The Potted Plants in the Room — Minor Characters

Congratulations! You’ve won a walk-on role in an upcoming episode of your favorite TV show!

This is it—your chance to show what you’ve got. You’ll lay it all out there for the audience to see. Everyone will forget about the regular leads and demand more of you. The show will become about you.

Not so fast, partner. Do more than walk on, and your bit will end up on the cutting room floor. No one will ever see your award-winning performance.

Such is the lot of the Minor Character in a novel. The job description says it all—Minor Character.

Your only role is to support the Main Characters and their story in important but unobtrusive ways. You can be the bartender who takes their order. Or a co-worker at the water cooler. How about someone on the train who catches the Main’s eye because you remind him of the kindergarten bully? Or a red herring role as a robbery victim? You’re not seeing it? Hey, would you rather be “The Red Shirt” of Star Trek fame?

Sure, you can be smart. Or funny. Or evil and twisted. But you can’t steal the show. What’s that you say? You’ve heard about Mains who started as Minors and convinced the author they should be the star? All right, it can happen. If you get to the writer early enough. But if you don’t show up until she’s 70,000 words into the first draft, don’t hold your breath.

But if you behave yourself, maybe that writer will take a shine to you. Even if you’re stuck with a two-line role, maybe you can get a bigger part in the sequel. Or maybe, the Holy Grail—your own book as a Main Character.

Okay, I just wanted to have some fun up there. Handling these Minor Characters isn’t always easy for me. Quite a few have shown up in Death Out of Time, and I wonder if I have too many. A couple of beta readers thought there were a lot to keep track of. But others didn’t have any problems.

I have dropped a few of them and rolled their remaining bits into characters who survived the cut. My husband didn’t think I even needed to do that. And he has an interesting take on the supporting cast, which I had to share.

When he reads, he thinks of the Minors as “the potted plants in the room.” They help “decorate” the set and the story. But he doesn’t worry about remembering their names and doesn’t need to know what they look like and what they want out of life. As long as there’s a “reminder” within a few sentences of their reappearance, he’ll remember who they are. And if they don’t come back, he doesn’t wonder what happened to them.

But I know other readers who get distracted by every new character who appears. They want details to flesh out those Minors—even if they’re only in a single scene as a foil for the Mains. It’s hard to satisfy a reader like that without writing a monster Russian-style novel à la Tolstoy. And I haven’t heard that too many agents and editors today are looking for such a work.

So I think it comes down to balance again. Have enough potted plants Minors to decorate the story. But don’t let them get out of control and distract the reader from the real plot and the Main Characters.

What are your views on Minor Characters? Do you think there’s a set number that makes “too many,” or does it depend on the nature of the story? Has a Minor succeeded in becoming a Major in any of your work?

29 thoughts on “The Potted Plants in the Room — Minor Characters

  1. your post just made me think about minor characters. I think they are crucial in some stories and cannot be done without except such stories that are about one or two characters lost in the middle of no where. Just enough to make the story realor appealing is enough.

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    • I can’t imagine something as long as a novel without them. It would take an incredibly talented writer to make one or two characters sustain a full-length story like that. But a shorter story shouldn’t have too many of them. I’ll see what my remaining beta readers come back with before I cut too many more.

      Thanks for commenting!

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  2. Loved this post–very creative, and it got me thinking, which isn’t an easy thing to do 🙂

    I approach my minors as I do my major characters–keep a file on them, develop their interests and likes, physical appearances, etc. That way, even if I don’t use everything I’ve created for him or her, the character is more real in my mind. I’ve not had one transform into a major player, but I’ve certainly fallen in love with some of my minors.

    As for whether there can be too many or not, I think it comes down to making sure every character, no matter how small, plays a vital role, and the scene could not proceed without him or her.

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    • I know what you mean about falling for some of them. I can’t bring myself to cut them! If they’re not pulling their weight, I have to find a way to let them so they add to the story as you noted. Just like every scene has to move the story forward, all the characters do, too.

      All my characters are in an Excel spreadsheet for these first two books. I’ve started using Scrivener for Windows for the sequels. It’s got a nice template for character sketches, so I’m trying to use that, too.

      It was time to play a little with a post. 😀

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  3. such an enjoyable post!
    i thought “the girl with the dragon tattoo” series had way too many potted plants! And too many of them had names that were similar, so that was also a problem. Usually I don’t have trouble keeping characters straight, though. I read so much though, so I may not be a casual enough consumer to ask.

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    • Thank you! I’ve tried to keep the names of main and minor characters distinct because I know how confusing they can be. No rhyming names, not too many starting with the same sound…. It’s not a good idea to make things too difficult for a reader to follow.

      Confession time—I haven’t read Stieg Larsson’s books! Henning Mankell is dark for me, and I’ve heard Larsson’s are even more so….

      Thanks for joining in the discussion! I love to hear what people think about these topics.

