Developing minor characters

A professional critique on my friend’s manuscript last year suggested that she needed to develop some of her minor characters further. The risk, she was told, was that if minor characters are too flat  they can look like pawns delivering the plot and so undermine the story’s spell. This feedback sent our writing group back to our manuscripts to take a fresh look at our own minor characters.

A minor character is essentially  two-dimensional and flat with perhaps one or two traits. Anymore than that and there’s a risk they’ll steal the limelight from the major characters. But there’s clearly a risk, as my friend’s critique highlighted, that a failure to not flesh these characters out enough, or to not know them well enough off the page, risks dulling the backdrop of the story.

An obvious-but-true marker for minor characters is that they remain the same, from the beginning to the end they don’t change. In story-telling parlance, they don’t have an arc. But I’m not sure I agree with the theory that minor characters should be stereotypes. They can still pique the readers interest by being unique without distracting from the story.

Anne Tyler demonstrates this point beautifully in A Spool of Blue Thread. As a writing group exercise we shared some vividly drawn minor characters from our favourite novels.

Nora, one of Tyler’s characters, I’d term as a major-minor character. She’s prominent but I don’t think she had a story arc. Her role, the self-assured, Christian daughter-in-law. In a Tyler-esque light-but-loaded first impression, she tells us:

  ‘Nora was a beautiful woman who didn’t know she was beautiful. She had shoulder-length brown hair and a wide, placid, dreamy face, completely free of makeup. Generally she wore inexpensive cotton dresses that buttoned down the front, and when she walked her hem fluttered around her calves in a liquid slow-motion way…’

Everything about Nora that follows in the novel reinforces this first impression. From giving her mother in law the nauseating moniker of ‘Mother Whitshank’, to serenely taking on the running of the family home. She is as placid, dutiful, purposeful and silently self-assured at the start of the novel as she is at the end. In fact, the idea of her silence is used to great effect throughout and makes her enjoyable to watch and intriguing.

I also revisited Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. Some of the major characters here will stay with me forever, particularly Hobie. The minor characters are painted with just as much care:

‘Kenneth the night man (same heavy eyes and malt-liquor smell, bigger in the stomach but otherwise unchanged). Don’t be a stranger, eh?’ he said, which was the same thing he’d always said….same torpid voice…Even in some smoky post-catastophe Manhattan you could imagine him swaying genially at the door in the rags of his former uniform.’

Here Tartt shows us that Theo doesn’t simply pass Kenneth by; he notices him and reflects on his character for the briefest of moments.

So what did my writing group learn from this exploration into minor characters? Well, we didn’t rush out and write lengthy character outlines for our minor characters, but we did all agree we could tease the character details out some more. By developing a few threads of back story, some telling details, we encourage ourselves and our main characters to stop and really take notice and this adds richness and depth.

Minor characters are as much a part of the setting as the physical stuff. They add light and shade and they’re a vital part of the mix that unite to bring a novel alive.

Have you come across beautifully drawn minor characters and if so, where?

 

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3 thoughts on “Developing minor characters

  1. Alison, I have recently finished reading The Goldfinch and am now reading The Secret History and really agree with you that Donna Tartt has an incredible talent for developing credible characters who stay with you long after the story has ended. (Everything else about her writing is pretty amazing too!). I love the idea of colouring in the minor characters, with authentic detail, so that the reader is just as immersed in the story world as we are all immersed in the real world. This article will certainly help me with character development. Thanks Alison.

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  2. Hi Alison, thanks for these thoughts that raise more questions than I can offer answers…for starters I’m struck by the urge to go back and revisit a familiar novel looking at the minor characters specifically, and I can see how that in itself is a useful exercise, but also to always think about detail…everything omitted or included needs to be carefully crafted rather than thrown in!

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