Since I started 70 Days of Sweat, I’ve been horribly lax about giving you anything worth thinking about on the craft of writing. Shame on me. As I find myself with a little bit of time here before I scoot off for lunch, I thought I’d talk a bit about minor characters. A great deal has been written elsewhere about heroes and heroines and bad guys. These are the main players in whatever story you’re reading or writing. But less attention has been paid to the minor characters. These are the supporting actors in fiction. They are the thing that helps color our characters’ worlds and illuminate more about them than that which might be revealed through internal monologue or interactions with other main characters. Minor characters are really fun to write.
In House of Cards, one comment I repeatedly get from readers is “Oh, I just love Mama Pearl!” Mama Pearl is this seventy-something no-nonsense black woman who owns the Main Street Cafe in Chiaroscuro (my fictional town). Picture Della Reese. The cafe is a hub for life in this book and the hero and heroine keep coming back to it. She was a delightful character to write–an opportunity to throw in some Southern sass in an otherwise straight up Wyoming town. She’s been around forever, so she’s seen everything, knows everybody, and is a force to be reckoned with. She figures only peripherally into the main plot, but the story is enriched by her presence. Good minor characters should do that. And I have to say, I think she’s my favorite of all the ones I’ve written.
Minor characters can fill any role you want in fiction. The best friend (Roxie from Flash Point; Fiona in Totem), the grandmother (Wyatt’s Nanna in Til Death), the cousin (Jessie in A Home For The Holidays). The point of minor characters is to help illuminate the protagonist in a more interesting and vibrant way (showing rather than telling). The challenge with minor character is that while their role may dictate a two dimensional character, they are an opportunity to hone your skills at making them three dimensional with choice words and phrases. These characters should be fully formed, even if their back stories are only hinted at. As I have gotten into writing about my home state of Mississippi, I’ve really been trying to bring home this whole idea that Mississippi is one big small town (because it totally is). And in doing so, I’ve done a lot of thinking about and playing with the relationships between all my characters and figuring out how I can do spinoff stories. In some ways I’m treating the appearance of these secondary characters as an opportunity to sort of provide a teaser for their own story, to be written down the line. Obviously, not all minor characters are going to have their own story down the line. Sometimes they are a means to an end. But it’s really important to take the time to think about who they are in their own right and fully utilize their position in your story. Bring those minor characters into the major leagues.