One of my favorite movies of all time is The Last Samurai starring Tom Cruise. With my love for Asian culture, it's no surprise that I enjoy it so much. In a recent viewing of the movie, one character's arc really struck me, and I had never thought much about him. Nathan Algren, played by Cruise, is captured by the band of rebel samurai he has been hired to get rid of and has to spend the winter in the samurai village. During this time, he is guarded by an older samurai, whom Algren simply calls "Bob", who follows him around wherever he goes to make sure he doesn't do anything. Bob is really a minor character who is only featured in a few scenes. However, there is a scene toward the end in which Bob plays a significant and touching role.
Without giving away too much of a spoiler for anyone who hasn't seen the movie, here's what happens:
In the middle of the huge battle against the larger Civil War-style army, one Japanese soldier aims his rifle at Algren, ready to fire. Bob, who is in the midst of his own struggle, notices and runs to Algren's aid. He jumps in front of Algren as the soldier fires and takes the fatal shot, saving Algren's life.
Now, there are a lot of touching death scenes in literature and film, and there are more featured in this film, but I wondered why this particular character's death moved me. Minor characters are just that, minor. So how did this character become so significant in just a few scenes?
It's all about the characterization, one of the most important elements of every great story. I've always heard about the importance of writing good characters, and it's true. When I look at all my favorite stories, they all contain characters that I've fallen in love with in one way or another. You can't have a good story without interesting, deeply developed characters.
It doesn't always have to be the main character though. Having a strong supporting cast is just as important as having strong primary characters. Think about how much a character like R2-D2 or Chewbacca adds to Star Wars. Or Merry and Pippin in the Lord of the Rings series. Effective minor characters play significant roles in their brief time on screen or on page.
The trouble with minor characters is that you can't overuse them. If Chewy shows up in every scene and growls, we'd get tired of seeing him. He becomes more of a major character at that point and needs more depth to his character. So, as a writer, you have a very limited amount of space to do this in your story. By their nature, minor characters only show up every once in a while, so you have to do an extremely good job of highlighting the two or three character qualities that make that character stand out.
Take Bob for example.
Bob is quiet and incredibly loyal. Every time Bob enters the scene we are reminded of his loyalty in some way--to his master, to his lifestyle, and to his comrades. Even a former prisoner turned comrade-in-arms earns his loyalty. Although subtle, his character is clearly shown each time he is on screen. By the time his death scene comes around, we've become so wrapped up in his loyalty, whether consciously or not, that his sacrifice strikes a chord deep inside us. And we couldn't have gotten there without the few scenes that lead us to that place.
Build your minor characters up subtly but profoundly. Their big moment at the end shouldn't be the first time we see that come out of them. I think of Neville Longbottom in the Harry Potter series. In the first several books, Neville is barely a blip on the radar, However, his courage and desire to become better are highlighted nearly every time we see him. Before long, and without us realizing it, Neville has become quite the wizard we never thought he could be, and then he gets his big moment in the final book with the Sword of Griffindor.
One note: I've noticed that authors tend use minor characters for comic relief. There's certainly nothing wrong with this, but don't feel the need to fall into that pattern. Comic relief can come from anywhere. Besides, good minor characters who are used for comic relief have more to them than simply being funny. Good minor character can so much more.
I have a character in a series I wrote who originally started out as a minor character for one single scene to help move along the plot. As I continued to write, however, he kept showing up in scenes and eventually became a fairly integral part of the plot by the third book. By the end of the series, had become almost as important as a lot of my major characters.
All said, minor characters can, and should, play significant roles in your stories. Don't just create throwaway characters with no depth. Take the time to give them some. Make them just as lovable and sympathetic as your major characters. Give them quirks and habits. The extra depth will go a long way in your story. You never know what can end up happening with them.