Writing Advice

Help for Authors and Writers

The Craft of Writing: Creating Minor Characters

How do you create minor characters? How do you write them?

As with describing characters, I tend to fall into the “less is more” school. I think it’s necessary to know your characters in order to write them well, but I would caution writers to resist the urge to cram every detail about a minor character’s background onto the page. You, as the writer, should know your character’s background, but that doesn’t mean the reader necessarily has to! In fact, sometimes it’s far more effective to hint at a character’s background than to put it all on a page.

The goal of fiction is to tell a story, not to infodump a series of biographies. Characters should have a history; if they don’t, they come across as bland and flat. As an author, your goal is to give the reader a sense that history exists, which means you need to know the history, but you don’t need to tell the reader that history.

Instead, you give just little glimpses of it, enough to suggest that this is a fully realized character in a fully realized story without meandering off into exposition-land or taking the focus away from the story you’re trying to tell.

Later that night, as they made ready for their last night in the sleeping bags atop tattered slabs of foam in the disused office, Jake turned to Nadine. A muscle jumped in his face. “Something you should know,” he said. “I did some digging.”


“Your boy Carlos, he was dishonorably discharged from the Marines. Some kinda operation in Latvia, his unit killed some civilians. Shot them in the head, he helped cover it up.”

“Fuck,” Nadine said softly.

“Yeah. Don’t turn your back on him.”

Nadine slept little that night. She stared into the darkness, heart thumping, mouth dry. Anna? she sent into the claustrophobic void. Are you there? Anna, I am so afraid. If you were here, would you think less of me for that? I want you to be proud of me.

The darkness made no reply.

Morning came quickly. After a tepid shower and a bland breakfast from a foil pouch, Nadine found Carlos climbing into the cab of an enormous white Ford electric truck towing a long, retro-looking rounded silver trailer with dark-tinted windows. He aimed his smile in her direction. “Morning, ma’am!” he called. “We’re ready to move out.”

“That’s our ride?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Liz wheeled up beside her. “It’s mine. Try not to get it banged up.”

“Why aren’t you taking it?”

“Because the two of you are a lot more believable setting off on a camping adventure through central Texas.”



“Thank you. For all of this.”

Liz patted her arm. “No need to thank me, hon. Your money’s thanks enough.”

“Still, thank you.”

The Ford had a large cab with plush, comfortable seats. It even had a proper back seat, not one of the little shelves most pickups had if they had anything at all. A set of oversized fuzzy dice in hot pink dangled from the rearview display, each dot a small black Playboy bunny.

Nadine’s new suitcase followed her to the truck. Carlos slung it in the back seat next to a new but far less tacky suitcase in drab, reasonable shades of brown and gray. He pulled out of the parking lot under manual control, then poked at the touchscreen display, surprisingly small in a cheap plastic frame covered with fake chrome flash. “I feel half-blind without my implant,” he grumbled. “Doing everything the old-fashioned way.” The truck plotted a route and dinged to announce the self-driving had kicked in. “Gonna feel weird, not talking to you through the implant.”

“So how do we talk?” Nadine said.

Carlos pulled a flat package from his pocket that reminded Nadine of the peel-apart pouches hospitals used to sterilize scalpels. “Old school.”

“What is it?” Nadine said.

“Transduction receiver, subvocal mike.” He tore open the package. Two small objects slid out onto his palm, one a flat crescent a bit smaller than Nadine’s little finger, the other round. “Peel off the backing, that starts the battery. Stick this one behind your ear, this one on your throat. Five hundred meter range direct, extendable with active amplifiers or the mesh transceivers you’ll be carrying.”

“How long does the battery last?”

“Six hours.”

“Is that enough?”

Carlos laughed. “Ma’am, if we’re still there six hours from go, we ain’t comin’ back.”

“Ask you a question?”

“Sure thing.”

“Why’d you leave the Marines?”

His face hardened. “That’s a long story, and one you don’t want to hear. Short version, I was helped out the door to protect the careers of a coupla COs had no business being in the Corps in the first place.”



