I’ve previously discussed Character Development and Writing The Main Plot. But a truly excellent story needs depth. You don’t just want to engage the reader with a scene or a person’s life, you want to draw them into an entire world that you’ve created. Think about A Game of Thrones (I have some issues with the novel, but I’ll get round to discussing that in the future). If there wasn’t such a broad and detailed tapestry of minor plot arcs unfolding in the background, it would be a very flat story about a series of noble souls riding around a fantasy environment and getting into mischief.
Why give minor characters a story?
Your book is either going to be about one central character or several protagonists whose stories are fundamentally intertwined. An example of a single protagonist story the Harry Potter series. It’s about one boy and his adventures.
Contrasting with this, the Song of Ice and Fire series concerns a number of individual characters’ exploits, but they are all related by family ties or circumstances.
If the protagonist was standing alone, the story would be more like a shallow morality tale or fairytale than true fiction. Harry Potter doesn’t just run around waving his wand and getting in detentions. Ron and Hermione are there too. They’re his supporting cast, but J K Rowling pulls them out of the scenery.
Other characters are scenery. What was the name of that person Harry bumped into in the hallway? You’ve forgotten, as you should. They weren’t important. But there are always a few supporting characters that need to be made import to give more definition to the story.
Can minor plot arcs go wrong?
Yes, yes they can. When you start writing your story you’ll usually make a decision whether to have a single protagonists or multiple. As I’ve mentioned, multiples must have strong links between their individual plots.
Once you’ve made that decision, the danger is that you can stray too close to the other extreme. Give a minor character too much of a plot or develop them too far and they could start taking over the story. This draws attention away from the protagonist, not a good thing.
Alternatively, one of your multiple protagonists could start to fade. Neglect their development and they will become grey, blending in with the background. This also weakens the story.
How do you use minor plots?
Here’s an example from something I’m writing at the moment. It’s the story of a young man at the very bottom of the pile. He’s the sort of person that society steps on, kicks into the dust and leaves for dead. But his journey is an upwards trajectory, there are great things waiting in his future. There have to be, an extraordinary transformation makes a good story.
That’s not real life though. It’s not believable to have a world where everything goes everyone’s way, and if it did, there’d be nothing extraordinary about my protagonist’s transformation. So there’s another character. He starts off in exactly the same position as the story’s focus, lowest of the low. From there, things only get worse for him. It’s the real life element, a minor plot in the background that forms a point of comparison for the reader.
Another example is Sep in my fantasy novel The First Covenant. He’s another minor character that the author doesn’t treat well. But that’s what minor characters are for. They’re people the reader won’t mind you slapping around a bit to make a point. He’s a brave, noble man and that does absolutely nothing for him. The point is that being brave and noble gets you nowhere, you’ve got to be mean to get ahead.
What to write?
Minor characters will appear in your story of their own accord. Your protagonist will need to bump into someone who tells him the enemy hordes just overran the town wall. That might give you their name, job and basic physical description. If they’re part of the scenery then leave it at that.
But you might need more from them later. They aren’t important so you can use them to make a point. Now give them a few characteristics and traits that suit your message. Unlike main characters which can take on a life of their own, you should always stay in control of the minor characters. They’re tools to be used. Purpose defines their traits and mannerisms, not personality.
Ron isn’t a loyal but cowardly friend because J K Rowling thought that’s what suited his character best. He’s a tool used to show the reader how Harry Potter transforms those around him, giving them hope and bravery. Ron is a mirror showing what it is about Harry that makes others want to be loyal to him. If Ron suddenly turned to the dark side, ran off to join Voldemort and started developing as a character beyond his purpose, he’d take over the whole story. It’d be the Harry and Ron series.
Let me know in the comments if any of this was useful. Do you have any writing tips to share?