When it comes to writing advice, most experts focus solely on developing main characters. They talk about the Hero’s Journey, structure, internal and external conflict. They design Character Personality templates and interview questions. And yes, while the focus on main characters is certainly imperative when writing a story, I have seen very little advice when it comes to developing minor characters.
I am currently in the midst of outlining the third draft of my novel. I have used all of the tools stated above the flesh out my protagonists. They have full fledged arcs that allow them to transform over the course of the narrative. Now, I have moved on to developing my minor characters and in some ways, I find it more difficult.
Minors characters straddle a very delicate line in fiction. You want them to stand out and to be real people. But they shouldn’t overshadow the protagonist. They need to be small, but memorable.
As I sat down at my laptop and opened my Scrivner document, I contemplated how to approach minor characters. It didn’t seem necessary to develop a long and winding arc for said characters. I am mean, minor characters are just that: minor. But I wanted my colorful cast to support, nurture, and sometimes challenge, my protagonists throughout their journey. Giving them a name and a description is not enough.
So, how does one develop minor characters? The strategy I found that works the best is to first figure out what the character’s purpose is in the story. Are they the protagonist’s best friend or their rival? Do they offer helpful advice, or do they throw a wrench in the protagonist’s plans? For more substantial minor characters, who I often refer to as secondary characters, I often expand this a little further, writing a small biography about the events before the start of the novel.
Then, I figure out their purpose, I decide what kind of trait these characters will have. Since they will occupy such limited story and page space, it is important that every word and action counts. For secondary characters, I develop a whole personality. For smaller, tertiary characters, I focus more on giving them one defining character trait and one flaw. They are only going to appear a few times throughout the story after all.
And finally, I give my minor characters a problem. It doesn’t have to be a large problem. Those are reserved for main characters. Maybe they are struggling to find love. Or they need a job. Or maybe they are trying to get to the grocery store before it closes, but they are running late. Minor characters need to want something, even if that something seems insignificant. Otherwise, they are nothing more than empty words on a page.
So to recap, minor characters need the following: a purpose, a personality, and a problem. If you have those three things, then you are on your way to developing strong supporting characters.
I hope this post is helpful to those of you currently writing and struggling to develop minor characters.
Kill your darlings, slay your dragons, and keep writing!