As Constantin Stanislavski once stated, “There are no small actors, only small parts.”
This adage transfers to writing as well. One of my favorite pieces of writing advice is to consider that a supporting/minor character may think the novel is actually about them.
This is certainly not the case for every side character, but the imagery of the thought helps me develop minor characters in an interesting way. They have their own strengths and weaknesses, their own motivations and baggage. The supporting character may believe their dialogue is the most important and that their actions drive the plot.
My advice: Allow your supporting characters to make bold choices and statements. Let them have their moment, and then move the spotlight.
However, maturing supporting characters is more challenging than the protagonist. The author simply has less words in which to develop their persona. Therefore, each appearance of the character needs to be considered to further the reader’s perception of the character in a way that supports the plot.
Note – I said perception.
Often the reader’s perception of a supporting character is not the same as how that character would view themselves. For example, would anyone argue Voldemort doesn’t think the books are about him? His portrayal through other characters leaves the reader to believe he is a villain, but I doubt he thinks of himself that way. Voldemort believes he is fulfilling a righteous duty to preserve pure blood families.
But given a supporting character receives reduced word count, often stereotypes or preconceived notions are relied upon to flush out the character. Consider the supportive, but less skillful best friend, or the jealous enemy who learns their lesson. But if the author can find a way to make supporting characters more interesting, it adds an additional layer of interest to the story. Successfully developed supporting characters can challenge your protagonist and enrich their journey.
Some things to consider when developing side characters:
- What secret, ritual, inside joke do they share with your protagonist?
- What do they know that your protagonist does not?
- What distinctive trait will help the reader remember the character?
- What motivates them and how is that different than the protagonist?
- What skill do they offer to aid/hinder the protagonist?
- What motivates your protagonist to interact with them?
Finally: What happens if the character was removed from the story?
If the answer is nothing, then the character truly is minor. If their presence does not further the plot, they should be cut.