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Minor Characters in Your
Story - Do You Really Need Them?
By Mervyn Love
You've got a great idea for a story. You grab your pen
and paper and scribble away furiously for an hour. You
pause for breath, read the resultant pages and discover
that your tale has sixteen characters and a stray dog.
Oh, dear! Time for some axe wielding.
In a short story you have between 800 and 3,000 words, on
average, in which to tell your tale. You can't afford to
introduce a cast of epic proportions. They simply won't
So what must you do, what principles must you abide by to
get the balance right? Let's look at one or two examples.
1 - As often as possible cut them out.
Your main character is John and you write: 'John opened
the door. It was Reg Bigley, the postman, with a parcel.'
Giving the postman a name makes him a 'Character' and, as
a result, in the minds of your readers he has assumed a
visual reality. Your readers see the name 'Reg Bigley'
and immediately see in their mind's eye the kind of
person that name means to them. It will differ from
reader to reader of course, but giving a character a name
will have that effect.
If you write: 'John opened the door. It was the postman
with a parcel' then we just have a nebulous 'postman'
with no connotations for building a persona out of.
In this scenario I am assuming the parcel is the
significant factor, and if you can get away without the
actual appearance of the postman, so much the better.
So you could write: 'John was in a quandary. The postman
had brought the parcel that morning, but the contents
were decidedly not what he was expecting'
Lesson: Don't give minor 'walk on' characters names, and
if you can do without them altogether, do so.
2 - Do they have a plot turning role?
Let's develop John and the postman again. This time you
'John opened the door. It was Reg Bigley, the postman,
delivering a parcel.
"Hello Reg, what is it this time?"
"Another for your DVD collection I reckon,
"You could be right. Got time for a cup of
"Ta very much."
Now you are giving Reg more than a 'walk on' role, plus
we have the beginnings of a personality. This poses some
questions. Does Reg play a serious part in the actual
plot? Does he have some knowledge about the parcel that
will have a bearing on the plot? Is he going to appear
more than once? How many cups of tea will he drink?
If the parcel is significant, as we have assumed, but Reg
only appears once and is then forgotten, keep him simply
as the postman with no name. If Reg will contribute to
the plot in some way, or if his conversation with John
will bring something pertinent to light, then giving him
a name and a personality will work so long as you don't
If you are bringing Reg back later in the story with an
important contribution to make, then OK. Just refrain
from giving him a wife, four kids and a guinea pig.
Lesson: A character must add significantly to the plot to
make them worth the precious word count they're going to
take up in the story. If they don't, keep him or her low
key and anonymous at most.
Keeping lesser characters to a minimum will result in a
sharper, more focused story for your readers to enjoy.
Mervyn Love offers a warm welcome and a stress free zone
for all writers at his website: http://www.WritersReign.co.uk Here you can relax
and browse pages of advice, resources, competition
listing, markets and much more. His free Article Writing
Course has proved extremely popular, so why not sign up
now while you're thinking about it? http://www.writersreign.co.uk/WRac.html
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