Here’s why minor characters are important

I remember reading one time, that the difference between secondary characters and minor characters  is  that minor characters don’t speak. Sometimes they don’t even have names.

This definition confused me.

All my stories have minor characters who speak. Sometimes they have quite a lot to say. Does that make them secondary characters? Is that how they get a promotion?

I grappled with the definition.

Then I rejected it.

Whatever.

Sometimes we get hung up on definitions and rules, and in the process forget to actually write. Sheesh.

I bet the cave people didn’t think about definitions when they were recording the day’s hunt. They just tallied up everyone who counted, scratched them onto the cave wall, then stood back and admired their handiwork.

I digress. Here are some thoughts on casting your story.

Thoughtful casting will give your story more balance and weight.

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If you think you have too many minor characters, too many bods faffing about doing sweet FA,  or you’re finding it hard to keep track of everyone and give them all a moment in the sun, you can sometimes combine two of them into one stronger composite character.

Play around with this idea. It can work well.

Failing that, you can park your excess characters and use them later, in a new story.

I did that when two goblin girls walked into The Accident Princess. Sorry, girls. Wrong story!

I made them wait until I was ready to write The Fourteenth Summer of Angus Jack. Then I summoned them out of the wings. They had to wait about three years. Thankfully, they were patient.

On the other hand, if you have too few minor characters,  you’ll sense it during subsequent readings.

Your story will feel thin, inadequately peopled. This is common in early drafts. Please give yourself permission and time to build up your world. It rarely happens all at once.

I had this problem with the first drafts of Tensy Farlow and the Home for Mislaid Children.

Apart from a few scraggy orphans, Matron Pluckrose and her sidekick, Mrs Beadle, the home was, well, it was barren.

My partner read the story and said, ‘Where are all the people?’

I got busy and dreamt up some minor characters. Some fillers.

I even alluded to the sound of typewriters clattering in the orphanage office. You see? Those poor secretaries were so totally minor they were faceless and nameless.

But they made noise. They had a presence. They helped people the story.

If your story is thin, it might be time to hire some extras.

Just make sure they’re good actors. And they make a bit of noise.

Above all, keep an eye on your minor characters. They’re important. They add depth, colour, balance and verisimilitude.

Jen xo


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