The literary agent Jonny Geller posted recently on Twitter that there are no such thing as minor characters, they each have their own novel, but their story is for another time. This was quoted to me by one of my Online Fiction Workshop students experiencing some frustration as to what a minor character is and how to know if a character is minor or major. ‘I am finding that, whenever I introduce a new one,’ she said, ‘I need to do almost as much work on their history and inner motivations as for a major character, otherwise they don’t do their job properly.’
It’s certainly true that any story could be told in another way from another angle (in the introduction to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, David Eggers jokes about ‘a reworking of Grendel this time from the point of view of nearby conifers’). On the other hand, we could think that most minor characters don’t see the whole story simply because they’re not as important or invested as the major characters. They’re not in on it all. They do different jobs. What are these jobs and how should they be undertaken properly?
What is a major character?
When discussing this in the workshop, we rowed back and asked ourselves what is a major character and what does she do. One of the group offered that for her, ‘a major character has a quest, that’s the basic criterion.’ ‘Maybe the classification of major or minor characters is related to their relative influence,’ suggested another.
These points were well made. We lose interest in characters who don’t want anything and characters who are merely along for the ride, which isn’t to say that contented souls and lazy passengers don’t appear in novels. Our speculative novels rewritten from the POV of minor characters might suggest they also have quests that simply don’t intersect with the quests we’re interested in. Grendel wants to avenge himself on merrymaking when the conifers want it to rain.
Despite broadly agreeing, I thought there was a more precise way of defining the major characters in relation to the minors, especially when I realised that some of the group were having problems not with minor characters per se but the array of character types that can make up a cast or ensemble.
Five types of character
There are not one but two types of major character, and three types of minor character.
PROTAGONIST(S) – The Quester. There may be more than one in novels with multiple points of view or alternating timelines.
MAJOR CHARACTERS – The Interested Party. Appear relatively frequently and/or have an influence on the Protagonist(s).
MINOR CHARACTERS – Useful Acquaintances. Appear infrequently or only once.
SUPPORTING CHARACTERS – The Peer Group. Feature often but don’t change or are unchanged by the story (for example in family stories or novels set in the workplace)
BIT-PART PLAYERS – The set dressers. Inconsequential, or local colour.
The protagonist and the major characters have a quest, whether that’s on an epic scale like the defeat of Grendel in Beowulf, or in a lesser key like Mrs Dalloway’s desire to host a society party, but these characters also change and are changed by the story arc.
A minor or support character does not appear very much, and thus does not change the story arc and may not be changed by its progress and climax at all. This is the simplest way to separate the majors from the minors. Who does what? Who realises most?
I might add here that it’s probably not a good idea to allow yourself, or your readers, access into the heads of minor characters. Narrative point of view is best ceded only to those characters who change and are changed by the climax of the story. We don’t need to be party to the intimate thoughts and motivations of characters who only appear once or twice.
Flattening and Rounding
Major characters are rounded, multi-dimensional. Minor characters are flat, two-dimensional. This is the important distinction that EM Forster makes in Aspects of the Novel (and no discussion of minors and majors can avoid touching base with Forster). According to Forster, rounded characters must surprise us (and you as you write more about them). Flat characters don’t need to do this as their main function is to move the plot.
“… flat characters are very useful to (the writer), since they never need reintroducing, never run away, have not to be watched for development, and provide their own atmosphere – little luminous discs of a pre-arranged size, pushed hither and thither like counters…”
The trick is to conceal this plot-moving function, to make minor characters vivid, memorable, with the appearance of acting in their own dramas as well as those of our protagonist. They are there to move the plot but cannot appear to be doing so.
Character and Characterisation
The key issue for minors is, therefore, one of characterisation. Characterisation is the observable qualities of a person that you bring to the page. Character is the human qualities a person shows when they make difficult decisions under duress. ‘We showed great character out there,’ says Alf Chod, manager of Dumptown United after coming back, with a man sent off, from four-nil down against Manchester United in blizzard conditions.
Minor characters do not need to have character. They only need to be vivid, even if they only appear in flashes. If we have a crime story and the gangland boss is surrounded by goons who look like gorillas and have names like Knuckles or Rocco, we’ll yawn. We won’t if the goon keeps tightening and releasing his belt and citing lines from Ted Hughes’ nature poems.
Don’t expose the mechanism
A common problem is that often we can devise, especially in the first draft, characters who have a significant role to play but who appear infrequently. In some of the group’s novels, shadowy characters who only crop up once or twice act as necessary sluices of information. In one novel, a character who proves to cast a long shadow over the protagonist dies in the first chapter.
The problem here is that the roles these characters play can seem, well, too much like mere roles, are too firmly guided by the author’s pattern-making. It can be too obvious that these characters are the catspaw of the plot’s mechanism. They exist to solve some knotty problem not just for the protagonist but for the author’s design.
This is, actually, a question of plot – how to flush necessary secrets and backstory into the present of the story without it seeming procedural. This might mean developing the role of minor characters into subplots or cutting them altogether and redirecting the flow back to the protagonist and his or her actions (throw the passengers from the plane; as always, it’s your decision whether you provide a parachute). In our early drafts, our discovery phase, we may find that there are characters that it’s helpful to introduce for whatever reason who later can be binned, combined with others or rounded out to hide their initial purpose.
Let them all play until you’ve written it
As you produce the first draft, many things may change, too. New characters may appear. Minor characters may demand more attention. Phillip Pullman has said that when he planned Northern Lights, the armoured bear, Iorek Bynison was supposed to be a far less important character than the crucial one he ended up becoming. In my first draft at the moment, I have characters entering who I had not bargained for but they are helping me make sense of the whole story when I don’t yet have a sure grip on the whole story because I’ve not written it yet. As always with first drafts, remind yourself that you’ve not written it yet. You’re still playing. It’s part of the drafting process to make sense of the role each character plays.
A classic minor character
In Chapter Three of The Great Gatsby, Nick (one of two protagonists) wanders into Gatsby’s library where he meets a man sobering up from the party that roils on outside. The man has huge owl-like glasses and is referred to as Owl-Eyes. He has a memorable way of speaking. ‘He’s a regular Bellasco,’ he says of Gatsby when he points out that even the books on the shelves are fake.
He’s absent from the novel for so long that we could have considered him a bit-part player. We’ve probably forgotten him when he turns up at the funeral at the end and offers the one human tribute to Gatsby from the partygoers, ‘Poor son of a bitch.’
He only appears twice. We know nothing of his backstory and not even his real name. But, on the one hand, both speech and appearance are distinct. On the other, he gives us the key to the theme of the novel, in that he’s the only character who susses the reality of Gatsby (Bellasco was a set-designer in Hollywood). He’s can even be seen to represent God, who sees everything (as compared with the unseeing eyes of the advertising hoarding Mr Wilson confuses with God before he murders Gatsby).
You could, of course, write The Great Gatsby from the point of view of Owl Eyes, but the plot would be: routine/went to a party/routine/went to a funeral/proved right.
That doesn’t sound like much of a story to me but is does show us what a minor character can do.
Minor Characters: The Tip Sheet
1: Major characters change and are changed by the story arc. Anyone who doesn’t is a minor.
2: Use vivid characterisation to obscure the plot role the minor character plays.
3: The first draft will inevitably involve some discovering of the roles your characters will play.
4: There’s more to it than Major or Minor – there are nuances here.
5: Don’t get inside the heads of minor characters.
6: Minor characters don’t need to be full of surprises.
Of course, if you do feel that a minor character keeps raising his or her voice, you can always return to their story another time.