Minor characters are fickle people. If they are too developed, they can overshadow the major characters, but if they are under developed, they can hold as much significance as an indoor plant.
What’s a writer to do?
This was the dilemma I recently faced during a revision. This is the second book where I’ve made this discovery. The first time, I sat down with a cork board and colored post its, blocking out significant scenes. That time, the character show up on their own three times, and none of those added anything to the overall plot. In fact, most of the time, that same thing happened with someone else who was better developed. So, after whining about it for a bit, I went through the book and cut him. I still have hope that he will show up somewhere else.
But that technique didn’t work this time around. This minor character played a role – mostly
supportive – but there were times when she needed to to shine – to show her strengths and her weaknesses. Her timeline was all over the place, her memories intermingled and repetitive, and her understandings broken. So, I wrote out a timeline of what happened in her life then went through and copied all the scenes where she was featured, copied and pasted them into a document. From there, I could see what needed to be moved, and what needed to be cut.
The key to knowing which course of action is best is to understand the requirement of your minor characters. Failure to pay attention to them could waste word count on someone who has no value (story wise) or worse, skew the story away from the star of the story.
1. Do they contribute to the overall story?
Han Solo? Yes. A Bennett sister besides Elizabeth? Yes. Break down their arcs, study their timelines and give them the attention they deserve.
2. Are they intended to provide insights to the protagonist?
Gandalf and Dumbledore and old guys in robes, yes. They serve as mentor figures and play an important role, one that is often also set aside for best friend or parental kinds of characters.
3. Is what that character provides already incorporated into another character’s story?
Frodo only needed one best friend. The Avengers only need one person who can become indestructible, mostly lose control and “smash”. And one cross dressing Klinger is more than enough for M*A*S*H.
What other roles do you consider essential for minor characters? Any other questions you ask yourself when determining the value of said characters in your stories?
Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and high school English teacher in Southern Utah. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a dash of magic. Her loves include Diet Coke, owls, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is the managing editor for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly newsletter.