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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Minor Characters

Minor characters make or break a book.

Feel free to quote me on that. I am an unabashed Minor Character Lover. I'll read a book for the first time for the plot and main character, but if I reread a book it's for the minor characters. All those little side characters that people tend to forget.

Authors tend to make one of two mistakes with minor characters:
1) To Many Minor Characters
2) To Few/Underdeveloped Minor Characters

If the author has dozens of minor characters who are fully fleshed out you wind up not with minor characters, but a huge cast of lead characters. The reverse is just as off-putting, a smattering of underdeveloped, poorly written, cardboard minor characters who the author threw in as an after-thought can ruin a book.

But a good minor character... ah... now that's worth reading.

What Makes a Good Minor Character

Has a Purpose - Good writing doesn't have fluff, likewise, a good minor character isn't there as a Token Character. A well-written minor character will have a reason for existing in the book, contribute in some way to the plot.

Has Their Own Story - The reader will only see hints of this, but a well-written minor character will have their own life, their own dreams, their own history separate from the lead characters.

Has a Goal - Even if the goal is to find a quiet spot to sleep on the job (Nobby Nobbs anyone?) a minor character will have a goal. Goals and ambitions keep a plot moving forward, every character needs an ambition or they will drag the pace of a novel down.

Has a Personality - The running joke for old sci-fi shows was that there was always one person whose sole job was to repeat what the computer said. Some authors turn their minor characters into nothing but a second copy of the main character, it's terribly boring, don't do that. An interesting minor character will have their own thoughts, and if they're lucky they'll get to voice them a few times.

Has a Life Span - This is a major issue I have even with well-known authors, and it's usually something that comes up when an author is writing a series: A really interesting minor character is introduced and then they die. Or - worse- they vanish from the series without comment. That isn't a character, that's a prop. Don't confuse the two.

If you hadn't guessed, Gimli is my favorite minor character from the classic literary canon, but I have others. What about you, which minor character do you love?

The image of Gimli is obviously from the movie and found on Google. Copyright to all the artists involved with those amazing movies (except Return of the King- I may never forgive Peter Jackson for butchering Faramir's character). Special thanks to John Rhys-Davies for living up to all my childhood expectations of what Gimli should be.


  1. I love this post but I disagree. I think minor characters can have a great purpose through their death. (If Gandalf hadn't come back he'd make a decent example.) Harry Potter had some great characters with shortened life spans.

    I think Minerva McGonagal is my favorite, though.

  2. Elsewhere you asked about the background. I like it.

  3. Emily - A good minor character can die, but if their only purpose is to come on screen and die they are cannon fodder, not a minor character.

  4. Oh, I agree. That's more of a prop, like you said, or an extra. They can be fun, though.

  5. Mr. Tumnus from C.S. Lewis's Nardia series. He's minor but he leaves an impression on you long after he's disappeared in the story.