In any story or book, you have your major characters and minor characters. Major characters include your protagonist(s) and, potentially, your antagonists. So who are your minor characters?
Minor characters (sometimes called tertiary characters) are supporting characters that fill important roles throughout your story, propel the plot along, provide your main characters with motivation, and flesh out your main characters’ worlds. They’re every bit as crucial to the story as major characters and require careful attention when writing.
Here’s everything you need to know.
Common types of minor characters in literature
Minor characters can fall into several different groups, depending on the purpose they serve within the plot. Let’s look at the many characters who populate storytelling, and how minor characters support your protagonist on their journey (with some examples!).
While the antagonist is sometimes your story’s foil character, this role can fall to minor characters as well. A foil character is a distorted, opposite reflection of your protagonist.
If your protagonist is characterized by their integrity and optimism, a foil would be characterized by their lack of integrity and cynicism. They might be your main character’s friend, colleague, or enemy, but their purpose is always the same: to highlight your major characters’ attributes by showing a stark contrast.
One of the most well-known examples of a foil character in fiction appears in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. In the novel, Victor Frankenstein is driven by his own goals and obsession with science, shunning, in a way, his own humanity. Meanwhile, the Creature embraces humanity, art, and the potential for connection. The sharp contrasts between the two characters serve to highlight their differing traits.
The comic relief
Sometimes, you just need to lighten the mood in your story or novel. If you’re finding that your story is a little darker and more serious than you intended, you can delight and surprise your readers by adding in supporting characters that provide comedic relief. They might not need to show up often, but they contribute those pivotal moments where a dash of humor might be appreciated.
An example of this can be seen in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In the play, the Gravediggers appear in just one scene, but these two characters’ witty jokes, commentary, and dialogue as they dig a grave help lend a bit of light humor to an otherwise very, very dark moment in an overall dark play.
The love interest
Often, the love interest in a novel or short story will be a secondary character, with a bit more importance than a minor character (though this is dependent on your genre and how readers expect that genre to present). If, however, you don’t want to give your main character’s love interest quite so much page time, you can incorporate them as a minor character while still channeling the important role that a love interest provides.
A love interest—depending on the relationship—can act as a strong motivator for your protagonist and drive plot forward. If you look at a book like In the Garden of Spite by Camilla Bruce, the lead character Bella’s love interest, James, goes in and out of her life and takes up relatively little page space, at least compared to secondary characters like Bella’s sister and multiple spouses. However, he, in many ways, drives quite a few of her actions and, thus, the plot.
The guide or “explainer” minor character is, often, the best friend of a fiction writer. Need to let your main character in on their new school’s interesting secret? Need to relay some important information to your main character, in order to move them to the next phase of your plot? These important characters fill the role.
They’re just there to provide much-needed info (though do be sure to either include your explainer character elsewhere in your story or give them another purpose/role, so they’re not only appearing in one scene to explain something and then dash—that’s a little too obvious).
One character that’s an example of this is Chief Bill Vickery in Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn. While he does, in some instances, stand in the main character’s way when it comes to getting what she wants, he mostly provides information regarding the murders she’s investigating, allowing her to move the story forward using that information in her journey.
Sometimes, you need a bit of foreshadowing in your story to not only keep the reader’s mind engaged wondering what’s going to happen next, but also to propel your plot forward. With foreshadowing, your protagonist—just like your reader—will begin to question things. They might investigate a hunch or have a tough conversation.
The foreshadower’s role can be very, very minor. In some cases, this character appears to foreshadow events to come through an off-hand comment or conversation. In others, they might foreshadow events to come just by entering the story (for example, if they have a specific job that would draw your main character’s attention, like if they’re a federal agent showing up, out of the blue, in a sleepy town).
An example of one character that’s a foreshadower is Stuart Ullman in Stephen King’s The Shining. Ullman interviews main character Jack for a job at the Overlook Hotel. In the film adaption of the book, Ullman plays a greater foreshadowing role, warning the other characters about the hotel’s isolation over the winter months, as well as alluding to past horrors. This foreshadows what’s to come later on in the story.
