I think it’s safe to say that we all prefer novels where the characters are more than just ‘cookie cutter’ placeholders. Not every character need be thoroughly developed, but we want a sense that the characters are realistic, and that means some development.
Sometimes, very minor characters play a role in a story. They can even be memorable, not so much because they’re the focus of a plot, but because they’re interesting in and of themselves. It can be tricky to create such characters without making them too eccentric. But when they’re done well, those minor characters can add to a story.
Agatha Christie used interesting minor characters in several of her stories. In Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner), for instance, Hercule Poirot investigates the stabbing death of the 4th Baron Edgware. His wife, famous actress Jane Wilkinson, is the most likely suspect. She had threatened his life, and it was known that she wanted a divorce from him, so that she could marry someone else. She says that she was at a dinner party in another part of London, though, and twelve other people are prepared to swear that she was there. So, Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp have to look elsewhere for the killer. Then, there’s another death. Carlotta Adams, who’s been doing a very successful one-woman show, is found dead in her room, apparently of a drug overdose. Poirot isn’t sure this death is an accident, though, and he wants to learn more about her. He discovers that she wrote a letter to her sister, Lucie, and posted it just before her death. Poirot contacts Lucie and asks her for the letter. We never meet Lucie Adams in person, so to speak. But her character is interesting, and she sheds light on her sister.
There are plenty of minor characters in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. That’s the fictional re-telling of the murders of Herb and Bonnie Clutter and two of their children. The novel follows both the Clutter family and their murderers, Richard ‘Dick’ Hickock and Perry Smith, in the lead-up to the killings as well as the events that happened later. Readers follow along as Hickock and Smith make their plans, commit the crimes, and then go on the run. Readers also follow along as Detective Alvin Dewey and his team investigate. The police talk to a number of people, as you can imagine. One of them is the landlady at a cheap Las Vegas rooming house where Smith stays at one point. She may not run an upmarket establishment, but she’s shrewd and smart, and her personality is clear. She doesn’t play a central role in the story, nor does she solve the case for Dewey, but she does provide helpful information.
In Maureen Carter’s Working Girls, Birmingham Detective Sergeant (DS) Bev Morriss and her team investigate when fifteen-year-old Michelle Lucas is found dead. She was a sex worker, so the police look for leads among the other local sex workers, their clients, and their pimps. One likely suspect is Michelle’s pimp, Charlie Hawes. Another possibility is that one of the clients is guilty. And then there are some local residents who are very much opposed to having sex workers in the area and might go as far as murder. As a part of the investigation, Morriss gets to know some of the other sex workers, including one named Jules. Jules isn’t a major character; she’s only ‘on stage’ briefly. But she is an interesting character, and she sheds light on the business:
‘‘My sister, Mand. She’s eighteen. She works in an ‘airdressers five days a week. Brings home fifty-five quid. I make twice that in an hour – and I ain’t on me feet all day.’’
That perspective helps in understanding how the world of sex work operates.
Gianrico Carofiglio’s Involuntary Witness begins when attorney Guido Guerrieri, who lives and works in Bari, gets a visitor. She is Abajaje Deheba, an immigrant from Egypt, and she’s there on behalf of her partner, a Senegalese man named Abdou Thiam. It seems that Thiam has been arrested for the abduction and murder of nine-year-old Francesco Rubino. Thiam admits that he knew the boy, but he claims that he is innocent. There’s evidence against him, though, and he can’t conclusively prove his alibi. It doesn’t help matters that he is a ‘non-European.’ Deheba wants Guerrieri to represent Thiam. She has a compelling way about her, and Guerrieri agrees to at least meet with Thiam. Besides, if the man is innocent, he shouldn’t be imprisoned. Little by little, attorney and client get to know each other, and Guerrieri slowly finds out the truth of the matter. Deheba only plays a small role in the novel, but she has a presence, if I can put it like that, that adds to the story.
There are several interesting minor characters in Donna Morrissey’s The Fortunate Brother, which takes place in a small Newfoundland community. In that novel, Sylvanus and Addie Now and their son, Kyle, are coping with the death of their older son, Chris. He died three years earlier in an Alberta oil rig accident, and the family was devastated. They’re all slowly trying to get on with life when a local bully, Clar Gillard, is murdered. He was an abusive husband, and most people in town have been his victims at one point or another, so no-one will miss him. Little pieces of evidence suggest that the killer might be a member of the Now family. So, the police look carefully at each one of them, and that suspicion takes its toll on the family. Slowly, the police sift through the evidence and learn the truth about Gillard’s murder; and, just as slowly, the Now family begin the painful process of healing. Throughout the novel, there are various minor characters that give readers insight into the local culture and into the Now family. In one scene, for instance, Kyle goes to a nearby bar. He’s having a drink when several of his friends come in. There’s banter, conversation, and more. Those friends don’t play major roles in the story. But their personalities are interesting, and the interactions among them add to the story.
And that’s the thing about useful minor characters. When they’re well-drawn, they add insight and perspective. They can be interesting in their own right, too.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Peter Blegvad and Anthony Moore’s Blue Flower.