The Care and Feeding of Minor Characters
Let’s talk about minor characters.These are your protagonist’s family members, friends, and coworkers. Important enough to have a name, but definitely not an above-the-title name. They mainly exist to help move the plot along, often being on the receiving end of your protagonist’s witty dialog or exposition. “OMG Amber, let me tell you about what happened this summer at camp! You’re gonna freak out!”
They can also be plot devices: getting abducted, being diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses or accused of a crime, forbidding the protagonist to do what they want to do, or betraying them in some way. Nearly every cop’s wife in Western literature exists only to a) complain that the cop is never home or b) get threatened/abducted/killed.
Your protagonist lives in the world with other people, and how she interacts with them both humanizes her and gives your reader clues as to the kind of person she is. A hard-nosed business tycoon can show her secret tender side when she visits her grandmother in the nursing home. The nanny who is all sweetness and light with her charges may have a dark side that she explores in secret sex clubs.
Regardless of what purpose they serve, you should make sure your minor characters stick in your reader’s mind as people, not set-dressing. They don’t need to be as fully fleshed out as your main characters. In fact, to give them too much page space or backstory may indicate a higher importance to your reader than you’re going to deliver on. That’s not to say you can’t give a character more real estate than makes sense in one story because you’re setting him up for a larger role in the sequel. I had this conversation with my editor, Marti McKenna, while we worked on Griefed (Lexy Cooper #3).
Marti: I’m not quite sure why this Archie Wolfe guy is getting so much screen time. There’s not really a payoff…
Me: He’s important in Lexy #4.
Let’s now make a distinction between the minor character and the “extra” or “walk-on.” These are characters that appear briefly to serve a specific purpose and then disappear. A taxi driver that gets your protagonist from point A to point B and maybe delivers one piece of news. A bartender confirming the alibi of a suspect. A beat cop who makes an arrest.
They are necessary to move the action along, but they don’t need backstory, motivation, or even a name. (Unless they do. If that bartender is supplying a false alibi because she’s sleeping with the suspect then she’s not a walk-on, she’s a minor character and she’s gonna need a name.)
Here’s an example of when not to name the baby. This happened during the editing of Glitched (Lexy #4)
Harper showed the letter to the only lawyer she knew—Xenon’s corporate bulldog—and she suggested that Harper zip her lip and try to move on…
Marti: I suggest giving the corporate bulldog a name to avoid pronoun confusion.
But, this bulldog will not be seen again until Lexy #6. I don’t want to commit to a name this far out, and more importantly, I don’t want to give readers the impression that this character needs to be loaded into memory yet. The problem was easily solved by the elimination of one letter. “She” became “he” and poof! No more pronoun trouble.
Don’t litter your book with a cast of thousands. Your reader can’t keep track of that many characters unless each and every character stands out. I bet if I name an obscure character in the Harry Potter series, fully half the world’s population will know who I’m talking about. Because Rowling paints a vivid—though sometimes brief—picture of every character and each serves a purpose.
For the rest of us? My best advice is to keep the cast lean. Only write characters that you need. And only give them names if you want your reader to recall who they are later in the book or series.