If used well, minor characters aren’t minor at all.
We know that minor characters should never be “cardboard.” That every character needs to be fully fleshed out. For example, avoiding stereotypes is good. Not every football player struggles in school. Not every cheerleader is blond and mean. Generally, good characters (like real people) are a myriad of different elements.
Yes, minor characters need to stand on their own—be interesting, compelling. But why include them in the ways that we do? Because they can be an excellent tool in teaching the reader something about our main character. And that is the ultimate objective, isn’t it?
One of my minor characters in ONE FOR THE MURPHYS would have some choice words for me at labeling her “minor.” She’d put me in my place, frighten me, and then make me laugh with her choice of words, lobbing some comment about how I’m drowning in my own gene pool.
Her name is Toni. She’s gruff. She says what’s on her mind even when it will offend people. In fact, if it will offend, all the better. Yes, her self-protection strategies are extreme and they’ve kept her alone. Her walls are high and formidable.
These are some of the things that can happen within a person when they feel like no one loves them for who they really are. Some pretend, trying to be someone they’re not to fit in. Not Toni. And she apologizes for nothing. To a casual observer, she is not vulnerable. Ever. And at the beginning of the book, she considers this to be her greatest strength. A badge of honor.
Toni had found a kindred spirit, though. A fictional girl who had been literally shunned since the day she was born. She is bright and strong and determined. She speaks up for what is right and in the name of those not able to protect themselves—regardless of the consequences. Although gruff (and green) on the outside, she is filled with compassion and love. She is the Wicked Witch of the West named Elphaba from the Broadway musical (and the book by Gregory McGuire), WICKED.
The day Carley meets her, Toni is wearing a WICKED t-shirt, which Carley assumes merely label’s Toni’s personality. When asked to do a social studies project on a person that has changed the world for good, she insists on doing Stephen Schwartz, the man who wrote the lyrics to Wicked’s genius musical score. She dreams of starring on Broadway like Idina Menzel. But at this point, Carley still didn’t understand. All the layers of Toni. But, as Carley changes her perspective—develops an understanding of Toni—a light shines back on Carley, teaching the reader more about her.
As these two girls, who start out as bitter enemies, get to know each other’s hearts and stories they learn how much they have in common where it counts. They develop a shared love for Elphaba’s signature song, Defying Gravity, and its messages within for two girls who are wounded in different ways but both wounded just the same. Who both ache with a void in their guts but how those feelings manifest themselves very differently—yet the same— in each one of them.
Using minor characters in this way is a prime example of writing that “shows rather than tells.” They are there to heighten tension. Move the action. Push our protagonists where they don’t want to go. Sometimes an unexpected reaction from a minor character teaches us something as well. For example, consider the kid always in trouble with a teacher who tries to defend him. Can we possibly draw a conclusion about the child by the teacher’s protectiveness? So, minor characters need to be fully formed, free-standing people. But, in the end, their main purpose is to shine a spot light on our main character.
Consider The Breakfast Club, one of my favorite 80’s movies. Completely dependent on character—a human pinball machine of vulnerability and emotion. Think of how much we learn about each one of those six students because each of them is pushed by another into revealing something they normally wouldn’t. And how much we learn about them by their individual reactions to the principal. If you’d like a reminder of how characters shine lights upon each other, think about pulling this movie out.
If you have not seen Broadway’s Wicked, I suggest that you do. For all kinds of reasons I could do an entire post on. But in relation to this post—the writing in Wicked is masterful. Characters are constantly shining spotlights on each other in the ways that I’ve described. And it is all so organic.
I was so moved by Wicked. I think it drove the writing of the Murphys. I often write with music but never with lyrics. Except in the case of Murphys and Wicked. I never made a decision to choose this music; it chose me. And out of it, Toni was born.
I do love Carley Connors, but I must confess that my favorite character may be Toni. I can see writing a novel some day with her as the protag. And I will then have to create minor characters that shine lights upon her.
Here is a video of WICKED’S Idina Menzel singing Defying Gravity: