Screen writers have it easy. They only have to create one-third of a character. Another third gets filled in by the actor cast for the part, with the final third filled in by the director and other members of the movie team.
For us book writers, it’s all on us. Sure, every reader will fill in any gaps of detail with their own imagination, but that’s only a small part of making characters live and breathe on the page. That’s challenging enough for the two or three main characters in most stories, and with them we have the benefit of watching them interact with the setting and plot. We know them pretty well by the time we finish writing them. Our readers will, too.
It’s the minor characters who present problems. How do you differentiate between the henchman at the entry and the henchman in the control room? What’s the difference between the third and fourth bridesmaids in the wedding party? Why should the reader care that the protagonist hired three different cabbies during her visit to Singapore?
While it's tempting to simply make side characters one-dimensional props to move the plot forward, doing so will ultimately undermine the richness and complexity of your story. The key to making minor characters interesting lies in imbuing them with unique personalities, backgrounds, and quirks. We won't always have the time on the page to flesh out every single character's motivations, because not every minor character is going to help move the story forward to the level that would justify spending that extra time with them. We need to find ways that we can differentiate and make characters interesting as succinctly as possible.
One way to achieve this is by giving side characters distinct speech patterns and language quirks. Perhaps the cab driver the protagonist hires in Singapore is a former linguistics professor who peppers his speech with obscure vocabulary words. Maybe one of the bridesmaids is a wannabe stand-up comedian who uses every opportunity to try out her latest jokes. These small touches help to flesh out minor characters and give them a sense of individuality beyond their functional purpose in the story.
Another way to make minor characters more interesting is to use them to explore different perspectives and themes. For example, the henchman at the entry might be a reluctant participant in his boss's criminal enterprise, struggling with ethical qualms and a desire to escape. The henchman in the control room, on the other hand, might be a sadistic sociopath who revels in his power and enjoys torturing his captives. By exploring these different perspectives, you can add depth and nuance to your story, even through seemingly minor characters.
Top Twelve Tricks
Well, you’re thinking, if motivation doesn’t always work on the page, what does? A lot of little techniques have proven useful over the centuries people have been writing novels. Here are a dozen tried-and-true favorites.
1. Distinctive Voice
This is another one that’s much easier to do in the movies. An actor can speak with an accent and you’re good to go. Accents are much trickier to carry off on the page. Sometimes pronunciation is hard to depict, and even when it is, it can be tiresome to read.
Instead focus on ways of talking: formal or casual, blue-collar or white-collar. Do they speak in metaphors and references? Do they have a catch phrase? Think about your friends. If you had to read a transcript of a conversation with just the words, you could tell one from the other for most of them? The reasons for that are examples of how and why this works.
2. Iconic Clothing
Clothing and accessories are top-level ways police describe suspects while they’re chasing them, and they will work to help you set characters apart. This works best for one-scene characters, for example to help describe the action when your super-spy beats up three different guards at the entry to the supervillain’s lair.
For deeper characters, make the item have its own story. The character Miller in The Expanse wears a hat despite never having visited anywhere that has actual weather. That detail tells a lot about him. What might a cane, or a notebook, or a fresh flower tell about your characters?
3. Passionate Interest
When you talk to somebody who’s really into something, it can sometimes get tedious. They won’t shut up about it! This is an easy way to make a character more than the stock piece of scenery they might otherwise be. A bartender might always have something to say about hockey, or a librarian might always be talking about books.
Also remember that interests go beyond overtly talking about it. It influences what people wear, how they spend their money, and who their friends are. It also impacts how they talk. A music fan might say something “rocks”, while a cook might describe people as “sweet” or “salty.”
4. Bad Habits
For some reason, bad habits are more memorable than good ones. These days, we notice the one person in a group who smokes. We remember the person who parked terribly, the karaoke singer who hogged the mike, and the kid who wouldn’t stop picking his nose.
Don’t forget bad verbal habits. People repeat themselves, use unfortunate or rude language, tend to drone on. They interrupt people, or overuse certain words, or use the wrong phrase in certain situations. A little goes a long way here. Even in scenes where you don’t display a bad habit you’ve established, its absence that time will sound a memorable note for the reader.
5. Deep Relationships
Readers care about the people characters care about. The easiest way to do this is to establish a deep relationship with your protagonist and/or antagonist. A random shopkeeper is grateful for a time your main character helped them out during a rush. The hacker protecting the antagonist’s system owes the boss their children’s lives after he bankrolled cancer treatment. You don’t even have to tell the reader about it. Just have it impact their decisions and how they act on the page.
