We writers spend a lot of time making sure that the protagonist and antagonist of
the novel come off as fully realized characters, but we need to spend almost as
much time making sure that our minor characters are real, too. A novel in which
there are only two fully realized characters and the rest are window-dressing feels a
bit like a play where all the characters are just two actors dressing up in new
costumes. It can work, but it doesn't usually.
I think that one of the reasons that Jane Austen is such a brilliant writer was her
ability to write minor characters so that they come off the page. Mr. Woodhouse,
Emma's hypochondriac father, is annoying, and yet we believe utterly that Emma
loves him so much that she cannot marry Knightley if that means she has to leave
him. Mr. Collins is the kind of delicious character that actors of every generation
will always want the fun of playing him. And what of the conniving, selfish Fanny
Dashwood? I could go on and on. Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Charlotte Lucas.
Lydia Bennet. John Willoughby. Austen rarely gives a character a name without
giving that character an unforgettably distinct personality.
It's not true only in comedy, but for me, the difference between a romantic comedy
that I watch once and like and one I watch over and over again is the depth of the
minor characters. I think that watching a romance unfold once is lovely, but if I
watch it again and again, minor characters who don't do much end up annoying
The Holiday, which is a great double romance with Jude Law, Cameron Diaz. Jack
Black and Kate Winslet is a comedy I wasn't sure I loved enough the first time I
watched it. But when I watched it again, I fell in love with Graham's character's
daughters, Olivia and Sophie, when Amanda visits them at their house and Graham
becomes "Mr. Napkinhead." I fell in love also with Arthur Abbott, the older
gentleman who was once a movie writer and is honored for his work with an award
ceremony at the end of the movie.
Notting Hill is another romantic comedy with great minor characters. My kids who
don't normally like romance at all love the minor characters in this, especially
"Spike" played by Rhys Ifans. But the whole cast of friends appears at the end of
the show to help William decide if he is going to marry Anna Scott or not. Bella,
the ex-girlfriend in a wheelchair, her husband Max, who is a terrible cook and has
terrible taste in ties, Honey, William's little sister, Tony the "worst restauranteur in
the world" and Bernie who is a terrible stockbroker and will never get a girlfriend
if he doesn't lose weight (played by a young Hugh Bonneville of "Downton Abbey
" fame). But in this movie, even characters who have thirty seconds on screen
become real, like Rufus, the would-be thief who asks for Anna's autograph in the
book shop, or the other journalist who asks about Will's mother or the actors in the
film Anna Scott is in, and on and on.
If you're writing epic fantasy or a book that has a true ensemble cast, you have a
lot of time to establish every minor character as a hero in his or her own right. But
if you only have a few pages, a minor character can be harder to work at. It can
sometimes be easy as a writer to just give a character a quick name, make them
work in a scene the way that you want, and then move on. Beware this impulse! It
is almost always wrong. Real characters don't act in a way that is convenient for a
writer. Using minor characters this way will make your whole story become flat.
Some tips to making minor characters walk off the page:
1. Give your minor characters a history. Just a paragraph of them saying who they
are and how they came to the place they are at can do wonders.
2. If minor characters are going to die, make some part of it unexpected. You don't
need them to be heroic at every moment. Make their death original and unique.
3. Minor characters should not just help the main character in his/her quest. They
have their own goals, and as the writer, you need to let minor characters
occasionally take over the plot. It may not last for long, but let us see what they
would do if they were the main characters.
4. A few physical details can help us distinguish one minor character from another.
But be careful of making distinctions that are twee. Don't give each minor
character a tick or a certain recognizable phrase. And don't make each one from a
different race (in fantasy).
5. Write fuller histories of minor characters, but then cut them out. They don't
often belong in the pages of the book you are writing, but a hint of the larger
picture can be a wonderful thing.
6. Let your minor characters argue with the main character. Let us see that the main
character has flaws and that there are other sides to the story. Minor characters are
a great way to add obstacles to a story. Real people make problems, not solutions.
7. Give a minor character a gift, a penchant for beauty or some artistic skill. It can
tell us a lot about a character to know what they find beautiful even in the worst of
circumstances. It also tells us about the world.
8. Love your minor characters enough that you feel like you could write a whole
other novel about what their version of events is, or about what happened to them
before and after the novel itself.
9. Make your minor characters stand out with a bold and wacky, over-the-top kind
of personality. The less they are on stage, the more they are allowed to be weird.
They can dress weird, talk in a different accent, eat weird food, even be obnoxious
10. Make minor characters awkward, unsure of themselves, and funny! Sometimes
it doesn't work to have the protagonist make jokes all the time, but you can have
sidekicks to do this. Disney maybe overdoes this in its films, but I have to say, I
think it works every time.
Remember that you as an author are going to be working on these characters for
every day of your life for at least a year, and possibly a decade. Write them so that
you enjoy that work. You can't choose your own co-workers in an office situation,
but you can pick the kind of characters who are going to live in your head. If you
were choosing the cast of your own show, the people you would live with every
day, who would they be?
Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison