This one does require some defining of terms, because “minor character” means different things to different people. To me, they are the third level of characters, two steps away from “protagonist” (who usually gets the most development, is often the person whose mind we share, and usually the person we’re supposed to cheer for) and one step away from “secondary character” (who receives at least some development, usually has an importance—such as sidekick or love interest—to the protagonist, and is supposed to occasion our sorrow if he or she dies). Minor characters are the ones who show up for at least a few scenes, have, if not a name, some recognizable features, and are necessary for the plot. Just because they’re so often functional, however, is no reason not to make them distinctive.
1) Be careful of introducing too many at once.
A cluster of people suddenly thrown at the reader is a hallmark of a lot of fantasies, specifically the first or second chapter, or one where the author wants to immerse the reader into court life, a bustling market, or a pre-existing structure like an academy. The problem is that, with so many names flashing by her eyes, the reader will have trouble keeping up, trouble defining who’s most important—unless the author deliberately showcases some people and not others, in which case what are the others doing there?—and trouble following the plot, if, say, a clue to a mystery depends on a minor character mentioned once fifty pages back.
Here’s where authorial foresight can be an advantage. If Lord Fellanell commits a murder, and the reader is supposed to gasp and say, “Oh, no! Not Lord Fellanell!”, rather than scratching her head and saying, “Who the fuck is Lord Fellanell?” then you should have presented the character on stage at some point, and emphasized some characteristic that makes the murder unlikely, baffling, or otherwise weird. You can have secondary characters explain afterward that Lord Fellanell is so honorable this is really strange, if that’s convenient, but that can’t reach back in time and grant the reader the same kind of shock she will have if she’s introduced to Lord Fellanell as an honorable person and he then commits a murder. And if he was just a name and smiling face in the middle of ten other names and smiling faces in the first chapter, and the murder happens in chapter five, the reader (and the protagonist) won’t have any particular reason to recall him at all.
Remember, people. You have all book to introduce your minor characters and other parts of the world-building. Slow the hell down in the first chapter, rather than shoving every detail in the readers’ faces.
2) Be careful of similar-sounding or -looking names.
Another extremely commonsense one, but more of a problem than you might think. Fantasy authors seem to follow this progression:
“Ooh! I have a new world! I will make names for it and the people in it!”
*Major locations and characters have distinctive names*
“This is getting tiring.”
*Secondary characters and locations have names that may blur together*
“This is really tiring.”
*In come three minor characters named Belrodian, Belsaurias, and Belssorian*
I know it’s hard to create names that don’t sound either too banal or like you closed your eyes and hit the keyboard in random places with five fingers, but this, the other extreme, is no better. It’s also one of those places where you have to bow to the fact that your readers are reading the book, rather than participating in the action. If they were meeting these people face-to-face, they probably would learn distinct traits that separated Belrodian from Belsaurias and both of them from Belssorian pretty quickly. In writing, they’re more likely to stumble, particularly if the characters are always mentioned around each other.
Oh, and one other convention: Please avoid those systems of nomenclature where characters all share the same first few letters of their names because they’re of a similar social class or race. Unless there’s only going to be one character like that in the book who really matters, it gets old real damn fast.
3) Minor characters should be more than physical quirks.
Okay, so the circumstances of your story insist that you must have a lot of minor characters on the scene at once, and perhaps they even have similar names. But you also want them to be distinct. So you give one “a fall of long copper-colored hair,” and then mention the hell out of that every time the character recurs. Forget about his personality, his reasons for participating in the plot (see point 4), his motives, his connection to the protagonist(s) or secondary characters. He’s the “fall of long copper-colored hair” guy.
I’ve heard it touted as good advice, to give your character a unique physical trait to bring him to life in the reader’s eyes—copper hair, violet eyes, a scar on his face. Problem is, it too often does not go beyond that. The character becomes the physical trait. The author feels no need to build him, because after all, you can tell who he is, right? He’s the “fall of long copper-colored hair” guy.
But if you want a distinct character, and one who matters to your plot and your other characters in a way that makes sense, it will have to go beyond that. Not to mention that a constantly repeated physical description starts making the audience wonder about the state of your vocabulary, and is an open invitation to purple prose.
4) Give them unique functions in the plot.
Here is a way to stop the little bastards from multiplying out of control. Need a character who has a grudge against his employer and for that reason tells the protagonist what she needs to know? It can be just one minor character. It does not have to be two of them. It does not have to be three. It does not, for the love of God, have to be five.
