Recently, in the circles that I’m in, more and more people are asking what to do about minor characters. They want to flush them out, give them their own backstory, their own story, understand their background, and everything that makes them tick, but should they do that? How much attention should we give our minor characters? To address this, let’s look at real life.
There are people you encounter every day that you know nothing about. You go to the gas station, fuel up, go inside to get a snack, and the only words exchanged between you and the cashier are:
“Hello, how are you today?”
“I’m great, thanks.”
“Your total will be $5.98.” A pause as the cashier accepts the cash from you, and then she smiles at you and hands you your purchased item. “Thank you, and have a great day.”
“Thanks. You too.” And you leave.
Now, you know nothing about that girl. You don’t know how old she is, if she’s in high school or college, if she’s married or single or has any kids. You don’t know what her talents are, her skills are, or her dreams. You know absolutely nothing, but you’re okay with that. Why? Because you have someplace to be, and getting stuck in a conversation may distract you from what you have to do.
So having characters you know nothing about is fine in a story. Now, another instance of minor characters would be those people you run into on occasion. You’ve seen them enough times you might know their names and greet them. For instance, my mother and I used to go to the park and walk every morning, and at the same time there was this older couple also walking the trail. Their names were Vic and Sid. We knew nothing more of each other except for our names, and we’d greet each other warmly each time we saw one another:
“Hey! How are you? Been a while since we’ve seen you.”
“Yeah, been busy—family stuff, but it’s nice to be back.”
“It’s great to see you again.”
“You too.” And we’d just keep walking, minding our own business.
Another way we may encounter minor characters in real life may be those people we see on a regular basis and may or may not recall the person’s name, but we have a fair idea of what their personality is like and maybe even their dreams. However, they like to talk with you at the most inopportune times, and you never really want to get too drawn into a conversation. An example of this is a cashier at Wal-Mart who has checked out your items on a regular basis. You can’t recall her name, so you have to keep looking at her tag, which reads ‘Jenny’. She remembers you though even if she doesn’t recall your name. You’re the person who’s published a book. In her eyes, you’re famous, and she likes talking with you in a loud voice. She tries to be nonchalant about your accomplishments, and every time she sees you, she tells you about her plans of making a movie. You encourage her, but really, standing in line at the cashier in Wal-Mart is not the best place for this conversation since there are other people in line waiting for their items to be checked through. However, you never see her outside of Wal-Mart, and every time you talk with her, she keeps saying the same thing, and it’s like she never takes any steps toward fulfilling her dreams. You don’t really have time to invest in this person, but you try to be nice.
Now all these are minor characters you may meet in real life. In stories, your characters will encounter similar characters, and you don’t have to flush them out thoroughly. Giving them a personality is always good, and sometimes minor characters will surprise you by actually contributing majorly to the story in ways you never expected, and that’s all right.
The main thing to keep in mind is, “Is this minor character important to the story? Does this character contribute to the story? Do they contribute in a small way or in a big way?” If it’s a small way, you don’t have to develop them too much. Yes, you as the author might know their entire life story and all their hopes and dreams, but that might not be important to the story you’re writing. It’d be very confusing if you have a story about someone who’s on the run from the law, and he checks into this motel where there’s this guy behind the counter who’s dream is to become a cowboy, and suddenly the story shifts to trying to let him accomplish his dream. Sure, there are ways of making the work, but what about the guy who’s on the run?
You’re not obligated it give every character major screen time. In someone else’s life, you are a minor character, someone who they merely passed by on the sidewalk. Yes, you have a lot of depth, huge dreams, and your own bag of troubles, but to that individual whose life you don’t impact, you’re just another face, and that’s okay.
So, when you’re writing a story, if you don’t know how much you should develop a minor character, look at the story, ask how important the character is to the story and how much they contribute to it. Go ahead and give them some personality or quirk to make them memorable to the reader, but then move on. You could have a memorable minor character, and this could be someone that you decide to come back to later and write his own story, but for the time being, don’t overwhelm your book with too many characters.