Jan 13 2009

Don’t let minor characters steal the show

Published by at 12:34 am under Character Development,Writing Articles

Sometimes a minor character will “steal” the scene from the main character, taking so much of the spotlight that the main character just seems to disappear.  Here are several scenarios that often to lead to scene-stealing.

1. The minor character has a far more important role in a given scene than in the book as a whole.

OK, you may love this minor character, but if he isn’t important to the plot then he probably shouldn’t be the focus of the scene.  Try to limit the minor character’s role to how he interacts with the main character.  No one really cares what he does with other minor characters. For example, Moneypenny and M can both be interesting, but no one watches a Bond movie to see them talk together.  Moneypenny and M only matter when they interact with Bond.  If your book has a scene where your Moneypenny is doing her own thing away from Bond, readers may feel annoyed and dissatisfied.  Your readers just don’t care about Moneypenny, at least not as much as they do about Bond.

2.  The minor character has considerably more style than the main character.

This is especially a problem when the main character has a bland style that blends in with most of the other characters.  For example, our Agent Black is a dry accountant that sounds like many of the other characters in Superhero Nation.  Agent Orange, the mutant alligator, has a wacky style that tends to make him stand out a lot more.  Style gaps are problematic because they make the protagonist become invisible.  If one character is talking about doing taxes and the other is talking about his favorite television show, When Squirrels Attack, the audience will almost assuredly forget about the accountant.  By definition, your main character should be the most interesting character in the book.  Relying on a side-character to provide spice isn’t necessarily unwise, but it is probably more effective to deal with the problem by giving the main character more flavor.

3. The main character passively listens to an infodump by a minor character.

If the main character’s only responsibility is to listen to a minor character deliver chunks of information, the minor character will almost certainly steal the scene.   Listening is not very interesting.  You can fix this by giving the main character a more active role.  For example, what if the minor character isn’t entirely willing to reveal everything he knows?  Then the main character has to coax it out of him.  What if the minor character is only familiar with one piece of the puzzle?  Then it’s up to the main character to put it all together.  At the very least, try to give your main character some emotional response to what he learns.

4.  The passage gives the minor character too much description.

Readers may wonder “what’s Moneypenny doing in this scene?” but they should never have to wonder “where’s Bond?”  If the main character has disappeared, it is often because the minor characters stole too much of the description.  For example, if I’m doing a scene with an accountant and a squid monster from Mars, chances are that I’ll spend more time discussing what the squid monster looks like.  After all, he looks far more unusual and interesting than the accountant.  But don’t forget: the main character has to be constantly interesting.  It’s his story.  Don’t let the search for freshness let you get away from him.

For example, I could use the squid monster’s appearance as an opportunity to show us something about the accountant. Perhaps he gets squeamish. That will help ensure that the accountant has a role even though he’s less exotic.

5.  The protagonist gets lost in a shuffle of characters.

As more characters enter a scene, it can become difficult to ensure that the main character is front-and-center.  Try to avoid situations where the protagonist is just one member of a group.  For example, if Clark Kent and Lois Lane are at a large press conference, they probably won’t get a chance to shine.  They will be another two reporters in a huge mob.  In contrast, they will seem more exceptional in a sparsely-populated scene like a private interview with an important witness.

6.  The biggest problems are solved by minor characters.

This is especially prevalent in books about young protagonists.  The kid gets into trouble and then his parents bail him out (Parentis Ex Machina).  Try to let your main character do as much of the problem-solving as possible.

7.  The material in the scene is not directly related or pertinent to the main character. For example, if your main character is watching as John and Mary discuss that time they went to the beach, the main character is probably going to disappear.  What can he add?  I’d recommend reworking the scene so that the material is more directly tied to the main character’s goals and agenda.  Make it clear that this information is part of his story.  Remember, we’re reading about him, not about John and Mary.

