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How do I deal with minor characters?

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    How do I deal with minor characters?

    How to you deal with minor characters in a good way, writing wise? For example, one guy NELSON might be sticking around the entire movie but dies in the end. We don't know who he is, and we don't care. But he sticks around and is still an important "background element". Should he have a name or is it better to call him SOLDIER 1? (as in, might be more confusing for the reader if he actually has a name -- "wait, who is that Nelson guy again?")

    I often struggle with this when writing, keeping track of minor characters that stick around that naturally become more noticable on screen than on paper, because then we actually see them, and well, stuff just works.

    Minor characters is what moves the plot forward (not saying that the "Nelson" is or has to be that character in your screenplay).

    And, if you want to kill him off at the end, make people care about him in the exposition/action scenes. Nobody cares about the death of an Empire storm trooper. They care about Darth Vader (who's a main character, but you get the point).


      What helps me with these characters comes from the story's subtext, i.e. what the story is really about. Here's what I mean: every story can be seen as the clash of a vice and and a virtue that naturally oppose each other.

      For example: 'Braveheart' is not about 11th century Scotts fighting the English. It's about the universal clash of Liberty vs. Tyranny. 'The Fighter' is a clash of taking responsibility for your life vs. letting yourself be controlled by others or even a substance.

      Stated another way, a storyline is the metaphor of a clash of values -- if your story is about what your story is about, you're in trouble.

      So how does all this apply to your supporting characters? All of the supporting characters in these films embody either the said vice or the virtue. They pull on your main character and affect his/her development.

      Keeping this in mind at all times helps me 'sculpt' these character according to the story's own dynamic. Some will argue that this is overthinking it and will stifle your creativity. It will not. It will deepen and layer your story. And if you're like me and have a tendency to force your characters to spell out your theme in your dialog, this will help you not to give in to that kind of writer's insecurity.

      Best to you on your story!


        I also do what Rick does - I see all of the supporting characters as exploring different elements of the theme (that clash of values) so that we can see different points of view on the issue. That gives all of the supporting characters a purpose in the story.

        Though Nelson sounds like he may be a Supporting Character, there are some characters who don't really have much to do with the story - those cops and waiters and nurses and other people who are kind of extras with dialogue. They're the kind of characters who usually get numbers (COP #3), but I don't like to give them numbers if I can give them some attitude for the actor to play like ANGRY COP or ROMEO COP or OFFICIOUS COP or some other fun thing that an actor can latch onto and give that minor role some character and have some fun with the role. Also helps when you're writing the dialogue for that role.


          I'll add - hope I am not subtracting - that it might be helpful to a writer to "cast" these supporting roles, even if only in his head. Make one cop sound like Bruce Willis and another like Al Pacino or any famed actor you can imagine talking.


            I doubt there are minor characters for the good writer. A minor character is a conceit used by writing teachers or movie reviewers. Useful for analysis, but not for creating. If you're thinking "in minor characters" you're already stereotyping them. What I think you're really asking is if one of your characters is shown dying, shouldn't they have some sort of emotional connection to your audience? The answer is yes. You can't just ignore them because they're a "minor character". If they're in your story, they must have some meaning. A minor character is really just someone who doesn't have a lot of screen time, it has nothing to do with their importance to your story. Milton, in Office Space, was a minor character, and yet he was the thematic underpinning and, I believe, Judge's first inspiration.