The relationship doesn’t have to include the main characters. A bit character might keep talking about his beloved daughter, or boyfriend, or dog. They might be in a hurry to make a date. Any detail like this can really bring somebody to life in your mind and in your writing.
6. Their Own Sidekick
You’ve seen this work in the movies, and it works in books, too. A random kid becomes special and memorable the second they become a random kid with a dog. A bouncer does a complete 180 when he becomes a bouncer whose daughter is waiting in a car across the street.
From pirates with parrots, to bosses with a mentee, to mechanics with an apprentice under the hood, sidekicks enrich characters immensely…and that’s before we get to the myriad opportunities they offer for snappy dialogue.
Don’t overdo this one, though. It’s fun, but can bloat your cast to the point of unmanageability. One or two in an entire book is enough.
7. Running Against Type
This is the simplest trick on this list, both to understand and to execute. Remember earlier when I mentioned the bartender who was really into hockey and the librarian who kept talking about books? Now imagine a bartender who’s always talking about books and a librarian who’s really into hockey.
See the difference?
Be careful, though. Because this is so easy, it can be its own cliche if you go for the low-hanging fruit. The educated blue-collar worker and the tough guy who loves puppies are overdone in movies and books, so go deeper and weirder if you can.
8. Physical or Verbal Tics
Most of what I’ve mentioned so far can be called tags: mostly voluntary aspects of personality or behavior that are part of what makes a character. Tics are different: they’re involuntary and sometimes the person with the tic is even unaware.
What kinds of nervous habits do your friends have? I tend to blink when I’m nervous or angry, and I have two different friends who move their hands in rhythm with the cadence of their voices. A high school buddy was always rubbing his scalp.
9. Talk About Them When They’re Gone
Pre-framing and reframing are rhetorical techniques where you tell people what you’ll say (or what they’ll experience) before it happens, then you remind them what you said (or what they’ll experience) afterward. They can help people remember things, and you can use it to guide how they think and feel about what happened.
You can pre-frame and/or reframe characters by having your main characters talk about them before and after they appear on the page. Your protagonist might warn a friend not to bring up the Yankees, or tell them not to stare at their ugly hat. Or your protagonist might mention an odd tic afterward. Or both.
This is another species of giving a character a deep relationship, only instead of making it with somebody they know it’s with a team, a public figure, or even a concept. Like all deep fans, they won’t miss a chance to talk about the thing they’re into.
Fandom can manifest in two ways. “Classic” fans go on at length about what they’re fans of, letting everybody know what they love and why. Other fans do the opposite. They fixate on a rival, real or imagined, of the thing they love, and consistently degenerate that rival. Either way, it makes the character more vibrant on the page.
11. Emotional Impact
Okay. I admit this is cheating a little. Emotional impact is how you create connection between your reader and every character. It’s not just for the side characters, sidekicks, and henchmen. With side characters, though, it’s a little different.
You have less time on screen, so choose between whether you want the emotional impact to hit the reader, a main character, or the side character themselves. Pick one and lean into it, letting the scene and its dialogue proceed from there.
12. Odd Beliefs
Superstitions, conspiracy theories, folk remedies, mispronunciations, and urban myths are all examples of strange beliefs some people hold dearly. For some, it’s a full-on and sincere core part of their personality. For others, it’s a mental exercise or just a way of amusing themselves. Either way, it can impact how they act and talk in your story and make them more memorable.
As I write this article, the news is filling up with the death of actor and comedian Richard Beltzer. His character Detective Munch appeared in no less than ten series on five different networks. Part of what made him so popular and memorable was his fanatic adherence to a constellation of bizarre conspiracy theories.
Find the Why
If a minor character appears just once and you want to make them more colorful, you can just choose one item from the list and leave it at that. For characters who appear more often, take it a level deeper and ask yourself why they have that particular quirk.
For example, you decide your protagonist’s doorman uses the catchphrase “Oh my stars!” when surprised or disturbed. If that’s all you decide, that’s all you can do. If you choose he learned that phrase from his grandmother, and uses it instead of swearing because he’s usually foul mouthed but wants to be polite on duty, suddenly a whole flood of character opportunities appear.
If you choose to make a New York cabbie drive slowly and carefully (running against type), you have to ask why. Maybe they’re one point away from losing their license. Maybe they have warrants and don’t want police attention. Maybe they were in a fatal hit and run a year earlier and still haven’t gotten over it. Whichever you choose gives you multiple threads to work into that character and their presence in your story.
Like I said, you don’t need to do this for everybody who walks across your page. In many novels, that’s just too much work. But when you need a little extra, this is one of the most reliable ways to get it.