Most novels or screenplays contain a set of secondary, or minor characters. These are characters who serve the plot in some important way, but who do not warrant the time and space it would take to develop them to the level of major players.
One of the dangers we face in creating minor characters is to fall into the trap of stereotype and cliche, probably because we tend to invoke such characters, at specific points in the plot, more out of necessity than passion. Yet, brevity and functionality need not result in shallow, trite characterisation. In seeking to avoid this trap, consider the following:
1. Identify the function of the character in the scene you intend to write.
2. Ask yourself whether this function can be performed by an existing character. In determining this, consider whether this is a genuine secondary character, or a bit-part player. Bit-part players occupy brief moments in a story and need not be extensively fleshed out. What is this character’s relationship to the plot? Is it simply to convey new information, or is the character emotionally linked to the protagonist or antagonist? If emotionally linked, he/she/it is a minor character, rather than a bit-player.
3. Identify your minor character’s background — upbringing, education, occupation, and keep this in mind when you consider the following: dress style, body type, body language, dialect, speech idiosyncrasies, hobbies, unexpected interests. These are shortcuts which, in the absence of deep interaction and complexity, serve to create a sense of uniqueness around a minor character.
4. Keep the above points in mind when you come to write dialogue for this character. Dialogue, and its ancillary, subtext, can reveal much about the character’s background, current social standing, world view, and so on — all aspects that help to differentiate minor characters from their more complex counterparts in the story.
In the film, Toy Story, for example, the Dinosaur and Mr. Potato Head are minor characters that are uniquely differentiated through their speech, appearance, and psychological make-up. The Dinosaur is timid and nervous, while Mr. Potato Head is irreverent, bold, and sure of himself. They are as different from each other as Woody is from Buzz Lightyear. The Dinosaur and Mr. Potato Head are a wonderful illustration of coulorful and interesting characters infused with a few well-chosen attributes.
Create interesting minor characters to serve the plot, by infusing each with different physical and psychological traits that manifest in unique dialogue and behavioural patterns.
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