I’m sure most people have heard the story of the men who turn up with a tow truck and take away an expensive car from the street. They are of course thieves, but because they’re wearing high-vis jackets and have a proper truck with flashing lights nobody questions their actions. They look the part so they’re not noticed.
To an extent the same thing happens with minor characters in fiction. The waiter who brings your heroine her soup or the shop assistant who hands over her change are simply part of the landscape of the book and that’s how it should be.
But sometimes we want our minor characters to be noticed. Perhaps they recur later in the book in which case we want them to be remembered. The best way to do this is with a defining characteristic, some small aspect of action or appearance that will ensure the reader remembers them the next time they show up. Here’s an example from my first novel Fallen Star:
The barmaid smiled, the careful smile of someone with ill-fitting dentures.
Next time she puts in an appearance the reader will recall the barmaid’s smile, the character is effectively fixed by that one thing. This technique is useful to provide a little comic relief too, the doctor who is always sick or the taxi driver who invariably gets lost. If you can make the reader laugh at a character he or she is more likely to lodge in the memory.
There are other times when a minor character will have rather more importance. They may move the plot along or provide some small conflict which serves to highlight the qualities of the protagonists. In this case we can still use the defining characteristic technique but we also need to paint a slightly fuller picture—here’s another Fallen Star character to illustrate:
Dexter drew himself up to his full height, which wasn’t very far, and stuck out his grizzled chin. “You can’t push me about, sonny. I fought for my country,” he said, pointing at a row of faded medal ribbons on his greatcoat. “I’m a bleedin’ ’ero, I am.”
I’ve shown the reader Dexter’s physical characteristics here and how he’s dressed, but I’ve also given him a speech tic – he drops his Gs and Hs. Although he only appears in three scenes he’s pivotal to the plot so the reader needs to know him in a bit more detail than our smiling barmaid. We also need to think about motivation in situations like this. Why does the character behave as he does and is he believable? You might find you need to understand a bit more about the person than you actually include in the story.
Of course there are occasions when we want to trick the reader into not noticing a character. The waiter may seem unimportant until it turns out that, say, the soup was poisoned. This comes back to my original example of stealing the car, you can hide someone in plain view by making their actions seem ordinary. Only later when the theft or the poisoning is revealed does the reader connect the event, this is a staple technique of crime fiction.
As a rule minor characters don’t need to be developed as fully as your protagonists. But whether they’re used to drive the plot, to provide a foil for the hero or simply as background they are important and you should take the time to get them right.
Ian Barker is a contributing editor of LitChat. Read his complete bio here.