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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Why Rosencrantz Can't Die

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern... in Shakespeare's Hamlet the two are virtually interchangeable. In Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead they forget which is which. Any decent editor would tell you that they should be combined or cut altogether.

They're minor characters. And the myth is: Minor Characters Don't Matter.

That's like the great lie "Writers are all rich."

Minor characters hold the story together.

Think back on another classic by Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet. What is the single most important event in that play? The pilgrim's kiss? The balconey scene? The marriage?

How about the catalyst... A minor character, unnamed, stops to ask Romeo if he can read. Romeo learns his love, Rosaline, will be attending the Capulet's ball and so schemes to attend. Instead of spending the night woo'ing Rosaline he's making eyes with the Capulet's daughter, Juliet.

Tragedy ensues because one unnamed character asked a guy if he could read.

Are your minor characters pulling their weight?

The way I see it, the minor character are the backstory that holds a novel together. That minor character may only be on stage once. They may only touch the main plot briefly, but they matter. Like the sideways weave on a loom.

The main characters go charging forward in orange. Huzzah for driving pot lines! But those little green threads weaving in and out? Those little minor characters that sometimes don't have names? They matter.

Without those minor players all you have are strings.

Quick and Dirty Editing For Minor Characters

1. Make sure that you have a full character sheet (name, birth date, motivations, description) for every character. It may never make it to the novel but the author needs to know.

2. Make sure that every minor character has a purpose. Don't clutter the background with extra characters, if someone walks on stage they need to have a purpose.

3. If the character is reoccurring make sure the descriptions match. Do you have a Wise Old Man that keeps popping up to give your MC advice? Make sure the reader knows it's the same guy every time.

4. Avoid cliche and cardboard characters. Setting up a stock character just so your MC has a reasons to talk out loud and story dump is not a reason to introduce a character. In fact, it's a Very Bad Idea. With capital letters and everything! Don't do it.

5. Give minor characters personality.

6. Keep minor characters minor. You may adore them. They may be fabulous. But give them their own book, don't let them overrun the plot. If they do, consider changing your MC to a mC.

Need more help planning your great Editing Project? All the Editing Warfare posts are HERE.


  1. Excellent advice. I'm always waffling with minor characters - trying to decide if I *really* need one here or there, or if I should just cut that part. I have one now that is sort of close to the chopping block, but not quite on it yet. I still haven't decided. Maybe this list will help...

  2. "That's like the great lie "Writers are all rich." Hahaha.

    This is so true. One reason Shakespeare's works are such great examples of this is because they were written for the stage, which you touch on here too - an actor can't be standing around doing nothing. That's why learning screenwriting/playwriting can be a good exercise for any writer. You got to give your characters purpose, even the minor ones. Even if it's just one unnamed character asking a guy if he can read.

    Great post. :)

  3. Wow. Never would have thought about the importance of minor characters... Sure, I use them, but had never considered the significance before. Fantastic post!

    This has definitely got me thinking...

  4. Jamie - I had one that begged to be on scene and I figured I would cut in the next draft. My beta-readers saved him. They loved him, even though he has 300 words of the book, he has a devote fan following.

    In my current WIP I have Tech and Misk, the constantly arguing security duo. Like R&G they're around to lighten an otherwise depressing period of the Mc's life.

    And I love writing them :o)

  5. Tanya - It's so true! In my early attempts at novels I was so bad about cluttering up the stage. I had random characters strewn all over the place. It's hard to learn, but good to remember, that mobs and groups sometimes count as one character.

    J.M. - Glad I could help!

  6. Such great advice--and a yummy pic of Oldman and Roth. Thanks!

    I've definitely combined characters who weren't pulling their weight before. When I first started writing I was always introducing new characters who popped in for one scene and never came back. Since then, I've learned a thing or two about wrangling my minor characters. But sometimes they take on a life of their own! Just keep telling them who's boss! ;)

  7. Tere- Gold star for you! I had no idea who the two men in the picture were. I Googled R&G they led the pack of images. Perfect for the lead in, right?

    I try to keep minor characters under control, but sometimes that "just once" in a book is important.

  8. It may say something that in a lot of books I've read, I love the minor characters more than the leads...

  9. I also often love the minor characters more.
    Hope this doesn't offend anybody, but in Twilight I hated all the main characters. 'Cept maybe Jacob. My favorite character was Emmett! He has maybe ten lines in all four books, but they're always macho and to-the-point. Emmett's awesome.

  10. Merc - I have a few books like that.

    Scott - It takes a brave man to admit to liking Twilight :o)