The Key to a Great Story – The Importance of Minor Characters

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For the majority of Pride and Prejudice is a recurring character, who evolves into a crucial minor character.

For the majority of Pride and Prejudice, Lydia Bennet is a recurring character, who evolves into a crucial minor character.

So far in my posts about characters, I’ve compared the differences between Protagonists and Antagonists. Now I want to talk about the more general differences between major and minor characters.

So far I’ve identified several different types of protagonists, and all of these types I would see as a major character.  They have to interact with antagonists who can be redeemable, puppets or the puppeteer. The main antagonist, to me, is the puppeteer who pulls the strings of their minions and effects the life of the protagonist who has to act to counter the puppeteer.

The other specific character types which I’ve posted about, such as best friends who for a while are redeemable antagonists, or the puppet antagonists both redeemable and willing, are minor characters in comparison to the two major characters of any basic story.

You can have more than one protagonist and antagonist who are major characters, but in my mind the vast majority of characters in a story are actually minor characters. When developing minor characters I approach their development slightly differently from major characters, because of one key question I ask myself.

How important is this character?

Major characters are automatically important, but a minor character has to have their importance defined by the writer so that their importance to the audience can be conveyed via the writing. You have to ask yourself about the character’s importance in the short and long term, and similar to a major character, you have to identify how you plan on developing the character. As a starting point I ask myself the following:

  • How important will they be to the plot when they are introduced?
  • Will they be important to the plot in the long term?
  • What is their relationship to the protagonist or antagonist?
  • What is the potential of this minor character increasing or decreasing in importance?

In answering the first three of these questions I find that I can identify which type of minor character I’m developing on my self-devised Scale of Importance. This helps me to understand how much I need to know about this character so that I can convey them to the audience as I intend for them to be perceived.

My Scale of Importance includes the following types of minor characters;

  • Crucial
  • Reoccurring
  • Infrequent

On seeing the scale you can understand better, why I ask myself the fourth question; all minor characters have potential to change their character type. An infrequent character can become crucial to the protagonist or antagonist. I find this can be true because I write books in series and because I do this I do find that some characters who were once useful and crucial are reduced to being little more than a reoccurring character. If you write stand-alone novels, you might find this progression less likely to occur, but it is certainly something to bear in mind. For example, Lydia Bennett’s sub-story in Pride and Prejudice makes her a reoccurring character, until she becomes a crucial one as her story intertwines with the main plot.

You certainly need to understand the character type in order to develop them. If they are crucial characters then you need to develop them as much as you do a major characters; you need to understand their reactions so well that their importance to the audience is as strong as the major characters.

Reoccurring characters don’t need to be as developed. It might be nice for the writer to know them as well as a major characters, but all the audience needs to know is who they are, the basics of why they are doing what they are doing and why they are needed as a reoccurring characters.

Infrequent characters might not even need a name, they are just a tool for the writer to use to help move the plot along. An example would be a shopkeeper selling the protagonist something they need to help them on their journey; that purpose can be fulfilled with minimum dialogue, description and page space. The audience might not remember them, but they exist in your story, so you as the writer needs to know about them.

I will go into more depth about minor characters, especially the relationship between major and minor characters, but a lot to do with the development of minor characters is closely related to plot as well as the dynamics of character interaction. For now, just bare in mind that you need to understand the importance of your minor characters within your story, so that you can weave them into your story appropriately.

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