The Stories Begun

{February 18, 2011}   Your drama teacher lied: there *are* such things as small parts.

“There are no small parts, just small actors.”  I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard that (or the industry equivalent) said.  And, honestly, it’s a lie.  Incidentals make up the life and breath of literature.  Small characters are small for a reason.  If they’re too big, they take away from the story that the author is trying to tell.


This does not mean you get to cheat and spend less time on said characters.  In fact, this is a very bad idea.  Small characters need to be there with purpose.  They are small for a reason, but that does not mean they are unimportant (which, of course, is the intention behind that silly phrase that I began my blog with).  Small characters are good things, vital, and must be treated as such.

Before I go into my tips on how to make characters small but memorable, I will share two examples of what I feel are the perfect small characters.

Current Popular Literature: The Hunger Games, Gale.

Before all you Gale lovers raise up in a huff, I’m speaking of the first book only.  Not the series (and, even then, I’d contend he was a minor-ish character, but that’s for a different day).  In The Hunger Games, Gale is physically present in all of three chapters at the very beginning.  It’s well established that he’s  the best friend of the character and, with the way the character reminisces for a few more chapters, you get the feeling there might be more to it than that.  However, soon, he’s gone.  Katniss, the main character, becomes so wrapped up in the Hunger Games and Peeta (the young man who went with her) that she almost completely forgets about her best friend Gale.  However, the reader never forgets Gale.  There’s just enough of Gale at the beginning that the entire time Katniss has to pretend to love Peeta, the reader’s heart is aching for a young man he/she knew for two and a half chapters.  Gale is hardly what I would call important to the story, but he’s memorable enough that his side story can be made to be either as significant or insignificant as the reader allows.

Past Popular Literature: The Story of Doctor Dolittle, Prince Bumpo.

Prince Bumpo is a much smaller character than Gale.  He has two scenes in this particular book.  Regardless, he’s one of the most distinct characters because his main feature is something that all humans can relate to: longing to be something else.  He’s so very human and flawed that it’s easy to like him.  I did an entire paper on the subject of Bumpo’s scenes because of how they’ve been changed over the years, but here’s the essential: Prince Bumpo is in love and feels inadequate.  So he asks Dr. Dolittle to change him so that he may become more attractive to his Sleeping Beauty (who he once happened upon and even kissed, but she ran away in horror at the sight of him).  The Doctor agrees, in exchange for a boat and his freedom from Bumpo’s father’s prison.  In the end, a quick fix is made and the Doctor feels horrible for practicing this deceit.  As they leave, the Dolittle’s companion, Dab-Dab the Duck, points out that the Prince really should learn to be happy with who he is, as he’s a good sort of fellow.  Bumpo is memorable, beacause he is so much of what we are.

So, how do I suggest going about the making of good small characters?

  • Give them one thing that is particular to them.  Trevor, one of my minor characters, is a good listener.  That’s his deal.  Because of that, he becomes–while remaining a peripheral character–competition in the love interest category.  Or, at least, that’s how one of the other males (who is a much bigger character) sees it.
  • Make them relatable.  Minor characters tend to be incredibly quirky or incredibly generic.  Either one works, as people tend to see themselves as too individual for the crowd or as someone who can blend with the best of them.  Side characters fill that function.
  • Don’t fill in too many features, one or two is good.
  • Minimal is a great idea at the start.  If it comes later that the character needs fleshing out, you’ll find out then.
  • Too much background that does not involve the main character is a death sentence.  Don’t kill your story.
  • Plan their exit before you even put them in.  Knowing where they end makes it easier not to let them get out of control.

I’m sure there are other ways, but these are some I’ve learned and am still learning to apply.  Remember, minor characters are really what the audience makes them, not you.  Give them something fluid to work with, they deserve to have as much fun creating their version of the character as you did.

Off you go!



Race Capet says:

I like your tips, but they leave me curious. What exactly decides which characters are major and which are minor? I mean, some are obviously one or the other, but it seems like there’s a pretty wide grey area.

rjlouise says:

I will attempt to answer both sides of the question.

First, in simple terms, I think intent determines small or large characters. By that I mean that if an author does not determine ahead of time that a character will remain minor, even if the original concept of the character is small, the player tends to get wildly out of hand. So, in a technical sense, it is the author’s specific intentions that determine the size of the role.

Second, as I understand it, you’re asking why we–as readers or writers targeting readers–decide that one character or the other is “minor” and another is not. Some people say it has to do with the significance of the actions of the character–I am not one of those people (as may have been evidenced by the title). Characters are never purposeless in a good narrative, and there will always be great significance in the most minor of actions by the most minor of characters. Smiles/smirks and raised eyebrows are examples of said (over-used) actions. So, to those in this school, there are no “small parts” and, therefore, no small characters. A very large gray area, indeed. To those in my school, that the significance of the small does not expand the size of the role, the lines are more concrete. The questions is not: “Can I take this character out and still have a functioning narrative?” (this being the question that determines “significance” in the other school; if the answer is no then the character is not minor) but rather, “Could my major player do this for themself?” If the answer is no, I see the character as major. If the answer is yes, I see the character as minor. However, many times the minor character performs their function so much better than the major character does, which is why I include all these bit players in my own writing. Sure, Ia could get along without Trevor (the example from my first tip), but he listens and that helps her sort out things so much better than when she has to do it on her own. So what determines a minor player? Their relation to the major. All characters are major players when standing alone.

[…] subscribe by email or subscribe to the RSS feed for updates.I read a great blog post today called Your drama teacher lied: there *are* such things as small parts by RJLouise. She’s talking from a writing standpoint, giving tips on how to write for a small […]

rjlouise says:

Thanks so much for the link! I’m quite flattered. ~RJL

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