The detail of minor characters

Happy New Year! Will this be the big one? Is 2022 the year that you finally put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and write your first novel? Or maybe you’re already a novel veteran and this year you’re going to take the quality of your writing to the next level? Regardless, I hope this little discussion on minor characters gives you a little food for thought in your story.

How much detail do you need to give to minor characters? For me, not much. If they are glorified walk-on parts, used to portray some piece of information to keep the story moving, then probably no real detail at all is the best bet. “Your table is ready,” said the waiter. Fine. But if I said “Your table is ready,” said the waiter, a slovenly man with a droopy moustache, you might start to think he’s more important, and you need to pay attention to him.

Here’s the problem: If you do this, and add “colour” to every minor little character, you get audiences confused about who matters and who doesn’t. But of course, you can always have fun and turn these conventions on their head. For example, I have emails from readers who loved the lead character in Succession of Power: Secret Service Agent Mike Stevens.

The picture they paint of him is so vivid, but it’s totally of their own construction. Seriously.

I deliberately don’t offer a single physical description of him throughout the whole book. I say he’s wearing a suit. But he’s a Secret Service Agent, so of course he’s in a suit. I think there’s some reference to him taking a shave if memory serves. But that’s it.

You decide: is he still a young ambitious man? Some readers clearly think so. Is he an old man, long in the tooth, and too old to be doing the job? Some say so. Ethnicity, hair colour, everything is up to you. I love that it’s so open. So try not to go overboard in the descriptions of the bit-players if you can. You don’t need it, and your readers definitely don’t need it.

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