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?