Welcome back to our discussions of minor characters. You can find the first of these posts here, where we discuss the various levels and dimensionality of characters who play a smaller role than the protagonist. Today, I want to expand on that post by delving into the different functions that a minor character might have within a plot. While some of these draw on the ideas of the character archetypes blog post, the below titles are not quite the same thing. They will be broader, perhaps encompassing one or more of the eight archetypes, perhaps encompassing none.
Instead, the purpose of these divisions and categorizations are to place a character in one or more roles and allow those roles to determine what information you will need to know about them so that they can fulfill that role. Below are six major functions that a minor character may have, as well as the cornerstone, if you will, of each type of character.
In the below categorizations, I would first like to point out that, at least for the purposes of this post, “main characters” are the protagonist and the antagonist. All others will be considered “minor characters” to the four levels described in my aforementioned Craft of Building Minor Characters post.
What roles you need from your minor characters can vary from book to book, of course, and so, not all books will need all of the below categories. It is not a checklist, but rather, a guide. It should hopefully help you determine whether or not the character is necessary, and also what elements are most important to develop regarding that character.
Task: to safeguard the physical and mental health of a main character.
These characters may be obvious warrior types, as seen in Lan Mandragoran of Wheel of Time or Aragorn in Lord of the Rings. They may have the title of guard, as seen in Captain Holt of Bitterblue or Zoya in King of Scars. The Defender does not always have to be so obvious. In the Raven Boys, Ronan’s volatile, violent nature offers safety on some occasions and dangers to the gang in others. On the other hand, Blue’s mother, Maura, is not the typical warrior type, but her psychic nature and her vivacity allows her to protect Blue in their pursuits.
Core character trait: fighting. Hand-to-hand combat is the most common, but knowledge of long-distance weaponry, battle tactics, offensive magic, or even poisons can all be within the defender’s skillset. Be careful to note how long they have been working with their weapon of choice and how knowledgeable they are. Protagonists are usually the ones who are unsuspecting proteges, but it can be just as problematic with minor characters. Ultimately, the defender’s main role is to see the main character through to the end, often at great personal sacrifice.
Task: to know more than the main character in a critical area and to teach it to them.
This falls in line with the concept of the mentor/wizened old wizard tropes, but is not exclusive to them. Obvious examples are Gandalf in LotR and Moiraine in WoT. But these characters do not necessarily need to be a mentor to the main character; they just have to be more knowledgeable in certain fields. Raffin in Graceling and Bitterblue is an excellent scientist, but also the son of a king, both of which he puts to good use in helping Katsa’s cause. In the Magicians, Alice is a fellow student but far more advanced than protagonist Quentin Coldwater, and her proficiency with magic proves vital to the group’s success.
Core character trait: knowledge. The main characters are bound to have gaps in their knowledge; if they knew everything and could do anything, it would not make for interesting conflict. Generally, the advisor character has a set of knowledge that neither protagonist nor antagonist knows, and its the fact that the antagonist does not know about it (or that the protagonist’s advisor knows more) that allows them to succeed.
Task: to support the protagonist, to remain loyal to them.
Examples of primary minor characters that fall under this role would be Samwise Gamgee of LotR and Perrin Aybara of Wot. But, of course, tertiary and quaternary minor characters can be the same. Whether it’s because the main character is widely-known, allowing people to assume they know enough about them to pledge their loyalty (as in the case of Rand al’Thor), or if it’s because these characters know enough about the main character’s core values to agree with them, it is possible.
Core character trait: shared experiences or beliefs. This is obvious with the primary or secondary characters. If an advocate grew up with the main character, it makes sense for them to share experiences that binds their loyalties to one another. But if a tertiary or quaternary character has had similar experiences, it can shape their beliefs in favor of the main character. Either way, ultimately, the advocate’s job is to stop the main character from quitting too soon, helping them push through the rough moments.
Task: to test the convictions of the main character.
Listing examples of these proves a little difficult, as it does spoil character arcs. The best, most known example in the fantasy genre would be Gollum, who shows to Frodo the consequences of carrying the Ring for too long, and whose allegience depends on the fluctuating personality of Gollum vs Smeagol. But other characters can do the same, sometimes temporarily changing alliances, sometimes permanently.
Core character trait: moral code. Something must be enough to push the character over the edge and to exchange their loyalties from one person to another. They provide a check on the how far the main character is willing to go or when they go too far, and their departure should make the main character evaluate their dediation to the cause they fight for. Should the turncoat character begin their arc as against the main character, having the main character attempt to convince them to join the cause tests their rationale and, by extension, moral rightness.
Task: to have goals or motivations separate from the main character’s that serves as a roadblock.
This is similar to what has recently been referred to as the “contagonist,” though such characters are usually given more page-time and thus are primary or secondary minor characters. The Forsaken are such examples in WoT, or Gollum from LotR (although he can also stand in as a turncoat). But these can also just be characters who hold allegiances in the side opposing the protagonist. They are the people who played Fish in A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor (Hank Green), the Rejects in Supernova (Marissa Meyer), Kavinsky in The Dream Thieves (Maggie Stiefvater), and so forth.
Core character trait: desire. They have to want or need something bad enough that the main character cannot dissuade them from their goals, and these goals tend to either slow down or outright contradict the needs of the main character. They are meant to offer some form of relevant conflict and fill up page space before the protagonist and antagonist have their ultimate fight. The opposition is also meant as tests and learning experiences for the main character so they do not come to the big conflict untested.
Task: To offer a place of safety or respite for the main character between conflicts.
Consider examples such as Beorn in the Hobbit, Tom Bombadill or Galadriel in LotR, or the Ogier with their steddings in WoT. These are characters who may not wish to or are incapable of participating in the fight. Tigris from Mockingjay and the Librarian from Starless Sea are other, less known, examples.
Core character trait: power. A haven character must have some form of power that allows them to keep danger at bay for as long as the main character needs it. Oftentimes, this comes in the form of magical or physical power, as in the case of Galadriel or Beorn, but political power can also be the basis of a haven character. Functionally, they are a break for both characters and readers in between points of conflict