Your main characters are important; they tell the story. Without them, there wouldn’t be a story. But what about minor characters? Secondary characters that are only there in a passing scene or two? They exist for two possible reasons: one, to progress the story and two, to progress the main character’s characterization.
So what happens when a minor character doesn’t fulfill either of those reasons?
I recently read a book where there are plenty of secondary and minor characters to support the main characters–but often I found myself wondering “Who the heck do they keep mentioning?” not because there were so many characters to keep track of but rather because the minor characters were forgettable.
The main character had a roommate whom we meet only in passing: “Oh, this is ___. They’ll be your roommate.” and we don’t see that person for a few chapters and then suddenly they’re back and best friends with the MC. The roommate doesn’t have a purpose outside the point in the story where they’re mortally wounded and the MC sheds Tears of Love and Friendship (TM).
And it happens over and over again to every character that isn’t the MC. And it’s frustrating. I want to like these characters, I want to be able to discover their relationships, but it’s impossible when these minor characters have been steamrolled so flat you could see through them. It makes me roll my eyes when the MC runs to the “best friend’s” bed, to ask if they’re okay. I don’t feel a single thing when a secondary character betrays the MC because I never felt the trust and closeness of their relationship. I never understood why the secondary character felt the way they did and what led them to take such measures against their supposed best friend.
So what can you, as writers, do to strengthen your minor characters?
Well, this semester, I took a Fundamentals of Playwriting course and our professor had us write a play throughout the semester. And we’d work on scenes during class. One class, he had us take a scene where our main character interacts with a secondary character and write a monologue based on it–from the secondary character’s perspective.
We had to put all of the secondary character’s emotions and goals into that monologue. What did they want? What was in their way? How were they going to get it?
We essentially wrote it as if the secondary character had become the main character in our play. And it’s no different for a novel.
Every character, whether major or minor, should believe the story is about them. Even if they’re not in the story for more than a chapter or two, every interaction they have with the actual main character should show us a little bit of their life and what they want.
Every character’s story starts at some point, so just because your main character’s story is only just beginning, doesn’t mean that the same is true for your secondary and minor characters. They could be in the middle of their story or the end. But the important thing to remember is that your secondary characters are not just actors waiting off-stage for their cue to come back on stage. They don’t cease existing once they walk away from the main character. They have a goal in mind, and that goal doesn’t have to revolve around the main character
So give your secondary characters a life of their own, and don’t be shy to really explore their relationships both with the main character and with other secondary characters. After all, Ron and Hermione were friends with each other and other people at Hogwarts, not just Harry.