiar with the work of Carl Jung and his successors, please check them out. Recommended reading for the thoughtful writer.
These archetypes are perfect fodder for raising up a walk-on to the role of minor character: you play the minor character for laughs or dramatic counterpoint as a Jungian archetype. Use specific archetypal personalities as character traits to further enforce the strangeness of the character and find purpose for him in the hero’s journey at that moment. Exaggerate on those traits to the degree of the minor character’s importance. Will he recur? How can we tie his appearance into the symbolism and thematic movement of the story in that moment?
Next Week: We’ll look at the Third Type of Character in terms of importance to your story goals: The Main Characters. Don’t forget: Writing is forever a work of looking at the world as it exists and asking, “But why not if—?”
Until then, Keep writing!
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