If someone tells you the minor characters aren’t as important as the main characters – step back and listen. When the person is done speaking, I would like you to respond by saying, “In ways you are correct. But the reality of it is that supporting characters better our understanding of the main character and his/her circumstances. Without them, our stories would fall flat.
Having said that, it boils down to one realization. If your supporting characters aren’t working toward the support, awareness, perception, tolerance, and even support of the main character or situation in some way, you should ask yourself, “What they’re really doing there?”
We call them ‘supporting characters’ for a reason. If they aren’t supporting your story – they don’t belong there. Everything you spend time on must be for a reason, including those minor characters who appear to be simply passing through.
Having said that, supporting characters shouldn’t appear like they’re only hanging around to provide evidence, material, news, knowledge or further the plot. All supporting characters, even those who appear in the book for only a couple of paragraphs and then are gone forever, must be there because they belong there with behaviors, motivations and needs of their own. Remember, these characters much unobtrusively achieve their purpose in just a few choice words or lines.
Know your supporting characters – When writers send in a supporting character without thought to who they are – it will show. You must get to know every character in your book, no matter how minor. What is their purpose? At the end of the book did their achieve their goal?
For each supporting character ask these questions:
- What is his/her internal motivation? Goal? What does he/she want?
- Personal traits to make him/her fit-in?
- What makes character right for this part of book? Experience, relationship to main character(s), situation?
- What does he/she have at stake?
- Is supporting character friend or foe?
- His/her motivation?
Watch for those characters that try to take over a scene or even the book. Ask them why and decide if they should stay or leave. Ask why are they there? Is the story stronger without them?
Don’t get too attached to supporting characters or you might not want to get rid of them. If you find yourself trying to justify why they should stay/go, take a good look why. Who stays and who goes is ultimately up to you as the author. When in doubt, listen to what the story is telling you. Never ignore your instincts, they are almost always right.