5 ways to use minor characters to add depth and complexity to your protagonist

 

 

1. You can use different characters to bring out aspects of the protagonist you want to emphasize to the reader.

Minor characters who have been involved with the protagonist for a long time are carriers of their own history with and memories of the protagonist. Minor characters can reference the past in handy ways that serve the development of the story. They can make observations about the protagonist’s character or predictions about her future.

Because minor characters are fully realized people in their own right, they have their own biases and inner conflicts that color their perceptions of the protagonist. As a result they’ll all have their own individual attitudes towards your central character, and how they act and what they say should reflect this. These differing perspectives can add depth and complexity to the protagonist and flesh out her life so that it seems to extend beyond the pages of the story.

2. You can use minor characters to represent exaggerated aspects of the protagonist’s own character.

Minor characters can serve as symbols of the protagonist’s own shortcomings that she must overcome in order to achieve the story’s goal.

Likewise, you can use minor characters in a way that represents the protagonist’s own potential – characters that the protagonist looks up to or wishes to emulate in some way.

3. You can use minor characters to benchmark the protagonist’s growth.

The protagonist starts out in her “ordinary world”. As she travels through the course of the story, he or she begins to change – but the ordinary world stays the same. The protagonist’s changing perspective on minor characters who populate the ordinary world can demonstrate how the protagonist herself is changing.

Minor characters can also represent the “new world” – or the changed state of being that the protagonist is moving toward. In this case it’s their changing attitudes toward the protagonist that reflects the protagonist’s growth. For example, they might initially resist the protagonist in some way, but then slowly or grudgingly come to accept her and perhaps even start to admire her.

4. You can use minor characters to represent different sides of a choice the protagonist must make.

The protagonist can be caught between different characters who embody opposing value systems. This is a way you can flesh out the theme or premise of your story: by showing whom the protagonist ends up aligning herself with (or against).

5. You can use minor characters as a ‘mirror’ of the protagonist.

A minor character can double the protagonist in some way: they start out in a similar situation, pursuing a similar fate….but then the minor character veers off in a different direction, usually negative, that serves to emphasize just what’s at stake for the protagonist or how she, too, could end up if she’s unable to overcome the challenges she must confront.

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Mar 13, 2010
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5 comments · Add Yours

Very nice way to spell out many ways to accomplish a very difficult task. I wish these things were as easy to *do* as reading this well-crafted article–but it’s so haaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrd. Could you just tell us all *how* to do it in just as straight-forward and clear manner?
LOL

Accomplishing the things listed here in a subtle yet noticable way is why we writers make the big bucks though, eh? For me, I think I often fall upon the too subtle in the relationships between characters and rather than be nebulously vague, I need to focus more on being deliberately vague. Suggestions?

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Great post about the very issue I’m dealing with- how to sturcture a scene with a minor character so that the MC will realize that she has to act. Thanks for the clarity- Kelly

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Your post was particularly helpful to me, since my fiction always seems to have a large supporting cast. :-) I’m reminded of an exchange from, of all things, the Kate Hudson/Matthew McConnaughey comedy-adventure FOOL’S GOLD. Appropriately, this dialogue involves supporting characters Ray Winstone and Ewen Bremner as rival treasure-hunters:

RW: “Well, well, well, if it isn’t the Ukrainian sidekick.”

EB: “I don’t think of myself that way. I am the lead character of my own story. Ha!”

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May I complain — you make me think too much even on Saturdays. Great how-to and why-to.

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A nice, concise piece, although I have to admit that the following segment brought a smirk to my lips:
*As she travels through the course of the story, he or she begins to change…*
If she becomes a he during the course of the story, that really is some change!

More seriously, though, I’ve become much more adept at developing minor characters and putting them to good use than I was when I started trying my hand at fiction, so many years ago now. Back when I was starting out, all of my minor characters (indeed, pretty much *any* character who wasn’t the main one) existed only to kiss my protagonist’s backside, or otherwise show the reader just how great said main character supposedly was (though really wasn’t, in the majority of cases); now, though, all the characters I create seem to end up becoming people that I can easily imagine having lives of their own. It’s a wonderful thing to have all of your supporting cast develop like that (particularly in those cases where you never expected a character to have anything more than a very minor role); the only problem is that sometimes a minor character blossoms so much, s/he threatens to overshadow the main one! Whenever that happens, I always take it as a sign that I need to do more work on my protagonist – better, after all, to try and elevate him or her to the level of everyone else, than drag everyone else down to his or her level!

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