Thursday, July 3, 2008

Thirteen Things about Thirteen ways your minor characters can help your book
Thursday Thirteen

Minor characters aren’t necessarily so very minor. They can have a major role in bringing your story world to life. Here are some things to love about those characters who don’t play the main roles.

Our town. Minor characters help to fill out the setting. Small town? Quirky characters with small town sensibilities help set the stage and make the place more realistic. Big city? Rushed businesspeople, Starbucks customers, taxi drivers, etc. Without minor characters, the hero, heroine, and villain would be operating in a vacuum.

Sounding board. The best friend, the mentor, a stranger on the street. Whatever person your characters choose to confide in, that person (or persons) is important not only to make the main character more real, but also to move the plot.

Stool pigeon. Related to #2, minor characters can overhear, be told, or accidentally see things the main characters might not. Whether this happens onstage or is revealed later, this information can be crucial to the plot.

Developing a personality. Ah, character development. Always needed, sometimes extremely hard to show. Minor characters can help with this. A random little girl can show a hero’s soft heart, or a villain’s ego-centrism. The way a main character reacts to a minor character gives the reader a glimpse into the character’s heart.

Danger, Will Robinson! A minor character can warn a main character to beware—of the hero, the villain, a trap, a less than loyal friend. They can lie too, or warn the main character away from something that has to be done—thus upping the stakes.

Red shirts. On the original Star Trek television show, every week the main characters went on their missions with several red shirted characters. These red clad extras were almost always fated to get hurt or die (usually both). Minor characters can play the same role in a book. They can be the victims of the villain or some a natural disaster, or a disease. Whatever we need to push the plot along. And the main characters are safe.

Help, I need somebody. Main characters need helpers. Businesspeople need assistants or coworkers to showcase their skills in delegating or getting along. Perhaps the character needs a babysitter so that he/she can spend time with the other main character or go on an adventure. Or maybe a main character needs someone to check out a rumor about the other main character.

Not everything you know, teacher you need. Like Yoda in the Star Wars movies, main characters frequently need teachers or mentors. Teachers can fill the main characters in on how to traverse the rocky territory you’ve set your characters in. They can fill in world development concepts (both to a main character and the reader). And they can help a main character develop needed skills.

Girdles. Minor characters can function as girdles for a sagging middle in a plot. They can stir up trouble, throw a ball, die painfully, attempt to kill a main character. Which leads us to the next area of usefulness.

Red herrings. Even if the book isn’t a mystery, red herrings are useful. An old girl/boyfriend can seem to be the love of someone’s life. The minor can appear to be the villain, thus taking the spotlight off the real villain (who can then be free to create more havoc). The apparent bad guy may be an undercover FBI agent. Or the good guy may not be so very good.

Fun with language. No matter where the main characters come from, they have to speak clear and understandable English. Any accents or oddities have to be subtle. Plus major characters have to seem intelligent and not goofy. A minor character doesn’t have that restriction. A character with a heavy accent, a very odd use of the language, who speaks in clich├ęs, or who speaks gobbledygook. These types of characters can add a lot to a manuscript.

Mirror, mirror. While a romance has to center on only one couple, there can be two minor characters who have their own romantic story. It just can’t be the centerpiece of the story, and their story has to add something to book. Mirroring the main storyline is a common way. Just don’t let the sub-plot overshadow the main one.

Last, but definitely not least. The minor characters can be a gateway into a sequel. Three friends, five siblings, two coworkers, partners in a business; these all lend themselves to more than one book. Voila! You have a series.

I’m sure there are many uses for minor characters that I missed with this list. What are your favorite uses for characters who don’t (yet) take center stage?

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