Need to emphasize that the mission the protagonist went on with his patrol was highly dangerous? You could kill two of the distinctive minor characters from the patrol (who often have “dragon fodder” written on their foreheads). Too many, and it’ll start blurring in the readers’ minds, as well as turning the grief and sorrow that you probably want to invoke to sheer numbness at the number slain. Besides, if the protagonist is going to miss these people because of what they were to him, you’ll have to have taken some time to build up the relationship in his mind through the book. What with everything else you’ll be doing—weaving plot, weaving action, slotting in backstory, offering clues to the world, characterizing the protagonists and secondary characters—you’re probably not going to have time to characterize twelve unique people who all wind up dead at once.
Need to have a small group of minor characters who find out the clues to a secondary mystery? All right, fine. But if two of them could do the work, and you can make those two distinguishable and appealing, what’s the point of five? This was one of the problems I had with The Fall of the Kings; in a group of five minor characters, two of them became very distinctive through playing out unique roles in the plot, one was distinctive because of his actions but his motives remained fuzzy, and two of them never moved beyond the quirks the authors gave them. I have no idea why those last two were there.
Bottom line: Time is limited, and minor characters are of necessity going to be more functional than protagonists and secondary characters. Never lose sight of why you wanted to have them in there in the first place.
5) If they’re going to be ignorant of basic facts all the other characters know, explain why.
This is another of those points that may matter only to me, but is going in here because it annoys me so fucking much. That would be why I keep calling these things “rants.”
Fantasy authors often introduce minor characters as traitors, spies, or other givers of information. Now, this can be all right when the treason or spying or whatever is deliberate. But when the minor character seems to be the only person in the entire fucking fantasy world who doesn’t know that the Dark Lord’s minions wear green masks—when customers in his very inn can be discussing this, and yet he just opens the door, lets them in, answers their questions, and then winds up dead on the floor—it annoys me.
Dude? This is stupid. Likewise, it’s stupid if the minor character gets flattered and buttered up by a villain that everybody else can see, and comment on, as oily and slimy, but the minor character swallows his bait hook, line, and sinker, with no motive given. And often enough, there is no motive given. The minor character isn’t distinct enough for that, which makes me think it’s stupidity, on the basis of no contrary evidence.
I know why this happens, of course. The author wants the reader to be aware of the truth and screaming at this unwitting traitor or spy in her mind, while the minor character goes relentlessly to his or her fate. But either that ignorance should be really widespread, or the character should have a reason for ignoring “the prompting of his instincts” or disbelieving in what other people say. Sending someone to death for the sake of cheap drama, and making them look stupid in the bargain, speaks contempt for the reader’s intelligence as well as the character’s.
6) Minor character =! an authorial mouthpiece.
I can sum this one up very easily, as it’s the same, at heart, as my prejudice about an author inflicting her foresight on a character who has no reason to have it: make a character’s reactions in accord with his nature and knowledge and motivations, or don’t have them occur.
Simple, right? Only with minor characters, authors seem to think they can get away with shit they would not dream of trying with their protagonists.
Thus a minor character who throughout the book has been disdainful of the protagonist, questioned his orders, rolled his eyes when he spoke, basically done everything but stick his tongue out behind the hero’s back, suddenly becomes supportive in the eleventh hour. The protagonist experiences some self-doubt, and the author speaks through the mouth of this minor character, effecting a sudden conversion, to predict the protagonist’s glorious victory. And of course the protagonist gets up after the pep talk and goes and wins his glorious victory. And the minor character shows up in the last scene, rolling his eyes and disdainful again, with no sign that he remembers the pep talk. Of course he doesn’t. It’s because the author brainwashed him for that one scene.
Likewise, having a minor character go on a long rant/ramble about the author’s pet philosophy, for the sole reason of getting that philosophy in the story, is Right Out. (I hate message fantasy with the passion of a billion desert suns). So is suddenly having this person whom nobody really cares about declare himself a traitor or murderer, simply to take the suspicion off the protagonist or a sidekick. There were no clues, were there? Of course not. The author probably painted herself into a corner and could think of no better solution.
Watch where you’re painting.
I have not moved an inch in Lord of Snow and Shadows, in part because each minor character is a stereotype. There is no one for me to sympathize with in that book, and I’m thinking of giving it up altogether.