If one were to bring up Mrs. Hudson in conversation, what would you presume we were talking about?
I hope you’d think of Sherlock Holmes, since there are very view (perhaps no) interpretations of Sherlock Holmes that fail to include Mrs. Hudson. Yet most of the time she is not vital to the plot. So what role does she play as a side character?
We’re going to look at Mrs. Hudson and other “famous” minor characters to find the reasons why side & minor characters are important to your story.
“Make every character matter.”
In my opinion, this kind of writing advice falls under the same kind of mental editing process of ‘make every sentence essential to the forward movement of the story.’ You can always give side characters or minor characters a little more depth on your second (3rd, 4th, 25th) go-around, but while not essential, I’ve always noticed when authors imbue even the briefest cameo character with a personality in one or two sentences. It’s the extra sprinkles on top that made a story stand out from the crowd.
As Sherlock Holmes’ landlady, she could easily be a flat character who merely provides him with his lodging, but she’s almost always been more than that. Willing to put up with his eccentricities, trying to remind him that she’s not his housekeeper, yet caring for him despite her protests, she’s someone he cares about and who cares about him, giving us a second opinion of Sherlock outside John Watson’s viewpoint.
There are certain things your minor characters can be used to do:
- They provide insight into how your protagonist views others, and also how others view your protagonist,
- Act as a foil to the rest of the cast of characters or plot,
- Provide a “normal” or “abnormal” setting for your world or a particular scene, fleshing out the world,
- Move the action or plot along,
- Help or hinder the protagonist
Another character brought to life in print and film, all that’s needed to bring him to mind are the accented words of “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die!”
Driven by revenge, he could’ve been a one-dimensional character, but his compassion and friendship with Fezzik, and his respect for Wesley’s sword skills and love for Buttercup mean that he remains in the minds and memories of generations of children (and adult-children).
We’re invested in his side-story of gaining revenge, but he also serves to keep Wesley alive, assists in “storming the castle” and is even a foil for showing off how skilled Wesley has become during his years away in their sword fight.
Legrange, The Flower of Rin-ne:
Going back to my roots, this anime stands out in my memory not only for amazing side and minor characters (many whom you couldn’t decide were good or bad), but also for using a battle scene to humanize the enemy. Unlike countless other science fiction wide-scale battles, rather than saying the number of planes that had gone down, in the midst of battle they named the pilots as they were killed, clearly counting them as comrades and friends but believing so strongly in their cause that they felt the sacrifice was worth it. That small detail in the writing changed the audience’s emotional allegiance from the protagonists to the enemy in a moment.
It also served to make the audience question the whole point of pulling the heroine into this battle to defend Earth. Rather than protecting her home, was she being used to slaughter another civilization’s warriors? That’s minor characters pulling their weight and then some.
I can’t think of anyone who dislikes Luna; or conversely, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love Luna. I’d read a whole book about her, yet she is technically a side or minor character in the Harry Potter books. She is wonderful at being a foil to the rest of the cast and even at times the wizarding world, has insight that confuses but also helps Harry, and manages to stand out without overtaking the narrative.
She’s most often in a helping role, and only through her and her family can the plot progress.
He’s obviously not a character himself, but Dickens is famous for inserting hundreds of minor characters into his books, and they are almost all distinct with unique accents, backgrounds and flawed personalities. While I wouldn’t recommend following his lead in the sheer number of characters he used, it’s worth re-reading some of his work to see how he fit distinct characterizations into a few paragraphs when introducing someone new – but minor.
Finally, the last piece of advice is to cut any minor or side characters that fail to serve any of these purposes. If the story can do without them, then do without them. Bland, one-dimension characters only serve to disengage your readers.
What minor character are you proud of writing? What kind of foil did they create for your protagonist? How do you plan to change your current project to include colorful side characters? Let us know in the comments!
Katie, signing off