THIS JUST IN! My second book for Covenant, A SECRET FAMILY RECIPE, will be published in soft cover in 2013. Wahoo! Moving on . . .
What roles should the minor characters play in your novel? For now, just know that every character must have a role, a clear function and significance; otherwise, there’s no reason to have that character. In life, people simply are and that’s good enough. In fiction, a character must have a reason to be or he’s history, outta there, toast – and it’s your job as the writer to toast him.
I well remember Lilia Garcia, the wise-cracking co-worker and companion with whom Robin worked in my first novel, BENEATH SIERRA SKIES. Lilia was meant to serve as local color and also to illuminate Robin’s character, allowing her to speak her ideas about the hero (Dr. Brandon Demarse) aloud.
It was my first editor, Amy Inman at Silhouette, who pointed out that I already had another character (Robin’s boss, Nancy) who served that role. It was also Amy who advised me to cut Lilia. Poor Lilia. She had been a loved, fun character, but her purpose wasn’t worth the room she took on the page. Cutting Lilia from the story made for a much better book.
You’ve seen what happens when beginning writers pop in fleshed-out characters that have no clear role or only a minor function. Think for example of this extract from a would-be novel: “There was a commanding knock at the door. It was Steve Harrington, my UPS delivery guy. He is the son-in-law of my friend, Debbie Marston, married to her daughter, Amy Marston Harrington. They have three pretty little girls – Macie, Michelle and Mylie – all delightful blonde, blue-eyed darlings. Steve had come to bring me my book I ordered from Amazon. I was looking forward to a quiet night at home with my book and my cat, Sophronia, curled up reading until I retired.” If we never see Steve in the book again, why do we know all this about him?
For that matter, Sophronia had better be important, or she doesn’t need a name, either. She can simply be "my cat." In that situation, it’s better to end the fictional lives of all those seven non-characters before they even begin: “There was a knock at the door and I opened it to thank the delivery man who had brought me the book I ordered.”
So look at your minor characters. Give them warmth, life and color, but most of all, give them purpose. If they have no purpose, they have no being. Period.