Not all people in a fictional world are important to the plot. However, I believe it is a mistake to use that as a justification to avoid including insignificant characters at all. The plot is not the entire story. Unimportant characters are vital in convincing the reader that the setting is plausible or complete. They come with their own dreams and struggles, and their perspectives are valuable.
There is a Goldilocks middle for minor character usage. Add too many and the cast of characters becomes convoluted, the plot difficult to discern. Add too few and the world feels incomplete. The hard truth to minor characters is that every page spent on them is a page not spent on the plot. Discussing them will always slow the pacing of the story, right? Not quite.
Masters of worldbuilding have plenty of uses for minor characters, but we can start here. My goal with this blog post is to convince you that any minor character, no matter how far removed from your plot, should still be seen as a living component of this world. However, each minor character should teach the reader about a specific subsection of the world; otherwise they become too far removed from the story at all. In this blog post, I will focus on three roles of minor characters in a story:
- Give the reader a reason to care about the world, not just the main characters.
- Introduce main characters from other perspectives
- Offer alternative viewpoints on the story’s main conflict
Keep in mind that they can serve other purposes. See if you can spot some other uses as I draft an example character to walk through worldbuilding with a minor character. I may return to this blog post and add examples retroactively.
For clarity, I use “main character” in this post to refer to any important character; this includes antagonists and other important characters that are not protagonists.
Worldbuilding With Minor Characters
Why should the reader care about the fictional world, and how might a minor character facilitate that care? Focus on the aspects are the most important for the reader to understand. The answer depends on the story, though I find most stories will feature some kind of social rank, so that will be the focal point of our minor character’s existence in the story.
The highest and lowest social ranks tend to be most involved with the plot of stories that don’t have the luxury of featuring characters moving between the ranks. A single rank on its own has little meaning, and just two rankings can still feel dry. Adding more ranks makes a world feel fuller, but care must be taken to distinguish between adjacent ranks. One option is to use a character whose profession obligations interactions with those in other social classes.
Our example character is a dressmaker, someone who commissions custom-tailored orders to the ruling class. In many cultures, real or otherwise, a woman’s attire directly correlates to the wealth of her family or clan. Therefore, a dressmaker who commissions to a wealthy lord, king, or other ruler must be trusted to make the absolute highest-quality dresses. His customers are welcome to spending large sums of money on their wives and daughters, which give these commissions quite a different take on the arrangements.
The dressmaker is not as wealthy as a lord. He must be well-off in order to have access to the expensive materials. How? Let’s say he has suppliers, but those suppliers understand the value of the material even if they don’t craft with it themselves. The dressmaker will need to pay the right price to satisfy the supplier lest they take their business elsewhere. But what is the right price? The material is valuable to a lord, so it must be valuable. Bandits and thieves know this. The suppliers need to hire protection, bumping the price. They might need to travel, bumping the price futher. But there might be several competing suppliers, permitting price haggling. The dressmaker can cut the travel price by living and working near the supplier, but this risks being further away from the customers. This one niche job has paved the way for revealing lifestyle aspects of: the dressmaker, the lord, material suppliers, bandits, and guards.
We have yet to decide on what the material is, how it is harvested, and what qualities of it make it so attractive. Decide on these and you have insight into the geography or climate, technology or labor systems, and economy or how culture values art. The rabbit hole goes further. The dressmaker probably won’t save the world, but he has already given the reader so many reasons to care about the world.
Not enough conflict
Conflict is one of the best ways to get a reader invested in a character or a story. Even though this character will not be the star of the story, the reader needs to care about the character before they will care about their perspective of the world.
Details that don’t matter
While it can be interesting to see various parts of the world that might not have received a spotlight otherwise, the bulk of the worldbuilding for these scenes should be focused on something that will be relevant to the main characters and plot.
