Watson, Lois Lane, and Redshirts: Minor Characters In Writing


One of my favorite things about writing is the characters, hence why my stories are typically character driven rather than plot driven (I’m terrible at plotting;it gets made up as it goes along.). Secondary and minor characters in particular are fun, but they can also turn out to be major problems. There may be too many, too few, too eccentric, too flat, too little story arc, too much story arc–in general, they can be real pains in the neck when they’re not behaving. It all depends on what type of character they are and how they’re handled. There are the best friends, the significant others, the thugs, and about a million other varieties that appear in novels. And they all have issues. But they’re worth it. Here are my observations on the subject.

1. Too many!

This is a major issue for me, hence why it’s #1 on the list. Thus far I’ve cut about five minor characters from my novel, and I’m not even done with the revisions yet. It’s just way too much fun to create characters. Giving them their various quirks and backstories and behavioral patterns is half the fun of writing for me. But once you get past a certain number of characters per novel, they start blurring together. Whereas you may be able to keep the names, appearances, and motives of two hundred characters straight in your head, it’s safe to say that your readers aren’t quite as emotionally invested as you are. Give them a break, and start cutting some of the more useless characters. If a minor character only appears in one scene to drop one piece of information, you can probably edit him/her out, and replace him with someone else. But keep a record of all those brilliantly unique people you’ve created–there are always sequels.

2. Elementary, my dear Watson…

One of the primary uses of minor characters is for them to act as foils for your main character. After all, they need someone to talk to while working out th

e brilliant solution to the whodunnit or someone to ask questions so your readers will understand the science of defusing a bomb. But when that becomes their only function and they have no life outside of following your MC around to fawn over them…you have a problem. For example, take the famous duo of Holmes and Watson. Their friendship is one of the strangest–and therefore the best–in literary history. But it hasn’t always been handled well. In the BBC adaption, the relationship is vastly unbalanced. It’s clear that they both need each other, and for different reasons, but Watson is always three steps behind his apparent best friend.

I think the Guy Ritchie movies showed a much better method of writing a best friend team. Both can function separately–and well–but they’re both much happier when they’re working together. They’re both intelligent, simply in different areas. They’re complete and utter opposites, but the characters were written with the right balance of clashing and complementing.

Thus far in my literary misadventures, the best way I know of to keep your  secondary main characters in line is to try putting them in a story by themselves and casting your original main character as the foil. See if the character is complex and interesting enough to carry a story by themselves. If so, carry on! if not, a little development is in order.

3. Redshirts

One of the most fun things about being an author is having the freedom to suddenly decide you don’t like someone and then zap them off the face of your storyworld. Poof! And with some characters, their only purpose in life is to appear once, then get whacked in whatever devious fashion you’ve concocted to advance the story. The problem occurs when this is  obviously their only function. If they kick the nearest dog, steal the baby’s rattle, and admit to loathing Doctor Who on the first page they appear on, it’s a sure sign to your readers that that person is a goner. Or if, should you choose to be dramatic, the character is composed entirely of sweetness and rainbows and appears to be the only light in a world of thunderclouds. Either way, it’s cliche and not particularly fun to write, either. Go for originality in your Redshirts (that’s a Star Trek term, for those of you who don’t know)! Make them seem so integral to the plot that every reader knows they can’t die. Then kill them. And figure out how to slide out of the corner you painted yourself into.

4. The Lois Lanes

Or Prince Charmings, as the case may be. I’ve mentioned love interests before, but considering that they’re some of the most popular secondary characters around, I couldn’t avoid sticking them in here, too. Honestly, significant others have one of the worst raps in writing of anything else involved in the process of writing a novel. Everyone always assumes that they’re only there because you thought that you had to have one to make the story complete. And in some cases (*cough*), that’s true. But it isn’t always a bad thing. Even if the character wasn’t well-formed to begin with, you can still make them a complicated, worthwhile character. Write up their pasts, too, when you’re delving into your main character’s. Maybe do one of those character development sheets on them. Give them their own lives outside of their dearly beloved’s, as well as their own reasons for being involved in your plot. In fact, make them integral to your plot if they’re going to appear at all. Perhaps they’ll be the one to uncover the crucial clue or the person who helps put together the pieces once all the clues are in. Whatever you do with them, see to it that they’re not just a rugged face. If you simply namedrop them here and there or have them pop by to make-out just to confirm that your protagonist has a lovelife…write them out. Quickly.

5. Token Characters

This is another issue I tend to be guilty of. *sigh* I’m terrible. It’s an incredibly easy mistake to make. “Oh, look, there are more guy investigators on the team than girls…Better add another one.” Whether it’s the token Christian, the token tomboy, the token mother hen, or the token African American, none of them are acceptable. I don’t know about you, but when I’m reading, and a character feels completely unnatural to the story and he/she happens to belong to a stereotype or minority, it counts as an immediate strike against the author. It’s one thing if the character has a reason for being there, and whatever it is that hints at their being a token character is a major part of their being. That’s fine. Just make them unique and real and interesting. Not just 2-dimensional. The world will thank you when they read your bestseller.

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Categories: Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Watson, Lois Lane, and Redshirts: Minor Characters In Writing

  1. I love this post. Not *just* for the little shots of Holmes and Watson, but they help! Great advice here.

  2. Pingback: Minor characters have major impact on story « Write on the World

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