16 responses so far

16 Responses to “Don’t let minor characters steal the show”

  1. Bretton 13 Jan 2009 at 8:00 am

    I think this is the second article you’ve written because of something I did. I feel special!

  2. Ragged Boyon 13 Jan 2009 at 10:43 am

    With all due respect, I think this is also David influenced, but is still generally relevant. I felt special when they started posting comic related stuff.

  3. Davidon 13 Jan 2009 at 10:45 am

    You mean me?

  4. B. Macon 13 Jan 2009 at 1:36 pm

    Hmm… what was the first article we did that was inspired by your work, Brett?

    I think that I started writing this to articulate why I thought that Alex had disappeared in chapters 6-7. I suspect it’s more of a general problem, though, so please don’t feel like I’m singling you out. For example, Superhero Nation’s Agent Black tends to disappear, which could be a critical problem for us.

    David’s series may have a slightly invisible main character (Silence), but I think it’s less of a problem because his series seems more geared around a group than just Silence. Team-centered comic books and graphic novels are very acceptable*.

    Additionally, David’s world is not very wacky. I don’t think that David’s audience needs Silence to interpret what’s going on. In contrast, our world is deliberately wacky and unusual, so I think that I need a reliable character in every scene. That essentially forces us to use Agent Black (or perhaps Jacob) in every scene. Likewise, Will Smith’s character (the straightman in Men in Black) was present in virtually every MIB scene. Straightman comedy needs a straightman.

    *A few novels have tried to get away from the main character, but it usually turns out more like Soon I Will Be Invincible than Lord of the Rings. I don’t recommend it, particularly for first-time authors. Novel plots tend to come apart without a central protagonist.

  5. Bretton 13 Jan 2009 at 4:15 pm

    The first one was the “Don’t model characters after your friends” article. I believe that was inspired when I said I modeled Amorelia on a girl I knew.

  6. C.R.on 14 Jan 2009 at 10:23 am

    Interesting article, rings true with me. I have a WIP novel ms. A NYT bestselling author did a crit of a few chaps, said a minor character was more interesting than the protag(a supie pastiche). Who knows, maybe she was turned off by the protags rough treatment of his girlfriend.

    Great page, BTW.

  7. B. Macon 14 Jan 2009 at 12:01 pm

    I’m glad to help, CR. Hmm.

    I think you’ve got a scenario that I hadn’t thought of. A minor character might steal the scene if readers find him so much more likable that they want him to be the lead. For your story, I think the easiest fix would be to make the main character more likable. Maybe you could soften the edges on how roughly he treats his girlfriend.

  8. C.R.on 15 Jan 2009 at 8:25 am

    Heh, heh. Just to clear a few things up, it was not physical abuse (ever read Larry Niven’s “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex”?).

    Great idea, B.Mac. Likibility is important–I’ve read where publishers passed on ms for that very reason–well written, but they couldn’t connect, didn’t have any sympathy for the protag. Comics too, though maybe not so much. My focus in general was to have a protag that was different than the Superman icon, Christopher Reeve’s Mr. Sensitive, and maybe I got carried away with it. I had another comment (from an asst. editor of a fantasy magazine) tell me the fella was a jerk, but in the next paragraph say he had “a wonderful edge to him.”

    That, or either she read the first couple of chapters and said: urk, not another suethor. I disagreed, but…

  9. Ragged Boyon 19 Jan 2009 at 7:37 pm

    It’s funny that you say “steal the show”. When it comes to Adrian, he’s hands down my most interesting character. Jimelly may be his only competition, but Adrian’s dramatic personality will be surely “maintain the spotlight.”

  10. B. Macon 19 Jan 2009 at 8:30 pm

    Yeah, I don’t think Adrian will get scene-stolen. However, there is some chance that Adrian will disappear in scenes like scenario #3, when he’s getting information/backstory from a more experienced character like Jimelly. I’d recommend trying to remember that readers typically care more about the main character than the backstory. Good luck!

