Recurring Minor Characters: Why?

People talk a lot about protagonist, antagonist, secondary characters, and sidekicks when it comes to writing.  When writing a series, you can have a big cast of characters that fall into these characters.  You can also have a small group of recurring minor characters.  I might be misinterpreting what Misha suggested here, but I’m going with the background guys that you can still notice.  Like ‘Cabbage Man’ or whatever Last Airbender fans call him.  I’ll touch on a more serious versions too, so I cover all bases.

  1. Comedy– Many times you’ll find a minor character returning for laughs.  They’re bad luck incarnate who happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.  Hit by a stray spell or lose their third house to the main characters.  Maybe they keep getting captured by the villains and ending up in a dungeon whenever the heroes have to sneak into a lair.  The key here is to have the character interact briefly with the major characters, but not be plot essential.
  2. Shop Owners–  Every time the characters need supplies, they go to a store and talk to the shopkeeper.  After a few times, a reader realizes that it’s the same guy.  This can fall into comedy or perceived as laziness on the part of the writer.  Yet, it can also help your world with an odd piece of continuity.  It shows a character is moving around the world and developing a business chain.  This can also be a fun treat for readers who are paying attention.
  3. Small Time Crook–  I’m noticing that a lot of these will have a comedic approach, but this one can be serious.  A nameless pickpocket or bandit that runs into the heroes at times.  They can always fail or even become a brief plot point where they take an important item.  These characters can create a sense of the world having a criminal element that isn’t at the epic proportion level.  This is depth and makes the fictional world feel more believable.
  4. Old Friends–  Many series have those characters that shift from main supporting cast to no longer around.  In Legends of Windemere, Selenia Hamilton and Kira Grasdon would fall into this.  They play big roles in the first book and barely appear in the second book.  By the third, neither of them are around except by name.  This creates the opportunity for ‘The Grand Return’.  A character in this category can be brought back in with some fanfare and get readers pumped.  They think that something big is about to happen if one of these characters is back.  In terms of Selenia, it means a battle might ensue.  With Kira, it means Luke Callindor’s love life is about to take center stage and he’ll be praying for the Lich to appear.  The point is that this creates an atmosphere of suspense and tension birthed from excitement.
  5. Cameo–  The final category that I can think of is when a main character from another series or the previous books appears in a minor role.  You typically find this in long series, comics, or an author’s new series.  These character usages are nods to the previous work and gifts to loyal fans.  Though, it can also be done to lock in fans for a new series.  That might seem necessary if the author or the fans are having trouble letting go of the past.

There might be a ton of categories for these characters and they’re flexible enough that you can do nearly anything with them.  If the story is write, you can even have a character that dies every time they appear.  This was done in the God of War video game series with a luckless Boat Captain.  Again, these tend to be humorous Easter Eggs for those that are paying attention.

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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31 Responses to Recurring Minor Characters: Why?

  1. I like it – ‘MY CABBAGES!’
    Like you describe these characters come in all sorts of guises and can mean something or nothing. The major thing I think that these recurrent characters do, is to create a series of events that act like pivots throughout the whole plot and story. In a film it’s very difficult to create a sense of involvement in 2hrs or less, so they provide a link between audience and main characters to be involved together. I find these recurrent minor characters are actually major in that their presence is rewarding and often provides some of the best laughs or lines.
    Also films are very linear usually and we follow multiple protagonists together or alone, but the story world needs padding to give it a sense of realism.

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    • Good point. Characters like these can really help drive home the fact that this is an organic world. They aren’t like video game NPC’s where they stay in the same town and you’ll never see them again once you leave the area. Always gave me a sense of cultural isolationism in those worlds.

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  2. ioniamartin says:

    Well duh, Charles. What good is a pimp without a hooker?

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  3. sknicholls says:

    I like these..applies to all writing genres. I can see how these can help tie my books together.

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  4. I think the minors are kind of fun. I took one from the first book and carried him over just for the pleasure of eliminating him. (unctuous little creep)

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  5. Excellent post! I love recurring characters — especially the cabbage man 🙂 That video just made my day, by the way. I had a thought of another recurring character while I was reading … what was it … ah yes! Have you ever read the Asterix and Obelix cartoons? There’s this red-bearded pirate and his crew, and whenever Asterix takes to the sea, he inevitably runs into the pirate. Most of the time he sinks the pirate ship, although sometime the cartoon subverts that expectation — once they team up, once the pirate decides to save Asterix the trouble of sinking his ship and cuts a hole in the hull himself to expedite the process, etc.

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    • I have ’12 Tasks of Asterix’ on DVD, but I never read the comics. Couldn’t find them in English. I’m thinking also of the large scale cartoons like Simpsons and South Park with all the recurring that end up developing over seasons.

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  6. Jack Flacco says:

    If anyone uses the cameo perfectly it’s Marvel. They’ve introduced a new series in almost every movie they’re making right now. Was it at the end of Captain America??? they introduced Tony Stark having a drink while on the other end of his cell the Avengers hide out began construction?

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    • A new type of ‘pilot’ has been used over recent years on TV. In a later or final episode of a successful series, you introduce members of a future series. I believe this is how NCIS started and they did this with a series called The Finder through Bones.

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      • Jack Flacco says:

        I haven’t seen any of those shows. Then again, I am a movie junkie so that might explain the impasse. I think the strategy has been around for a while. I remember when Happy Days (don’t laugh) spun off Joannie and Chachi, they had an episode dedicated to them, which then continued on into the new show as a part II. The producers did the same thing with Laverne and Shirley (don’t laugh) where the characters were introduced in the show, which then spun off to the other show.

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      • Xena from Hercules too. The spinoff is a classic tool. Frasier from Cheers!

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  7. Pingback: How to make Your Reader Care About Your Character #3 | Jennifer M Eaton

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