"There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal." — C.S. Lewis
My sisters, mother, and I recently began officially watching Downton Abbey and have fallen head over heels in love as a result. (It only took us twelve months, Näna!) This popular BBC television series known for its enviable costumes, lush setting, and drama mingled with a deal of British wit and spice has — thus far — lived up to all our expectations. It's one true issue (aside from a few indecencies that require skipping) is that it keeps us up late o' nights, for one can never watch just one Downton episode!
One of my favorite aspects of this series is how the servants play such a critical role in the progression of the plot. On the surface, it would seem that the Crawley family and their affairs should take center stage — and to some extent, they do. But if it weren't for Downton's minor characters and their own histories, fears, and loves, the show would be rather flat. In the third season (which I have yet to see), the Dowager Countess supposedly says, "An aristocrat with no servants is as much use to the county as a glass hammer." In the same way, major characters, without the balance and interest brought to the book by minor characters, serve little purpose.
I don't know about you, but in my case, minor characters have a penchant for popping up of their own accord. I can spend months trying to learn about the complex people I've set at the center of my story and struggle with it the whole time, while it takes only an afternoon for a dozen or so more obscure and impromptu personages to introduce themselves. Ethan Hartley in Violets Are Blue was one such character. Violet meets him early on in the book at the butcher's shop, but neither she nor I expected to do more in that scene than purchase a pound or two of meat, pay for it, and leave. (Apparently Ethan had other ideas . . .) All of a sudden she was introducing herself to a perfect stranger who was a bit older, a bit cheekier, and a bit more knowledgeable about her and her family than he ought. As the story progressed, Ethan elbowed his way to the front, eventually becoming a little more than just a minor character, which has happened to me before as well.
There are two types of minor characters that I've experienced: those who appear without warning, but allow the story to pass without too much alteration, and those who nudge and strain until they're practically main characters in their own right. Ethan, despite his aforementioned elbowing, occupies the first position: he is still a minor character, though an important one. Kenneth Hughes, on the other hand, entered Rifles in the South Field with all his British aplomb and demanded his share of the narrative. His own side of the story swiftly grew so significant that I was forced to write the book from two perspectives in order to round out the plot. Even now, the lad doesn't seem content and occasionally attempts to push Susannah's status as the book's true major character below his own, but I'm not going to let him get away with that.
We're all aware that a story wouldn't be — well, a story without minor characters. That requires little explanation. But what is it exactly that makes those lesser-known characters so intriguing? And how do we keep from losing the significance of our major characters in the process?
The answer, I've discovered, boils down to our perspective.
C.S. Lewis famously said, "There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal." Not surprisingly — we are speaking of Lewis, you understand — he was spot-on. Downton Abbey, like every other well-written story, captures my attention because every single character is treated as an individual with a unique role in the story. Not one person was thrown in without good reason. As a result, the screentime devoted to minor characters is just as interesting as the scenes starring Lord and Lady Grantham. The story would not progress with the same measure of appeal if this were not the case, and this applies to books as well.
The first step to writing your lesser characters purposefully is to know your characters. This is something of a given, but I feel I should highlight it all the same. Abigail wisely recommended writing a short story about a minor character as a means of learning more about their personal aspirations, fears, and motives. I haven't tried this myself, but I believe it would work quite well. The idea is to crack into the head of every one of your characters, even if the reader won't be spending a large amount of time there themselves. If you're familiar with your characters — what draws their attention, what makes them cry, what they love more than life itself — everything from dialogue to plot development rolls smoother. Never make the mistake of thinking someone who plays a very small role doesn't deserve a background of his own. His history may not be prevalent to this story, but that's not to say it doesn't exist and won't influence his decisions.
The second step is to know the role they play. I mentioned before that minor characters have a habit of showing up uninvited. In the course of writing a scene, especially if said scene belongs in the first draft of an unfinished novel, any number of people can appear for the sake of adding interest at the moment. That is not to say that they necessarily need to crop up again later on in the story or even be in the scene in the first place. An abundance of minor characters that hold little import in the long run only add unnecessary weight to a book. If you don't know the significance of a character — any character — in your novel, he or she may not be essential to the plot after all.
In the end, it all comes back to Lewis's principle of no mere mortals. Every man has a past all his own, whether the author chooses to reveal it within the book or not. Understanding this and using it appropriately gives your characters an additional dimension, that elusive element readers recognize in a well-written book and can only fittingly explain as "the characters felt real."
And if you ask any author, he'll tell you that no four words so warm the cockles of his heart.