All parts of a story should contribute to the whole, and supporting characters are no different. Yet too often we writers brush past them in a hurry, not realizing the positive impact they could have if we paid them a little more attention.
Think about the cast of characters that surround the protagonist in some well-known stories. Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind had Melanie, Ashley, and of course Rhett. Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective Sherlock Homes had Watson and Inspector LeStrade. In the TV program Monk, Adrian, the obsessive/compulsive protagonist, has a collection of people important to him: his nurse/assistant, Captain Stottlemeyer, Lieutenant Randy Disher, and of course his therapist.
Minor characters play important roles in stories, but they also magnify the main character often by contrast. While Scarlett is selfish and self-absorbed, Melanie is giving and kind. While Adrian is serious and detail-oriented in his investigation, Randy is silly and outlandish in his theories. These contrasting traits of the minor characters magnify those of the protagonist.
Protagonists also need adversaries–not the antagonist of the story, but someone on his team that can be a source of irritation, a foil, a roadblock.
In the 80s TV show Magnum, P.I., the title character Thomas Magnum lives at the behest of millionaire Robin Masters in the guest cottage of his estate in Hawaii. The overseer, Jonathan Higgins–who, with his strict gentleman’s code, is also a perfect balance to Magnum’s easy-going temperament–is often an antagonist, throwing difficulties in Magnum’s path. The two aren’t enemies and in fact become trusted friends over time, but Higgins keeps the viewer guessing whether he will do something that will put Thomas in further danger or help him out of a jam.
An adversary may have different values from the protagonist or might have a different worldview that makes him see things differently. He might be jealous and act out of spite or be foolish and bumble along so that things become more difficult.
The key is, this adversary offers an added layer of conflict to your story. To achieve his goal, the protagonist has someone within his camp he must convince, cajole, dupe, or in some other way struggle against.
Minor characters add texture to the protagonist–they validate that she has a life and has not been dropped on the page for the sole amusement of the author and readers. These characters can be co-workers, next door neighbors, brothers or sisters, the girl working in the fast food place the protagonist frequents, the guy who takes tickets in the movie theater–anyone the protagonist runs into frequently.
Some writing instructors suggest combining roles for minor characters–the guy who witnessed the accident the sleuth is investigating is also the guy who does her yard work, for example. Taking this approach insures that each character adds more than window dressing. They actually contribute to the story and advance the plot.
A couple things will help minor characters have the impact you as the writer want them to have. First, give them names that readers can remember and can associate with them. Nothing is more frustrating to me as a reader than encountering a character in a new scene who hasn’t made a big enough impression that I remember who he or she is. The protagonist might seem relieved or worried or irritated to see this person, but I don’t know why. Instead of entering into the protagonist’s emotions, I have to stop reading and flip back to remind myself who this person is.
Names can help to alleviate this problem. Choose names–or perhaps nicknames–that reflect a character’s personality such as Sparky, Poetry (The Sugar Creek Gang books), or Aunt Pittypat (Gone With The Wind). If not the character’s personality, then the name can perhaps reflect his physical appearance or some physical ability: Circus, Little Jim, Bits, or Tiny.
Names should also be distinct so that the reader doesn’t easily confuse one with the other. Ted and Tad have obvious similarities–beginning and ending with the same consonants and also consisting of only one syllable. Variety in these areas will help your reader distinguish between minor characters.
In crafting minor characters, avoid stereotypes. Not every mother-in-law needs to be the protagonist’s adversary. Not every teenager needs to be sullen or rebellious. Not every cop needs to be a bully. Minor characters, while not as complex as the star of the story, still have their own stories, their own goals, their own flaws. Make them unique in your own mind, at least, and chances are, they will pop off the page in a memorable way for your readers.
Minor characters should also be memorable for what they do. Rarely will a lengthy description of a minor character stick with a reader. Instead it will stop the action and slow the pace. Rather, a character who does something in a memorable way will be one that readers will later recall.
Finally, don’t forget to people your world with extras–characters who have no lines but by appearing, bring life to the scene. A couple seated at the next table, an elderly man pushing a grocery cart down the aisle, a group of tourists snapping pictures at the beach–whatever your locale, extras make the world believable.
See for example these lines from the fantasy short story “Swallow And Beyond”:
As the egg-shaped ship drifted toward Swallow’s shore, Rhei jostled to get a better view–past a mother with her baby nestled in a sling, past four or five tradesmen clustered in front of the tinker’s stand, past a mason repairing the rocky wharf.
Whether your minor characters are as important as the protagonist’s sidekick or as insignificant as an extra, they add value to any story. The more attention we writers give them, the better they’ll do their job.