Things to consider when writing minor characters
Remember—every character in your story has their own life, their own backstory, their own motives. Just like your local postman has their own life, hopes, and dreams, even if you only see them once a week and you only know their first name, so does the random, one-off, minor character in your story.
A well-written story keeps this fact in mind and incorporates minor characters with their own internal lives. This is where traits come into play. If you just write your minor characters with their “types” in mind, they risk feeling hollow and flat, like a stereotype rather than a real person.
Here are a few traits to consider as you create believable minor characters that feel like real people.
Static vs. dynamic
Static characters are those that do not change in any major way throughout a story. There’s no internal character development. Any character in your story can be static, so long as they hold the same internal and external beliefs at the end of the story, as they do at the start of the story.
Dynamic characters, in contrast, change their worldview or beliefs in a major way by the end of your tale, with ample character development. They learn something, they change their minds, they change as a person.
You can learn more about static and dynamic characters in our lesson here!
What are your minor characters’ motivations? Yes, it can be a difficult question to answer. It can be difficult even nailing down precisely what your main characters’ motivations are! However, knowing every single character’s objective within your story can help you avoid plot holes and craft a more realistic narrative.
So, why does that minor character show up to provide comedic relief at just the right time?
Are they nosey and trying to uncover what your main character is up to? Are they in love with your main character and trying to catch their attention? Are they lonely and just hoping to be a part of the crew?
Even if you don’t spell out your minor character’s motivation in so many words, knowing it and using it in your writing will help ensure continuity and reader belief.
Goals and stakes
Just like every character in your story needs a motivation, they also need goals and stakes. What’s their personal goal? What’s going to happen if they don’t achieve what they’re after?
For example, maybe you have a minor character who just shows up to provide some foreshadowing for your character. Maybe they drop a few foreshadowing lines while they’re making small talk in a coffee shop. As minor as that character is, they still have goals and stakes within the scene.
Their goal is to get their coffee order, while the stakes could range from not having enough caffeine to get through their day to not managing to please their boss when they return to the office without the boss’s coffee.
If the goal is realized, they might smile at your protagonist on their way out the door, brightening their day. If the goal is not realized, they might snap at your protagonist, ruining their morning.
One thing you don’t want to happen when writing minor characters?
You definitely don’t want to allow your handful of minor characters to all blend together. To make them stand apart, give them some sort of distinctive characteristic.
Maybe it’s an odd appearance or weird voice. Maybe they drive a car that your protagonist in the story envies. Maybe they’re unsettlingly beautiful. Whatever you go with, just ensure they don’t blend into the background.
What to avoid when writing minor characters
Have a type and traits picked out for your minor characters? Before you start writing, or if you’re in the process of revising or editing past writing, be sure to avoid some of these minor character pitfalls.
Providing too much info
Yes, you need to create minor characters with rich backgrounds and that are fleshed out, that have a reason for existing. However, you don’t want to give all this information to your readers.
Instead, use this information for your own knowledge so you can ensure your minor character’s role is as believable as possible. Otherwise, you could inadvertently draw too much attention to your minor character and overemphasize their importance, detracting from the main character.
Inserting your minor characters where they don’t belong
Don’t force a minor character into scenes where they’re not needed. If your minor character only serves a purpose in one scene, across just a few pages, let them stick with that. There’s no reason to awkwardly bring them up elsewhere, as recurring minor characters, just for the sake of it.
What’s the difference between a minor character and secondary character?
If you’ve already brushed up on everything you need to know about secondary characters, then you may be wondering what the difference is between a minor character and secondary character.
As minor characters are sometimes referred to as tertiary characters, you can think of them as being just one step down from a secondary character. While types of secondary characters and the types of minor characters can sometimes overlap (for example, a foil character can be both secondary or tertiary, depending on their relevance to the story), the difference all comes down to, in part, page space.
While a secondary character will get nearly as much page space as your protagonist, and is vital to your plot, minor characters, while still important, are slightly less so. You don’t need to worry about getting them into every single scene or even most scenes. If a minor character appears in only two or three scenes within a novel, that’s okay.
Give your minor characters their due attention
You need both a major character and interesting minor characters in any story. Make sure your supporting characters get the love and attention they deserve for the most well-rounded and believable stories possible.