How to Design Minor Characters

Minor Characters

Minor Characters

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.

Avoiding Pitfalls

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.

Summary

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.

Invitation

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5 thoughts on “How to Design Minor Characters

  1. Shea Moir

    Hi again, Stavros.
    My feature film script, “The Reprisal”, used many minor characters to push forward the main characters. I found them pretty important and very useful. It gets a bit hard to cast a film with 52 characters though. (laughing my self stupid) So yes, next time I write a feature film, I will definitely be thinking, “Do I need this character?” “Can another character possibly fill that part or complete that task?” I love these blogs. They point out stuff that I as a kid with a crayon, that thinks he can write, might tend to skip over.

    “Please sir, I want some more!”
    Shea N Moir.

    Reply
    1. Stavros Halvatzis

      Thanks for the comment, Shea. Glad you find the blog useful. Yes, I must say that over fifty characters are a bit much! Still, it all depends on context. I do think, however, that there are always opportunities for combining and eliminating characters.

      Reply
      1. Shea Moir

        Yes, the extensive amount of characters actually felt suited to a film set in a high school that had over 1200 students, but while writing it, I thought to myself, I pretty much knew everybody in the same grade as me, and there had to be at least 50 people that I would talk to on a regular basis. Sometimes more characters can help improve settings and environments especially where there may naturally be a large number of people. I am glad it was only around fifty characters. I have already cast pretty much the entire film but you know, cant spend all day bragging, can I? My casting director has done very well considering the morbidity of that beastly script you pulled out of me. Very cathartic I must say. I cant cut any characters. Not a single one. 🙂 Believe me I thought about it real hard. 🙂 2 hour film set in a high-school can easily have 50 speaking roles even if they only get to say boo.

        Reply
  2. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

    Thanks for the very interesting comments Russ. And also thank your niece for pointing out that the Dinasaur’s name is Rex!

    Reply
  3. Russ Welsh

    Firstly, my three year old niece wanted me to point out that the dinosaur in Toy Story is called Rex. Ok… now, onto business… I read an interview by Joel and Ethan Coen a few years ago that said they try to infuse their minor roles with the same vivre and livelihood as the major roles. So, take The Big Lebowski for example, Donnie (played by the great Steve Buscemi) appears only a few times over the course of the film and attention is always placed firmly on him by Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) and/or The Dude (Jeff Bridges). When it comes to the end and Donnie dies, sorry for the spoiler to anyone who has not yet seen this masterpiece of modern cinema, Donnie’s death affects us more than it normally would. And the same goes for John Turturro’s character Jesus Quintana, who we are immediately repelled from because Walter informs the characters (and the audience) that Jesus is a pederast. Yikes! Stay away from him little boys. But, all joking aside, since reading that interview with the Coen Brothers I have been infusing my own side characters with a strong sense of importance. It really is a great way to eliminate predictability.

    Reply

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