Does a character not have a name but is noticed by primary or main characters? That’s a minor character. Minor characters show up once or twice in a story but interact with the primary and main characters to reveal something the author wants to reader to know.
Have you ever heard “If you show a gun on page 2 somebody needs to use it by page 7” or something similar? Let’s use that as a basis for demonstrating minor versus main characters. There’s a scene in the original Terminator movie where The Terminator enters a gun shop and asks for several different weapons. The store owner says something like “You really know your firearms,” validating The Terminator’s choices. Further validation is given when The Terminator blows away the store owner who is never seen again.
The store owner is a minor character. His only purpose is to let the audience know The Terminator knows his way around weaponry. He owns a gun store. If anybody knows anything about firearms, he does. In case you still weren’t sure, the main character – The Terminator – demonstrates his knowledge by killing him.
Contrast that with Don Knotts’ gun handling in The Shakiest Gun in the West or Bob Hope’s in The Paleface and you get the idea of how minor characters can reveal major plot points about the main and primary characters.
“Oh, to be seen” vs “Oh, to be part of the scene”
It’s the interplay between A and B that determines their character status. Is A’s only purpose to show us B’s reaction to the gun? Then A is minor. Does A show us the gun and never enters the story again? A is minor. Does A bring the gun on stage, leave it and walk out? A is stage direction (we cover stage direction characters in the last post in this series).
Minor and stage direction characters don’t take up lots of space – they’re minor and less than minor. Often their purpose is to act as reader surrogate. The protagonist or antagonist does or says something, the author wants the reader to react or respond in a certain way and has the minor and/or stage direction character react or respond as they want the reader to. It’s a kind of “In case you’re not sure how to take this, here’s an example.”
In Frontmatter, Surface and In (subscription required. Go for it. I’ve been offered two five-book deals and it’s only going to get better. Get in on the ground floor of a magnificent Becoming), The physician gasped, “Holy Mother of God we almost killed him,” and began to turn some dials. lets the reader know there’s danger, that someone was about to do something life-threatening. Prior to that, we have the following exchange between a main character, Donaldson, and a minor character, the physician:
“Why here?” Donaldson asked.
“We heard that part of the augmentation was to the hemoglobin, to increase his strength via oxygen transport. We figured at six atmospheres we could pump in pure oxygen and force his heme to shut down. He can live, but he can’t get excited. We thought of AJAX – isn’t that what you guys used? Some kind of Lorazepam-XANAX derivative? – but he seemed totally relaxed. Sign this, please?”
Again, the purpose of the physician is to provide some backstory, to let the reader know whoever’s “here” isn’t your average joe but also to let the reader know the “whoever’s here” character doesn’t seem a threat ; “Sign this, please?” isn’t something you ask if you’re worried an explosion is about to happen.
Another example from the same story is the guard in the hospital. His only function is to 1) allow Donaldson to indicate how lethal Trailer (the individual they’re talking about in the above excerpts) is and 2) to show how terrifying Trailer is. In the first case we have the following exchange:
Trailer stood at the door and turned the lock from inside. The steel bars holding it tweaked and started to bend. The guard backed away, pressing against the opposite wall and readying his rifle, a freon cooled Colt 223 Automag.
Donaldson grabbed the barrel in his hand and pulled the rifle down. “Don’t do that. You’ll only make him angry.”
The guard looked at the bars bending and the look of pleasure on the face inside the small window. He put his weapon down.
In the second exchange we have:
Donaldson started to say something to the security guard when Trailer’s quiet voice interrupted them, “Thank you.”
Donaldson, the attending physician, and the security guard looked at Trailer’s retreating form. He followed Rivers, walking directly away from them. He’d rotated his head one-hundred-eighty degrees to look at them as he walked away. The smile on his face looked synthetic, like those found on plastic dolls.
Donaldson said, “You’re welcome, Mr. Trailer.”
The security guard put his forehead against the wall and vomited down the cool, damp surface.
Minor characters. They’re reader surrogates with a purpose. They’ll show up more than once but not much more depending on the length of the story. Short story? Probably once. Novel? Maybe two to three times.
Next up, Stage Direction Characters.
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