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Let's Talk About: Minor Character Development

“Creating one interesting character is hard enough — but when it comes to writing a whole novel or series of books, you have to create dozens of them. How can you keep your supporting cast from seeming like cookie-cutter people? There’s no easy answer, but a few tricks might help you create minor characters who don’t feel too minor.” [x]

10 Secrets to Creating Unforgettable Supporting Characters

  1. Give them at lease one defining characteristic. “…lots of people have one or two habits that you notice the first time you meet them, that stand out in your mind even after you learn more about them.”
  2. Give them an origin story. “…Your main character doesn’t necessarily need an origin story, because you’ve got the whole book to explain who he/she is and what he/she is about. But a supporting character? You get a paragraph or five, to explain the formative experience that made her become the person she is, and possibly how she got whatever skills or powers she possesses.”
  3. Make sure they talk in a distinctive fashion. “…you still have to make sure your characters don’t all talk the same. Some of them talk in nothing but short sentences, others in nothing but long, rolling statements full of subordinate clauses and random digressions. Or you might have a character who always follows one long sentence with three short ones." ”…One dirty shortcut is to hear the voice of a particular actor or famous person in your head, as one character talks.“
  4. Avoid making them paragons of virtue, or authorial stand-ins. ”…People who have no flaws are automatically boring, and thus forgettable.“ ”…Any character who has foibles, or bad habits, or destructive urges, will always stand out more than one who is pure and wonderful in all ways. And nobody will believe that you’ve chosen to identify yourself, as the author, with someone who’s so messed up. (Because of course, you are a perfect human being, with no flaws of your own.)“
  5. Anchor them to a particular place. ”…A huge part of making a supporting character “pop” is placing her somewhere. Give her a haunt — some place she hangs out a lot. A tavern, a bar, an engine room, a barracks, a dog track, wherever. It works both ways — by anchoring a character in a particular location, you make both the character and the location feel more real.“
  6. Introduce them twice — the first time in the background, the second in the foreground. ”…You mention a character in passing: “And Crazy Harriet was there too, chewing on her catweed like always.” And you say more about them. And then later, the next time we see that character, you give more information or detail, like where she scores her catweed from. The reader will barely remember that you mentioned the character the first time — but it’s in the back of the reader’s mind, and there’s a little “ping” of identification.“
  7. Focus on what they mean to your protagonists ”…What does this minor character mean to your hero? What role does he fulfill? What does your hero want or need from Randolph the Grifter? If you know what your hero finds memorable about Randolph, then you’re a long ways towards finding what your readers will remember, too.“
  8. Give them an arc — or the illusion of one. ”… You can create the appearance of an arc by establishing that a character feels a particular way — and then, a couple hundred pages later, you mention that now the character feels a different way.“ ”…A minor character who changes in some way is automatically more interesting than one who remains constant…“
  9. The more minor the character, the more caricature-like they may have to be. ”…This one is debatable — you may be a deft enough author that you can create a hundred characters, all of whom are fully fleshed out, well-rounded human beings with full inner lives.“ ”…some writing styles simply can’t support or abide cartoony minor characters. But for your third ensign, who appears for a grand total of two pages, on page 147 and page 398, you may have to go for cartoony if you want him to live in the reader’s mind as anything other than a piece of scenery.“
  10. Decide which supporting characters you’ll allow to be forgettable after all. ”…And this is probably inevitable. You only have so much energy, and your readers only have so much mental space. Plus, if 100 supporting characters are all vivid and colorful and people your readers want to go bowling with, then your story runs the risk of seeming overwritten and garish.Sometimes you need to resign yourself to the notion that some characters are going to be extras, or that they’re literally going to fulfill a plot function without having any personality to speak of. It’s a major sacrifice they’re making, subsuming their personality for the sake of the major players’ glory.“

Questions to Ask (& Strengthen) Your Minor Characters

What’s the character’s internal motivation; what does he or she really want?

How might you locate a character’s internal motivation and conflict if they seem to be absent?

What peculiar traits might you highlight about the character to make him seem fuller?

Are you playing both with and against type?

How is the heart of the character, the motivation, evident in a work you admire?

Minor characters who have been involved with the protagonist for a long time are carriers of their own history with and memories of the protagonist. Minor characters can reference the past in handy ways that serve the development of the story. They can make observations about the protagonist’s character or predictions about her future.“ [x]

"Minor characters can serve as symbols of the protagonist’s own shortcomings that she must overcome in order to achieve the story’s goal.
Likewise, you can use minor characters in a way that represents the protagonist’s own potential – characters that the protagonist looks up to or wishes to emulate in some way.” [x]

“A minor character can double the protagonist in some way: they start out in a similar situation, pursuing a similar fate….but then the minor character veers off in a different direction, usually negative, that serves to emphasize just what’s at stake for the protagonist or how she, too, could end up if she’s unable to overcome the challenges she must confront." [x]

Character Development Tips for Fiction Writers (Part 1) | (Part 2)

Edward Norton on Developing a Character

Character Development Lesson (This is from Melissa M. Williams, a Children’s Author & Public Speaker, developing a character with a class full of children. Adorable & surprisingly helpful.)


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