Stories are built out of many characters, with varying levels of impact and page time. A book usually can’t be exclusively built out of main characters. That would probably make for a boring story and unbelievable worldbuilding. Main characters are supported and challenged by supporting characters and minor characters.
In this article, we’ll define what minor characters are, compare them to supporting characters, and most importantly, show you how to write a minor character. At the end, you’ll see some minor character examples.
What are minor characters in writing?
Unless your story is taking place on a desert island, or if you’re writing The Martian (which you shouldn’t be, because it’s already a book, you plagiarizing freak), your protagonist will be surrounded by minor characters.
People they pass on the street, doormen, package carriers, partygoers, coworkers, and classmates with no major role in the story, and so on. Your world should be filled with people to be realistic, and most of those people are minor characters.
Supporting character vs minor character
Minor and supporting characters are very similar. Supporting characters are essentially minor characters with a more significant role in the story. A minor character will act on the story in smaller ways, like by appearing in only one or two scenes.
A supporting character is more significant, like your main character’s best friend, love interest, and other characters with their own lives, backstories, and goals. Supporting characters should have their own character arcs, while a minor character likely won’t.
Supporting characters (also known as secondary characters) often take one of three roles: Supporter, antagonizer/villain, or informant. These roles have a significant effect on the story, and on the main character. Minor characters have less important roles.
That said, minor characters should still be developed, and not just used as a plot device. There’s a common writing rule of thumb where if a character is important enough to have a name, they’re important enough to want something. Minor characters should have goals and their own ideas, even if they’re small or insignificant ones.
The main difference between a major and minor character is this: A major character will be changed by the story. A minor character will not.
What is the role of a minor character?
Minor characters fill in the background of your story. Without minor characters, the background of the world you build and the story you tell will be pretty drab and boring.
Think of your story as a bucket that you have to fill completely with wiffle balls, green grapes, and chinchilla turds.
Your main characters are the wiffle balls.
Your supporting characters are the green grapes.
Your minor characters are the chinchilla turds (sorry, minor characters, I just think it’s funny).
To fit all of those things into your bucket (book), they go in a certain order. If you fill the bucket with chinchilla turds, nothing else will fit. If you fill it with green grapes, you’re not going to be able to squeeze those wiffle balls in there.
First thing’s first, we develop the main characters.
Around those, we build our supporting characters with their major roles in the main character’s arc.
After that, our chinchilla turd minor characters come in to fill in all those gaps and build a robust world and believable story.
What are the different types of minor characters?
There are two types of minor characters you might use in your stories: actual minor characters and bit-part players.
Minor Characters. A proper minor character has speaking lines, and either a name or a pseudonym for the main character to refer to them or think of them as. They usually appear in one or very few scenes. They typically have some sort of role to play, like triggering a problem, providing brief support or information, or in some other way pushing the story forward. Like I said, if a character is important enough for a name, they’re important enough to want something.
For example, a delivery person whose only role is to drop a package to your character’s desk might have the goal of finishing their route and going home. That might be conveyed by them tossing the package and hurrying away.
A rude person on the sidewalk who curses at your character for accidentally cutting them in line for a hotdog, clearly wants a hotdog.
A character with a name or lines should have something they’re after, even if it’s not distinctly specified in the text. Without a goal, they can feel flat in the scene and really stand out as plot devices.
Bit-Part Players. A bit-part player is a type of minor character, they’re just even MORE minor. You can think of these characters more as set-dressing than actual characters. They’re the crowd in the street. The students in the classroom with no lines or unique description. These characters work to fill in the background of your story, and that’s about as far as their role goes.
You might have characters who fall somewhere between a minor character and a bit-part player. These small roles are important for fleshing out your world and building a believable and immersive story.
How do you write a minor character?
Here are a few tips for writing a great minor character. These tips don’t apply to bit-part players because, as we’ve covered, those characters are just there as set-dressing.
For proper minor characters with dialogue lines and multiple appearances, here are a few things you might try.
