How to Handle Minor Characters and Groups in Fiction

As I work on my re-write of my manuscript, a bunch of things are clicking that hadn’t before, which is very encouraging for me! I think I have figured out how to hack into my main characters’ made-up souls to make them believable and interesting. Of course, one thing is sketching them out on my spreadsheet, and another is presenting who they are in some clever way in the story itself. (!)

One area that continues to elude me is how to handle minor characters and groups in fiction. I consistently fumbled this in my manuscript, losing my editor along the way, not making it clear who she was supposed to focus on, and who was unimportant.

Last night Steve and I watched Twilight (I know. I know.), and though I’ve never read the books, I know Stephenie Meyer had to create these high school cliques for Bella to blow off in favor of her vampire boyfriend. In visual media, perhaps showing minor characters and groups is less tricky, because you can simply put them in the background of whatever the main activity is (like Bella in the cafeteria first noticing the Cullens) and it doesn’t distract from where the audience is supposed to focus. In the movie, when Bella first notices the Cullens, she’s physically surrounded by other teens and the Cullens slow-motion walk to their table in the corner of the cafeteria. Here is the book excerpt of this scene setting up this moment from Twilight.

In this excerpt, we have two people, Bella mentions by name and one girl who she is talking to but is not named (since Bella quickly forgets her name). We get the sense that the cafeteria is full of teenagers. We know that Bella is surrounded by other people at the table (“several of her friends”), and is generally feeling like the new kid in school.

Looking at this closely, I notice a few things that Meyer has done.

  1. Each minor character Meyer introduces gets his or her little paragraph.
  2. The “group” in paragraph two has its own little paragraph.
  3. The scenery of groups and individuals is finally painted in the last paragraph.

My take-away from this little analysis is that it takes more words than I thought to develop minor characters. Also, it’s still necessary to develop minor characters and groups by citing some characteristic or behavior, to orient the reader and build the scene.

All that doesn’t seem too hard, does it?!