One of the key elements in a memorable story, whether it is told on film or in prose, is the care with which minor characters are portrayed. It’s easy to recognize the throw-away roles: the “red shirt” who usually doesn’t have a name because he or she is doomed, the walk-on who recites lines and then departs, never to be seen again, the spear-carrier, the spinster aunt or bratty sibling or cold-hearted, moustache-twirling villain. The plucky girl detective must have a toyboyish best friend. Likewise, the dashing hero is accompanied by a jovial buddy. In neither case can the secondary characters present a love interest. In their extreme burlesque form, such stereotypes are not only predictable, but communicate that we, the readers, should not take the story seriously.
The purpose of these characters is to deliver a line, listen to the protagonist explain things to the reader or fill in a blank in the plot. They are driven not by their own desires and fears but by the author’s requirements. Hence, they are disposable. Their deaths mean little because they never lived.
The most common “fix,” which is not a fix at all, is to dress up cardboard secondary characters with a few colorful details. Okay, we’ll make the best friend — drum roll — a boy! But he has to be — second drum roll — unavailable, either dating someone else or gay, because there can be no possibility of our heroine finding him romantically interesting. This amounts to no change at all, because the character suffers the same constraints. His function could as well be performed by any other character of the same mold.
In contrast, memorable minor characters feel as if they have wandered on-stage while pursuing quite another tale, one in which they are the heroes. They may appear only briefly, but they carry with them the sense of a large and powerful untold story. This technique parallels the effect of sensory details that evoke a world “beyond the page.”
Sooner or later, most serious authors create minor characters who don’t play by the rules. He or she starts doing unexpected things, much to the dismay of the author, who is anxious to get on with the plot. I think such surprises are a good thing. They tell me that a minor character is taking on more dimensions in my creative back-brain. Sometimes, they point out weaknesses in set-up, plot, world-building, or the motivations of major characters. They can be an invaluable diagnostic tool when “something isn’t working.” My experience has been that the time and effort spent in following these mutineers is more than amply repaid in richness of story. After all, if I don’t care about a character, even a one-line walk-on character, why should the reader care? When that one-liner presents me with a reason to care, passions of her own, goals at cross-purposes with those of the hero, then I should thank her!
Secondary characters are notorious for running away with the story. I should say, the intended story, because in the process of writing and revising, I often uncover a “deeper” story than the one I envisioned when I began. However, it is not always helpful when deadlines loom and a spear-carrier decides to usurp the role of protagonist and go off on his own adventures. I joke about offering such characters bribes (“be good, follow the agenda, and I’ll write your very own story”).
Sometimes negotiation is helpful. I ask, “What about this character can tell me more about the world, the other characters, the themes and nuances of the story?” For a minor character, details must do double or triple-duty: reveal this particular character, develop aspects of a major character, evoke the culture and environment that produced the minor character, advance the plot, etc.
Occasionally, however, a minor character runs away with the story because it’s really her story and she’s much more interesting than the nominal hero. My characters can be smarter than I am. When I respect them, they are not only more likely to play nicely, but they add immeasurably to the richness and drama of the story. I think it’s a mistake to fall in love only with the hero. Memorable, quirky, passionate minor characters can up the emotional stakes of the plot, give depth to the major characters, and linger in the reader’s mind, leaving him hungry for more.