Posted by: jeannineatkins | January 14, 2015

Minor Characters

“If I’ve got one thing that I really believe about fiction and life, it’s that there are no minor characters,” Jane Gardam said in a recent-enough New Yorker interview. Never mind for now the life part, which is great, but I’m taking this as a call to look deeper into my novel-in-progress. Of course some characters must be minor. We can’t have everyone fighting for center stage. But I’m taking this to mean that when writing, every person who gets a few lines of dialogue is important. Everyone comes with her own fears or wishes, which can lead to deep trouble or a little joy.

Some of my minor characters are there because they’re related to the protagonist, or are neighbors, but each one should serve a purpose beyond that. This is fiction, and I can create and destroy as I please. I just had the main character’s parents divorce, because an absent father seems more useful than one who’s present, and builds the theme of missing-ness. I’ve noticed that every time a character says something new, I get to know them a bit more, and I want to more purposefully build my acquaintance. I won’t fill their calendars, closets, and drawers as much as I set up a home for my main character, but mean to pay more attention.


Not only the speakers, but everything set on a table, every tree by the road, all the elements of setting can be seen as characters, too. They can add to the main character’s confusion or understanding. In these early drafts I fill tables in the kitchen or bedrooms. I create weather. Bowls of cereal and clouds aren’t just something to add authenticity or texture, but the way a character looks or touches tells me what makes her sad or happy. They might be the golden eggs, magic rings, three little teacups, red hooded cloak, or finger-pricking spindle that make all the difference. I won’t use them all, but will focus on habits and objects that relate to the novel’s themes of belief, getting side tracked, and looking for what’s lost.

I’m writing this rough draft trying to trust what’s small or in shadows. Nothing is minor, really, at least in early drafts when we don’t have to worry about pacing or shading. Everything deserves a second or third look.



  1. “…the way a character looks or touches tells me what makes her sad or happy.” This is exactly right. I just hadn’t thought of such a smart way to articulate this idea. Thank you for sharing your wise words!

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Catherine!

  2. So much to reflect upon and take wisdom from in this post Jeannine. I think so much of writing is about “trying to trust what’s small or in shadows” – for so much magic lurks there, just waiting to be brought into the light, and made to sparkle. Thank you for beginning my day with your inimitable wisdom.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Tara, and your understanding of looking well below the surface, in shadows or cracks, for important truths.

  3. It’s always fascinating to read about your process, Jeannine. Magic gleams and glistens in the words you choose – I love your special way of putting them together. xox

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