The Secret Life of Minor Characters

By Lu Anne Stewart

I’ve reached a point in the novel I’m writing where one of my minor characters is starting to assert himself in ways I hadn’t planned. It’s as though he’s waving at me as I write, saying “Give me a chance! I could be much more than a bit player here!”

I’ve heard other writers describe this phenomenon. They create characters, set them into motion and then, sometimes, a character will take the story in another direction or do something the author didn’t plan originally.

In my case, the supporting character grabbing the steering wheel is Lt. Armand Pelletier, a police detective in the small town where my protagonist, Meg Sullivan, is an investigative reporter probing a series of mysterious mill fires.

At first, I saw Lt. Pelletier as mainly a functional character, an obstacle in Meg’s way as she makes her rounds at the police station trying to root out information. Then a strange thing happened. I wrote a scene in which Meg has dinner with her father in a local restaurant. For some reason unknown to me, I ended the scene with Meg looking across the dining room and suddenly seeing Pelletier sitting alone. He tips his wine glass toward her and smiles.

“Is that a friend?” her father asks.

Well, I asked myself, is he?

I had planned on him being a foe, but now I had a more intriguing thought. What if Pelletier might instead become an anonymous source who helps Meg uncover the conspiracy woven through this town?

All of this started me thinking about the role of minor or secondary characters in novels. Looking back at novels that I’ve loved, I have a hard time remembering the supporting cast in any detail.  Maybe it’s because great novels have such a strong leading character that their names are the only ones that linger in our memory. I can still visualize Sethe many years after reading Beloved, but not the others swirling around that saga. I can still feel the desperation of Kathy Nicolo and Colonel Behrani, co-protagonists in House of Sand and Fog, but not much about the role others played in that tragic tale of loss.

I had to reach back to Miss Havisham in Great Expectations and to the cold, broken mother, Beth, in Ordinary People, to come up with supporting characters who were particularly memorable. Maybe that’s because each of them played a pivotal role in creating the challenge that the main character struggled to overcome. They were minor, but essential.

As writers, we can use minor characters in many ways: to advance the plot, give our protagonist an ally or adversary, add comic relief or just to populate the worlds we create in a believable way. My challenge with Lt. Pelletier and a few other supporting characters who have begun to jockey for more page-time is to figure out how to best use each of them to advance my story.

We’ll see what Lt. Pelletier has in mind for Meg as the next chapters unfold. But meanwhile, what about you? Can you recall a minor character who captivated you? Comment below with your favorites!

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4 thoughts on “The Secret Life of Minor Characters

  1. Thanks for giving minor characters their moment in the sun. I agree that writers should pay attention to characters that emerge unexpectedly. Sometimes they know more than the author about where your story ought to go.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Patricia. I do like the idea of minor characters having a mind of their own. We see parallels in television where viewers enjoy a character so much they get their own spinoff show (e.g. from Breaking Bad to Better Call Saul). Interesting phenomenon!

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  2. This is brilliant Lu Anne and you’re absolutely right about minor characters sometimes taking the narrative in unexpected directions. I found this recently when writing a short story within which a dog named Morton all of a sudden assumed huge significance beyond my initial intention of just mentioning her as a pet who lived with the protagonist. And mention of Miss Havisham had me smiling as Dickens indeed is the master of minor characters. Thanks for sharing and hope all’s well with you.

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