Fleshing Out Minor Characters

I’ve realised I don’t even think about minor characters until after the first draft stage. They are a purely functional “Lea’s girlfriend”, “arrested guy”, etc. the names they’ll probably have in the credits. However, I read this blog in One Page Weekly, and it got me thinking that maybe I am approaching this in a roundabout way.

Perhaps there is another way that reduces some of the editing I need to do down the line?

I am currently writing a 3 episode spy thriller. Having established the structure for each episode and the overarching structure (Inciting incident, midpoint, climax), I have begun my scene by scene document. When I started screenwriting, I found all these endless documents that are slightly more detailed than the last really frustrating when all I wanted to do was write the damn thing…

but I am putting my ego, which tells me I don’t need all this stuff, to one side and embracing this slow structural build.

So I wrote the scene by scene. Then I worked out which extra characters appeared, and I did something I have never done before – I named them. I wrote them little biographies. I imagined them in little scenes to hear their voices and give them the back story that led them to the moment they end in the story. I found their motivations in the scene, or I put a note by them to work it out. I apologise. I make this seem like I have done pages and pages of work – it’s worked out at about three sides of paper.

Has it helped?

Well, I am too early in the drafting process to give a definitive answer, but I will say this. The minor characters so far have come to me a lot more easily. Every scene has multiple layers of subtext, as each character in the scene has a motivation that I am writing for.

I suspect as I redraft, I will need to do some work to emphasise those motivations and clarify character, but I already feel each character is more solid within the scene. The other bonus is that I am spending less time going back and forth writing notes about minor character’s when they are first introduced. Those discoveries I would typically make through drafting have been established before my pen touches the page.

So, why am I even concerned about minor character motivations? The most common feedback I get on my work is along the lines of

“what is this character doing in the scene?”

and I used to get so frustrated…

Well, clearly, they have a specific function I would rage.

And I didn’t want to be asked that anymore… so I decided to learn and change.

You see, what I was missing in that question was that no one exists simply to, I don’t know, deliver letters. Delivering letters might be their action in the scene, but are they delivering it because it’s their job? What is their relationship with the letter? With the job? With the recipient? With the environment? Do they want to be there? Do they have an ulterior motive?

It seems like a lot of work because you may ultimately change very little in that character in answering these questions. Perhaps they stomp or shove now, rather than walking and pushing? However, those specific changes tell an audience a lot more about a character and create a richer world.

It is important to note here that this dedication to unique motivation in minor characters is a standard that a newer writer is held to more than your experienced writer. The reader will trust a writer with a reputation for good work has included those motivations, even if the reader can’t explicitly see them. Whereas the newer writer is being tested with every submission – the reader will ask about those minor character’s that perhaps don’t feel fully fleshed out. They ask because at some point those characters are going to be represented by actors and, whether theatre or tv, actors are a significant expense, and so the reader wants to know that you know that the character is ‘worth’ the cost. That the newer writer must think of these things, but the seasoned writer doesn’t seem to, is purely a matter of optics. The experienced writer appears to not think about it, but actually, it becomes second nature over time, and they no longer have to ask those questions actively. As you write more, your minor characters improve with less conscious work.

At what point in your process do you start thinking about the minor characters? Do you believe reflecting sooner would improve your writing?

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