“That make you mad?”

“I got over it.” He glanced over at her. “Suggest you lie back and get some sleep if you can. You look like you could use it.”
The point is that vividly realized characters have a background, and the background informs their choices and actions, but you can do that without putting the background on the page.

Different characters can even have different takes on something that happened without you as a writer necessarily going into it, or even deciding which take is “true.” Real people are messy; vivid characters are, too.

There’s a character in the fourth Passionate Pantheon novel, still in progress as I write this answer, named Jakalva. Each book in the series has a more complex structure than the one before, and the structure of the fourth novel is, I think, really interesting.

Jakalva is a minor character. We see her in…four scenes, I think? Perhaps five. In all but two of those scenes, she basically only passes by.

Jakalva is famous throughout the City for the parties she throws, which are attended by the City’s elite: the High Priests and Priestesses, famous artists and athletes. (The Passionate Pantheon books follow a tick-tock pattern; odd-numbered books in the series are Utopian and upbeat, even-numbered books are dark erotic horror. The City in book 4 is rigidly hierarchical, a huge difference from the setting of the other books.)

Jakalva doesn’t appear much in the book—she’s quite a minor character from a narrative perspective—but the plot of the book revolves around her and the impact she has on the main characters. Book 4 is really Jakalva’s even though she barely appears in it. Eunice said Jakalva is like a rock thrown into a calm pond that creates ripples that spread out. Jakalva is the rock; the story is about the ripples.

Anyway, she—and her parties—have a profound impact on the main characters.

As you might imagine, Eunice and I know quite a bit about Jakalva, but almost none of it ends up being told to the reader. Jakalva is a distant, almost unapproachable character; she drives the entire plot, two events that happen at two of her parties create the conflict that motivates the main characters, but the reader learns almost nothing about her.

Some things we know that aren’t explicit in the book:

  • Jakalva is monoamorous and almost asexual. Her parties tend to be themed around intense, violent sex (see the link above and you’ll know what I mean), but she herself is completely uninterested in the sex and violence that happens at her parties, and doesn’t pay attention to it. Instead, she pays attention to her guests who are paying attention to it.
  • Jakalva is a power broker. She’s not an explicit part of the City’s hierarchy. The City is ruled by a priest class called Jurats, who establish the rules and norms of civic life and punish transgressions. Jakalva is a former Jurat who withdrew from the entire social structure of the City, but she maintains personal connections with the Jurats and the other High Priests and High Priestesses. Though she has no rank and no formal power, when she says something, the highest-ranking people in the City usually pay attention.
  • Much of Jakalva’s power comes from the way she’s inserted herself into the City’s religious life. She’s a rarity in the City in that she belongs to no Temple and worships none of the gods, but she hosts many of the various Temples’ important ceremonies, and that alone gives her a tremendous amount of ‘soft’ social power.
  • Jakalva’s long-term partner, who appears nowhere in the book, is intensely introverted. He cares nothing about her social connections or influence, which is part of the reason they’ve been together so long. If Jakalva were partnered with someone who wanted to participate in the social power brokering she does, she would never be 100% sure if that person were with her for who she was, or for the power she brings.
  • She takes the character Kaytin under her wing partly out of a sense of civic pride (Kaytin is a refugee from another City, where she didn’t fit in and couldn’t find a place) but mostly because Jakalva is very old (about 600 years, give or take) and recognizes why Kaytin has difficulty in social situations. She knows she has the combination of social skills, direct bluntness, and ability to make implicit social situations explicit that Kaytin needs to find her footing. (We never explicitly say this anywhere in the book, but the character Kaytin is autistic.)
  • We also never explicitly say this in the book, but Jakalva sees Kaytin as her protégé and eventual successor.
Allow your characters to reveal themselves naturally, and only insofar as is natural for the setting and situation. You don’t need to do it up front, when the character is introduced; it’s okay if your readers don’t know your character’s story until later.