Fiction Writing: Major vs. Minor Characters

As you are developing your cast of characters for your novel, you will undoubtedly finding most of your characters falling into one of two categories – major character or minor character.

Major Character

romanceMajor characters include your protagonist, your protagonist’s sidekick and your antagonist (and perhaps his sidekick/major underling).

These are the people that clearly make the major character list and are the characters you will need to develop fully. You will need to know beyond their physical characteristics and personality traits and flaws. You will need to know their history and what happened to make them the way they are at the beginning of your story.

But other people may help out your protagonist or antagonist. They even may have their own subplots.  These also are considered major characters. They are going to affect the story. But this list usually is a short one.

So for the Harry Potter series – Harry (protagonist), Ron and Hermione (sidekicks) and Voldermort (antagonist) are definitely major characters. Others include Headmaster/Professor Dumbledore, Professor Snape and Draco Malfoy to name a few. And with this example, there are some characters who might have been minor in the first books who play bigger roles later.

Minor Character

dialogueMinor characters are the opposite of major characters. Very little is usually written about them. They may appear in a scene or two but aren’t likely to influence the outcome of the story.

Many of these characters are flat, two-dimensional types that could easily be replaced. As an author, you are not going to spend the time to flesh these people out before writing.

Heck, some of these minor characters may not even have names. The bartender or cab driver may be such a character. They may speak and interact in the scene, but their contribution is negligible.

In the Harry Potter series, minor characters include the Dursleys, Filch, and many of the other professors and students.

And in your own novel, there will be many characters who may fall in between but don’t waste your time trying to categorize each one. Simply decide how important they are to the story, and that will let you know how much time to spend on them. To read more about how much to develop minor characters – check out my post on that subject.



How much do you need to develop minor characters?

So you know that you need to fully develop a background and motivation for both your antagonist and protagonist and of course, their supporting cast (sidekicks, best friends, and close confidants). But how much do you need to develop minor characters?

Well, that all depends on how minor they are. If they are just part of the setting – say the surly teenager at the coffee shop who tosses the sticky bun on the tray and nearly spills the coffee, then I would say pretty much no development is needed. This character almost doesn’t even warrant a name – unless that name is going to play some role in the story such as reminding your character of their first boyfriend which could lead to some back story.

Now if this minor character gets a speaking part (beyond “excuse me” or “How can I help you?”) then it might be helpful to have a few facts about him or her. miraIn Destiny, I introduced a character that only appears in two scenes, though she is mentioned a few other times. She is a young thief who has great drawing ability. Well of course she needed a name (Mira) and a description (a shy, thin girl of sixteen with long brown hair) as well as a few facts such as she is a better artist then a thief. But I didn’t create a complete back story as to why she is living on the streets or working for the thieves network when she isn’t a good thief. I know nothing about her family or her life before she enters my story. And it works as she is a such a minor character. There is no need to waste your time developing a character profile on such a character but you might consider giving your minor character a distinctive trait. In Mira’s case it is her shyness that stands out.

Now in Quietus and Destiny I have a lot of characters that are minor. There are High Council members (basically government officials) and other Elementals (people who can control the elements) that train with my main character Lina. In this case, since they appear numerous times and directly impact the story, I did develop brief character sketches so that they would come to life in the story. Especially with the Elementals, I needed to know what element they could control and where they came from (not just country but employment and family) as well as what they looked like and how they behaved. Of course for most of these characters I only devote a few lines to each. But knowing these facts I think makes it easier to write about them as if they are real people rather than just people to advance your story.

So how much time you spend on these minor characters depends on their role in your story.  In some cases knowing their motivations (why they are helping or hindering your protagonist) can prove to be very beneficial. In other cases, you need nothing more than a description.

The Character Interview: Getting to know your characters

It is important to get to know your characters BEFORE you begin writing your novel. The more familiar you are with them, the better you will be able to bring them to life.

One method of developing your character is to do a character interview. You ask your character questions and answer back as if you are that character. This gives you a chance to explore some of their background from their point of view.

It is really a fun exercise. You can pretend to be the police interviewing your bad guy, a therapist interviewing a patient, interview them for a magazine – as if they are a celebrity or maybe about one of their hobbies.  It is a technique with lots of room to play and adapt to your specific needs.

Using this type of free flowing encounter can help you generate a lot of information about the character in a short period of time.

I have always done this exercise being both the interviewer and interviewee. But you can always have someone else ask you questions, and you respond as if you are that character. This means your word choice, manner, and attitude must be as if you really were that character. You should think like they do, speak like they do, be that character.

One of the benefits of having someone else involved is you are not stymied by playing both roles. Plus different minds think differently, and you are likely to get totally different material that you wouldn’t come up with on your own.

That said, I still have done this exercise most often by myself. Since I wrote a trilogy, I actually only did it for the first book, Summoned. The key is to ask open-ended questions so your character has to elaborate beyond a simple “yes” or “no.”  So instead of asking, “Were you scared when you were kidnapped?” ask “What was going through your head at the moment you were grabbed?”

And I would certainly stay away from the mundane questions about how tall someone is or what their favorite food is. The first one you should already know and the second most likely will not help you in developing your plot or improving the scenes in your novel.

Try to concentrate on questions that will benefit you and help you write the story. There are countless websites that give you list of questions to ask, but I say aim for 10 to 12 quality questions. Stick with questions that ask the what, why, how and who f your character. You are looking for your character’s goals and motivations. (For some good questions to get you started, check out this website.)

Sample questions might include: What is your goal? Why is that your goal? Why can’t you reach your goal? What’s stopping you? What is it that you have never told anyone else?

The character interview can help you get to know your characters on a new level. With it, you can create original, fresh, new characters. And by knowing them better, you can more completely write about them. But the important thing is to have fun with it.