Most people on the internet will tell you how to create your protagonist and antagonist. You know, the ones who admittedly get the most page time. But most people are also hesitant to attempt explaining how one might go about creating the less important characters that will appear throughout your story. It’s a fair problem, I suppose. Like with world-building, there’s always the question of how far is far enough, how much detail is too much detail, the same winds up being the case for character work, especially minor character work. So, in this blog post, I will try to describe different levels of character development and when each level is probably enough for specific minor characters.
Before doing anything related to actually creating characters, it’s important to recognize the difference between the needs of the setting and the needs of the plot. People need to populate your world, and there will likely be characters that your protagonist needs to interact with that hold no relevance to the plot. The less relevant the character is to the needs of the plot, the less detailed their character needs to be.
One thing that many blogs, YouTube videos, and articles will tell you all characters need is motivation, whether it is money or power or just that one glass of water. However, minor characters, especially tertiary characters, do not necessarily need something that complex. Perhaps a better question to ask yourself is a character’s allegiance. Plot requires conflict and conflict requires two or more opposing sides. If the protagonist is going up against the status quo–which is usually the case, though not always–would this tertiary character, if they were to find your protagonist’s allegiance, pose a threat to them to preserve the status quo? Are they, too trying to push against it in their own little way, or do they just wish to sit in their own little bubble and leave the rest of the world to settle as it may? Knowing what side a minor character would be on ensures they are relevant to the plot and are able to generate tension.
Let’s take Stiefvater’s Raven Boys as an example. It is less a story of changing the status quo and more a story of searching for treasure. Yet there are, essentially, three separate factions. Those who know about Cabeswater and the dead Welsh king diverge into two groups: our main characters, and those who are trying to reach the treasure before they do. Most of the latter group have been primarily relegated to the position of minor characters, but their allegiance is against Blue and the gang because they’re both competing for the same thing. Blue’s psychic family are primarily with Blue and the gang, and their work sometimes protects the main characters from the nefarious actions of others. The third faction are the minor characters who simply do not believe in Cabeswater or in a wish-granting dead king. They are, for the most part, unaware of the dangers. Gansey’s family is part of this faction. They are unaware of the dangers and so do not help the gang, but likewise, they do not pose a threat to them either.
Of course, allegiance is not the only defining character traits of the above example, and that is because most of the above characters are secondary minor characters rather than tertiary. Here is where I’ll define the main categories of minor characters: primary minor characters would be those who constantly interact with the protagonist/antagonist, who is present enough and involved enough that the reader will know them almost as well as, or as well as, the protagonist. If you stick with the ideology that all stories are about a single character, the titular Raven Boys would be the primary minor characters. Or, say, in Wheel of Time: if Rand is the protagonist, then the remaining Emond’s Fielders–Mat, Perrin, Egwene, and Nynaeve–and probably even Elayne are all primary minor characters.
Secondary characters are those who help the protagonist/antagonist on multiple occasions but do not get nearly as much page time. They should still play a notable role in the story, however. Characters like Siuan and Aviendha in Wheel of Time, or those like Faramir or Eowyn in Lord of the Rings, are some examples of characters that are not part of the main group but still influence the protagonist and/or the primary characters in a major way.
Then we have tertiary characters, who really only appear in a few scenes or who do not have enough presence or function to be in the above tiers. This would include characters like Morgase from Wheel of Time, who was ever only reactionary at best, and the likes of Tom Bombadil (LotR) or Tilda and Bren (Bitterblue).
Finally, we have quaternary characters. These are characters that only appear in a single scene or are brought into the narrative merely to help populate the world. Wheel of Time is notable for this, using random characters in its setting to tell a part of the narrative that other major characters either cannot or do not know.
Unfortunately, it’s not always clear-cut where a character should belong. It’s a gradient rather than an either/or, but having an idea where certain characters are going to fall will help you with the level of development. More than anything, it’s important to realize that, like with the “opacity” of your world-building, the extent to which you develop the most minor character is going to depend on the story you want to tell. That said, it is very much true that characters are what make or break a story. If your characters do not feel realistic, especially the protagonists and the primarily characters, chances are, readers will find the story difficult to engage with.
A good way to do that for the minor characters, especially at the tertiary and quaternary level, would be to create a character outline that starts with quirks that can help them stand out. Now, you can use physical descriptions–scars, strange eye colors, and the like–to serve that function, but those are somewhat tired tropes. Robert Jordan set an example with Wheel of Time by digging into the roots of his world-building to help him craft minor characters that got little page time and yet felt unique. Bayle Domon did not just stand out for his Illianer accent; he could not, when he is not the only Illianer. But the geography of his nation made it sensible for him to know ships, and thus be a smuggler, and all these things worked with each other to make Bayle Domon Bayle Domon.
Because you’re likely going to need to know some of this world-building information for plot reasons, there’s no rule against double-dipping and using that same information to build the groundwork of at least some of your characters. These fundamentals will help your minor characters leave their mark upon the page without having to develop them as fully as you would your protagonists. Of course, allegiance and quirks don’t give you much to go by when it comes to coloring in the details of your characters, not when the quirks give you a lot of leeway, but knowing that these make up the important parts of your minor characters will allow you to consider what is most important for the reader to know about the characters.
These two elements won’t be enough for the secondary and primary minor characters. The closer you get to the “protagonist” level, the more details you will need, and the primary and secondary characters will, by definition, be involved enough that they will require more than a brief character outline. In fact, it’s likely that character outlines will be almost as hard to draft for them as it is for your protagonist (unless you, unlike me, are good at outlines and knowing the important details.)
For your primary and secondary characters, knowing their motivations and at least some key information about their history will make them as developed as your protagonist. Know that as you’re developing your minor characters, it’s important to keep in mind that they have a job to do with the story, and that job can dictate parts of their fundamentals in relation to your protagonist. I’m planning on doing a blog post soon that describes some of the major functions a minor character can play, and those functions will help with outlining your cast.
In the meantime, I will finish this blog post with this: you don’t need to know a minor character’s favorite color or their exact height. It can fall into one of their quirks, but such details will not make or break a character or a entire novel. Characters can be as complex as a whole world, and it can sometimes be just as mesmerizing to know every little factoid about them, relevant or otherwise. Like with setting, however, minor characters do not by necessity need to feel as three-dimensional as your major characters. Sometimes, it just boils down to the kind of story you’re trying to tell. At the same time, it’s also important to realize that, in this case, more is often better, so long as it remains paired with relevancy. Provided you’re careful with your flashbacks, I don’t think anyone has ever complained because an author spends too much page time developing their characters, letting them breathe and grow on the page.