  11. Lunajamniaon 17 Apr 2009 at 4:45 pm

    This is exactly what happened in my Trilogy!

    I didn’t intend for the minor character to become a major character; it just sort of happened. She grew from a side-character/supporting character to another main character as the story progressed–almost like they were BOTH intended to be main characters all along.

    The second book is almost entirely about the minor character, and then in the third book it’s all about the original character again, though with two minor characters. I think that they don’t “steal the show” that time, but I’m not sure.

  12. Wingson 17 Apr 2009 at 7:53 pm

    I’m doing a team story, so I kind of have to give everyone a little spotlight.

    Meg’s the leader because she’s the assertive one, good at making quick decisions. However, she’s also very impulsive and impatient, causing her to get in over her head occasionally.

    When Meg gets captured, it’s pretty obvious that Connor, although he’s young, has the adequate (perhaps better) leadership skills. But, again, he’s only eleven, so he still needs to watch himself.

    Ian’s a little too naive and gullible to have a position of authority, however, he grows up a lot throughout the story and (I at least feel this way), is very likable to readers because they can relate to how he feels.

    Darren, actually, appears to be the underdog of the group. Because of his disability, he’s normally unable to help his friends (OR: *SPOILER* his brother) which makes him feel useless. And yet, he manages to stand on his own two feet (theoretically of course) throughout the book and becomes more confident.

    Jazz is, in short, the tough one. She’s smart and sure of herself, but, at the same time, distrustful and too quick to snap.

    Pierce is the most unlikely member of the group. In Ian’s words, he’s the “tall, scary guy with a motorcycle.” He’s ruthless and violent, but he’s goodhearted and assuredly not evil by choice.


  13. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 17 Apr 2009 at 8:53 pm

    The number of characters I’m going to use will slowly increase.

    The first book has Isaac, Amy Belle, Will and Rana. Morgan is a minor character. Isaac’s parents (Reiji and June) and sister (Lonnie) have semi-major roles.

    The second adds Kamari. Morgan will get a larger role. Tristram, Atalya and Klemente are mentioned and have very minor roles. Reiji gets a larger role.

    The third has Tristram, Atalya and Klemente with much greater roles, and introduces Requiem and Livian. Kamari reappears.

    The team – FIGHT – doesn’t have an official leader, but Tristram sort of takes that role by default. He has the most supporters in the group – three, Kamari, Klemente and Atalya – and generally takes charge of difficult situations. The trouble is that he can be a jerk at times and get really angry if he’s under too much pressure. In that case, Isaac and Atalya are the backup leaders.

  14. A1terEgoon 19 May 2011 at 9:31 pm

    This is one of my biggest fears.

    I have a story I’m working on that’s suppose to chronicle ONE hero’s journey. Obviously this leads him to some new characters that will help him on his quest.

    For a first time writer, would it be easier to manage side-characters in first person or third-person? And if third-person, from what perspective?

    I’m working on some interesting characters, and day by day I find something new to add to their back story. However, this is not their story. This story is about, and reserved for, my main guy. My hero. But I’m afraid that by leaving out bits and pieces of story from other characters, they will appear bland, boring, and react out of character much to the reader’s knowledge.

  15. Mynaon 20 May 2011 at 6:42 pm

    Why would you leave out pieces of your minor characters’ history? If anything it can further advance the plot even more, and show you new things about your hero, too (like how he reacts when he finds out his best friend used to work for the bad guys or something.) I think it’s easier for first-time writers to go first person, although in my case it was the opposite… but assuming you choose third, just don’t go into the thoughts or deep-down emotions/feelings of more than two or three characters. Ideally, stick with just one–your main. Otherwise you’ll toss your reader about. Good luck with your story!

  16. Cat-vacuumer Supremeon 14 Sep 2016 at 12:06 pm

    First person is definitely easier, maybe 3rd limited (3rd following only the MC).

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