How many is a crowd?

June 22nd blog

Minor characters – how many and how important?

One question that comes up from time to time in my writing groups is How many minor characters should my story/novel have? As so often in writing, there are no hard and fast rules, just a few guidelines.

With beginners, there is a tendency to have too many minor characters. The reasons I’m given: Oh, but when the story moves to a different setting, I have to introduce other people. Or But I’m trying to be realistic and give them work colleagues, friends and family.          

I do sympathise. But you’re hardly going to write even a novel with all the people on your  Christmas card list. Realism can be taken too far!

In the book The 38 most common fiction writing mistakes, Jack M.Bickham says: It’s not unusual for the fledging novelist to introduce that doorman in chapter one, a cabdriver in chapter two, a TV reporter and a yard person in chapter three – and a dozen more bit players by halfway through the book. But the simplest novel is complex enough and nobody (neither the writer nor the reader!) wants to need a printed programme to keep track of all the minor parts.”

Characters in stories tend to fall into one of three groups:

  • Major characters: your protagonist, your antagonist, maybe one or two others, maybe other point-of-view characters. These are the ones for whom you create detailed character profiles.
  • Minor characters 1: those on the next level down in order of importance to the story.
  • Minor characters 2 – Incidentals: everyday characters, including shopkeepers, waitresses, bartenders.

Whenever you think of introducing a minor character, you should consider what role they are playing or what purpose they have in your story.

  • Will they actively be helping to move the plot forward?
  • Will they contribute to the protagonist’s (or antagonist’s) decision-making?
  • Will they act as a foil to highlight the strengths or weaknesses of the protagonist?

Minor characters still need to be fully rounded, realistic personalities in their own right. But they must never overshadow your main characters. You shouldn’t use them as a point-of-view character ie getting into their heads. They should not be the ones that are making things happen – that’s the job of your protagonist. And they should not be the ones that the reader starts to care about – that too is just for your protagonist.

Sarah Waters points out that all characters will have their own backstories as they are, in their own worlds, of importance. Respect your characters, even the ­minor ones. In art, as in life, everyone is the hero of their own particular story; it is worth thinking about what your minor characters’ stories are, even though they may intersect only slightly with your protagonist’s.”

That means you should be aware of your minor characters as whole personalities but that their particular back-stories, experiences, histories, traits, hobbies etc are not to be included in your story, unless they have some bearing on it.

They don’t need a name

Depending on how important your minor characters are, you do not, always, have to name them. I once read a writer friend’s 18th century romance which opened with a highwayman being chased by a Customs and Exciseman. Both characters were given names and the reader was party to both their thoughts. It was a well-written opening scene, with plenty of suspense and tension, and I was looking forward to a developing relationship between the two men. Only in the second chapter did I realise the highwayman was the protagonist and not until the end did I find out that the Customs and Excise man never reappeared!

If you name a character, you are setting up the expectation that they are going to be an on-going, integral part of the story. If they’re not, then you don’t need names. And that’s the same for what I’ve called Minor Characters 2 – Incidentals. Certainly in a novel there will be tens, if not hundreds, of other people involved in the story: friends, family and work colleagues as mentioned above; walking companions, fellow hobbyists, neighbours, members of a platoon, squadron or regiment; fellow school-teachers or pupils. You cannot give them all names – it will just be totally confusing to your readers.

Finish a first draft

I’ve heard it said by established writers that, quite often, they need to write a first draft before deciding on whether they can justify all their minor characters. Do they all serve a purpose? Can you cut one out completely and not miss them? Or can two minor characters be made into one? 

A tip I’d like to pass on is to keep a check on how often all your characters appear in your novel. Yes, it’s a chart and I know some people fight against using such aids😊 But it’s actually quite useful in just listing your scenes or chapters and making a note of every character who appears in each section. It will show you quite clearly if you are “losing” a character (major or minor) for too long, or if you are using one particular minor character too much. Just a suggestion.

Of course, some stories demand a lot of characters and there’s no getting away from naming them. A prime example of this are historical novels. These may often use either a list – Dramatis Personae – at the beginning of the book, or even a family tree to assist readers in identifying all the characters and their relationship to each other.

Finally, there’s just one other device I’ve found with regard to minor characters – draw a Mindmap or spidergram. Put your protagonist in the middle, your other main characters are then attached to your protagonist and your minor characters outside that. If your minor characters aren’t connected, are they worth their place? 

Have a good week.

Happy Writing.

Linda