Introducing Main Characters With Minor Characters
Plot largely consists of characters interacting with other characters. Recall that investing too heavily in minor characters can steer the reader away from the plot. However, they don’t need to. Main characters can be involved in the problems of minor characters, and because the it’s only a minor character’s problem, the plot does not hinge on the resolution of this problem. The main character can move on with the plot with no consequence. Here is a sample scenario to consider:
The dressmaker’s customer is a main character that has not yet been introduced to the reader. The dress is for a ceremony which, for whatever reason, had its date bumped forward unexpectedly.
What will the main character do? Ask for a rushed job or cancel? For a rushed job, will they offer extra money or threaten them? What if the character won’t have the money to pay them before the ceremony?
From this simple setup, we now have so many options for the character to take to introduce main characters. No matter which option the story takes, the reader is already emotionally invested in the main character, through the minor character, but as the dressmaker is a minor character, the effect that the decision has on him will not affect the overall story.
Not enough conflict
Because this technique involves a decision that has little to no effect on the story, it can be seen as a “filler” event that some readers will see right through. Stronger plots should be driven by the characters. If a scene is not relevant enough to the plot, it will slow the pacing of the story even if the scene itself has fast pacing.
While this technique can be great for introducing characters from unconventional angles, it can become repetitive pretty quickly. Readers will notice if the main characters are frequently put into positions where the outcomes of their choices don’t affect the story.
Alternate World Perspectives Of Minor Characters
The personal grudge between the protagonist and antagonist might not be relevant to minor characters. Maybe the main characters are relevant to the minor characters, but they have no ability to influence this conflict either way. Maybe they are rooting for one side or another but for some reason that is not shared by any of the main characters. Perspectives come as a result of circumstances, and providing these perspectives can help make the current state of the world more believable. Ask yourself, “If X is happening, how would that affect Y?” Replace Y with as many random roles in the world as you can and answer those questions in as interesting a way as possible. Offer those perspectives to the reader.
Let’s consider the dressmaker once more. Obviously, he wants his commissioners to prosper and will often side with them economically. This tightly couples him in a manner that is a bit too boring–no unique perspective. To make it more interesting, let’s say that the foreign silk favored by the dressmaker is imported from a market that is in opposition with the commissioner. As the foreign market thrives, the commissioner may lose the funds to be able to afford the dressmaker’s handiwork. Interesting, but may require quite a bit of worldbuilding to execute properly. For a minor character, a simpler setup may be preferable.
I have decided that the dressmaker’s commissioner (a main character) is well-off. Money allows for more storytelling options, and the way he achieves this is by taking bribes from local business owners to apply tariffs on imported goods such as the dressmaker’s preferred silk. Or even more interesting: all silk. As a result, the dressmaker must find some other material to work with. He could go back to his origins and use whatever else he worked with before he had the luxury to afford silk. With this setup, the reader is exposed to several perpsectives:
- How a main character has access to money for whatever schemes are required for the story.
- How the lives of commoners are affected by the higher classes’ greediness.
- How times have changed and how fashion trends have shifted since “the good old days” before he took foreign materials for granted.
An interesting world persective should answer several questions at once in order to maximize information per page. Additionally, it should add to the conflict in the story in some way. The reader does not need to root for minor characters, but they should still understand their struggles enough to know that the consequences of the plot affect more than just the main characters. Every action has an exponential reaction.
Not enough conflict
While extra perspectives can make a world feel more alive, they can also make the story feel more boring. What good is information that is too far removed from the main characters? These perspectives should emphasize the direct consequences of actions taken by the main characters or set up the main characters’ next decisions. Very few other venues will keep the reader engaged with this subplot.
The whole point of this technique is to give the reader vastly different perspectives on the same set of events. If an alternate perspective is too similar that of a major character in the story, then it serves no storytelling purpose. In that case, pick a different perspective or omit this technique entirely.
So there you have it: three uses of minor characters in storytelling. They can help support the setting via worldbuilding, the characters via introductions, and the plot via perspective. I believe that all stories are built from setting, characters, and plot, so I focused on these three primarily in this blog post about the dressmaker. Of course, minor characters can serve all sorts of other uses without distracting from the main story.
Who are your favorite minor characters, and what purpose do they serve in their stories?