In my Friday posts, I’ve been talking about building strong characters. Of course, your main character needs to be the best developed. Your villain and any major secondary characters should also be complex, realistic and individual. What about minor characters who don’t have an important role? What about secondary characters in picture books, where you don’t have much time for developing complex characters?
In times like these, it can actually help to turn to a recognizable “type” – the comforting grandmother, the bratty younger brother, the geeky science teacher, the peppy cheerleader. The reader sees those quick clues and understand the character. However, watch out for negative stereotypes. You know, the ones based on race, gender, religion, size etc., that are hurtful or reinforce prejudice.
You might also ask if you can add a twist to make that character type fresh. This doesn’t need to take up much space in your story, but it can make your world more interesting. For example, let’s say you want your main character to turn to a grandmother for comfort. Your first instinct might be to create a sweet, white-haired lady who always has fresh baked cookies on hand. That could work, and it’s not harmful, but it is a cliché and rather blah.
Now try giving Granny a twist. Maybe she dyes her hair platinum blonde and get donuts from the bakery. Maybe she is a school principal who babysits her grandkids during the summer. Maybe she goes bowling most evenings, but will take time out to console her grandson over a plate of bowling alley nachos. Maybe she’s running for mayor, but always has time for a cup of herbal tea and conversation. Maybe she and your main character have long talks while they walk her St. Bernard. The possibilities are endless – and a whole lot more interesting than that old cliché!
Think of the grandmothers you know. Their ages may cover quite a range, starting in their 30s. They might hold a variety of jobs, or be homemakers, or be retired. They may be married, divorced or widowed. They have a variety of hobbies and interests. Try making your minor characters as fresh and real as the people you know. They may give you new ideas for developing your main character or your story. But even if they stay in the background, they'll make that background more enjoyable!
Exercise: think of a type—jock, cheerleader, bully, high school science teacher, grandparent or whatever. Write a brief description, making it fresh. If you wind up writing more than a couple of lines, go back and pull out just one to three details that do the best job of making an interesting character in the least time.