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  4. What a wonderful way to put it–potted plants. I don’t need the minor characters fleshed out and take them for what they are. But sometimes, a potted plant is sneaky and insists on being more than originally planned for…that’s OK too! Good post JM!!

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    • Thanks, Jeannie! I had some fun with this one 🙂 Although my husband’s a little surprised he provided part of the idea for it!

      As long as that sneaky plant is something nice like daffodils, I’m okay with it. But if it’s kudzu … well, it’s fighting time!

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  5. I’ve gotten feedback on my manuscript from agents that I devoted too much word count to minor characters. Yup, I was guilty of falling for my secondary characters and letting them take over the show. On revisions,I’ve cut back and decided they’ll ge their day another time. And it made me work more on my primary characters and fleshing them out so they eclipsed the secondaries.

    I think minor characters fall into secondary (main characters best friend) and tertiary (cab driver). I spend time describing and naming secondaries but tertiaries don’t get more than a passing glance.

    I consider the tertiary to fit your husbands’ description of potted plants. Which is very apt. 🙂

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    • My breakdown is main/supporting/minor, which is like you describe for main/secondary/tertiary. It’s especially hard for me when I know a minor/tertiary will have a bigger role in future book, but it might only be a bump up to a supporting/secondary role. How much do I say about them in the first book?

      It’s a little easier when I know a supporting/secondary character will become a main in the next book. It’s okay to devote more word space to them in the first.

      That’s part of the revising I’m doing with “Death Out of Time.” I’m cutting out a “group of Minors” (sounds like a bunch of teenagers, which they’re not!) from this first book and then moving some Minors into Supporting roles since they will be more central to Book 2.

      So much to consider—but that’s one of the things that separates a good story from the rest, right?

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      • JM, Ah that makes sense. I was thinking you just had two categories major and minor. My mistake. 😉

        With the minors, if they are going to crop up again and again, maybe make it the cab driver with the scar along his jawline or the librarian who yells a lot. Something that makes the character memorable to the reader without bogging them down in tons of details? I think the hardest part of writing a series is wanting to lay groundwork but not wanting to lose a reader because they don’t know there is a book 2. I’m struggling through that right now too. 🙂 Here’s to making our stories great!

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        • I should’ve been clearer in the post about my overall breakdown! I like the idea of a memorable trait/look for a recurring minor—something that can stick with a reader without bogging them down.

          For my Mains in this book, Madeleine chews her lip when she’s thinking, Landry swears under his breath, and I need something for Jack…. Some characters just aren’t very forthcoming with those little details. It’s like they don’t want people to know about their quirks, insecurities, or identifying marks!

          And I raise my glass to making our stories great!

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          • I hear you. I’ve been trying to build more weaknesses into my main character but she’s a type A who hates revealing weakness. It’s been a slow journey.

            Maybe it could be the way he pronounces certain words? Or a speech quirk of some sort? Just an thought. 🙂

            I love Paige Shelton’s cast of characters in her Farm Fresh Murders. Every vendor at the farmer’s market has a unique trait that makes them stand out even when they aren’t playing a major role in that book’s story.

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  6. Great post! I have been pulled up in the past for giving introductions and names to characters that just featured in one scene and didn’t need to be given that level of attention. I used to think that it was important to make them real for the scene they were in to really bring it to life, but going into reader mode, the sad reality is that no, we just don’t need to know about the bit part characters.

    Poor little potted plants, forever destined to remain on the windowsill.

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    • Your experience with describing characters who appear in one scene is going to send me back to one in “Death Out of Time” today. In the back of my mind, I knew I did exactly that. I need to focus on Madeleine and not the two crew members in the lab. My descriptions of them are too much. It’s now the first thing on today’s to-do list after the morning workout!

      Sigh. Remaining on the windowsill forever. But if the plants are well tended, don’t they make that part of the room look brighter and complete?

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  7. I like to use minor characters as clowns, in a way. They get thrown in to lighten up the mood. I don’t usually like to have too many of them, but I guess if they make a one-time appearance then it can’t get too confusing. I try not to give too many details on them because then the reader will expect to see them again or feel like she has to remember them when really they’re just there for fun.

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    • I think that’s a good way to look at it. I know there will always be a few readers who are distracted by them and want to know, oh, what kind of plant is that? Where does it come from? Is it hard to grow?

      To me they add some flavor and depth to the story and help focus the story around the Mains, or provide an opportunity for a Main to make an important point. The more important Supporting characters, meanwhile, can give the Mains a chance to catch their breath—or to be left cliff-hanging for a few scenes.

      This post has already led to some revisions in one book today!

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    • My husband has a real talent for turning a phrase. I think he’d be a great writer, but he thinks he’s too “unimaginative” and could never lose the “academic writing.” I can’t convince him otherwise. When he made that comparison, I knew it would be a fun post to do!

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