1. Keep them in the reader’s mind
If you have a minor, named character, make sure your reader is set up to remember them if they’re supposed to show up again. Your reader can easily forget a character who only appears briefly one time, so if you want them in the story later on, and you need the reader to remember them, make sure you help the reader along. That might mean sprinkling the character into multiple scenes throughout the story where relevant, or it might be having your other characters refer to them by name a time or two.
2. Make minor characters distinct
Since minor characters have less time on-page to make an impression on the reader, make sure you give them descriptions, names, and mannerisms that are different from the main characters and other minor characters. This can also help readers remember the minor characters if they’re supposed to show up again later.
For example, if you describe a white man named Matt with brown hair and typical dress and dialogue, then he doesn’t show up again for twelve chapters, there’s a BIG chance your reader will have no memory of him. If you describe a white man named Beezelbub with brown hair who wears a cape with Crocs? I dare someone to forget about him. (If you’re too boring for that, a Sebastian is much more distinct than a Matt.)
3. Consider combining characters
If you find yourself with too many small characters to keep track of, consider giving their roles to one character. This can help your reader keep track of the cast, as well as making fewer, more rounded characters, as opposed to more, flatter characters.
For example, if your protagonist has a coworker who gives them important information about a new office policy, and a friend who reveals the protagonist’s boyfriend has been cheating on them, and a character who gets drunk at a party and causes a scene during an important conversation, those might all blend into one character pretty seamlessly.
The goal isn’t to have the FEWEST minor characters possible, but if you’re losing track of characters, your readers definitely will, too. That’s a great time to start stacking minor characters into one more important character, wherever that makes sense for the story.
4. Cover up the plot-device nature
While major supporting characters should not be used as plot devices, that’s simply the nature of minor characters. They’re there to enrich the world, provide background for scenes, and move the plot forward. Even though they are technically plot devices, we can pretend they’re not. There are a few ways to do this:
Bring them into scenes naturally. Make it make sense for the character to be wherever they are, doing whatever they’re doing. Giving them their own personal “reason” to be there can make it seem less like they’re a tool for the story.
Make them distinct. Besides giving recurring minor characters distinct names and descriptions to help the reader remember them, making them distinct can make them feel less like a plot tool. You might make their description interesting and vivid, they might be doing something peculiar, or they might just be a weird person.
Give them an unexpected trait. If the professor who asks the protagonist about their late homework looks like your average professor and speaks in a monotone, I’m yawning. If the professor takes off his shoes as soon as lecture ends and asks the protagonist about their homework in an inappropriately loud voice from across the lecture hall, I’m going to remember them.
5. Leave your minor characters until the first draft is done.
Before you apply any of these tips to your characters, let them chill for the first draft. You might combine, remove, or expand upon characters in later drafts, but worry about that when the time comes. We do need plot devices, but we can cover our tracks with them later. Focusing on erasing the trail before we’ve finished the journey will just confuse the whole process.
Examples of minor characters
For a better idea of how minor characters work within a story, let’s look at a list of minor characters from popular media that you’re likely familiar with:
- Jabba the Hutt from Star Wars
- Cinna from The Hunger Games
- Etch from Toy Story
- Pinocchio from Shrek (not from Pinocchio)
- Gingerbread Man from Shrek
- Robin Hood from Shrek
- Magic Mirror from Shrek
- Duloc Mascot from Shrek
- Old Woman trying to sell Donkey from Shrek
- Mongo from Shrek 2
Minor characters play an important role as story decoration and plot devices, but their plot device nature should be obscured as much as possible by making their presence logical, believable, and unique.
Especially if the minor character will be recurring and the reader needs to be able to recall them, writing in odd character traits and behavior is an easy way to make minor characters memorable throughout the book.
Don’t forget to give your goofy little chinchilla characters the love and attention they need to be interesting and relevant in the story.
For a whole slew of other articles on writing characters in a novel, check out these resources:
- Character Development
- Dynamic Characters
- Flat Character Arc
- Redemption Arc
- How to Write a Novel Synopsis
- Character Archetypes
- Plot-Driven vs. Character-Driven Stories
- How to Write Dialogue