Developing Minor Characters

This is a continuation of my previous blog describing the process by which I’m writing the novel currently in progress. I talked about stopping the actual writing to develop characters who are important but not principal characters. The principals I know well, since I have used them in previous novels. But there are a number of characters new to this novel, and some of them are of sufficient importance to the plot to require a good bit of development of background;physical, mental, and emotional characteristics; hopes and aspirations; fears snd dislikes; idiosyncracies, etc.

I haven’t had the time I’d like to have for this development because of the need to spend a good bit of time promoting my new novel, Seduction of the Scepter. But I’ve been doing what I can. Here’s what that involves: First, writing a paragraph or two about each character, giving that character’s gender, age, marital status, family life, and, especially, what magical gifts he or she possesses.

When writing a fantasy involving the use of magical powers, the writer needs to develop carefully the system of magic: where it comes from, how it works, how it affects the users. I’ve already done that in the other books in the series, so, again, that is not something I need to spend time on now. But for the readers of this blog I will explain that for reasons that will become clear when Mistress of the Wind is published, magical gifts were for a long time restricted to a small, isolated area of the large country of Arucadi. In Bringers of Magic, the novel which will follow Mistress of the Wind, Kyla and Marta go into the larger land to spread the gift of magic through the country. In the novel I’m writing now, A Mix of Magics, Kyla has settled in the large coastal city of Port-of-Lords and has established there a Community of the Gifted. These magical gifts come to receptive individuals channeled through the Power-Giver, but originate with Dire Lords, powerful beings who live on another plane of existence and who, for the most part, have little or no interest in human affairs. However, two or three of the Dire Lords, for good or ill, have taken an interest in humans and have for various reasons given magical powers to some. These powers are varied and there are limitations on their use. They do not make the gifted person all-powerful by any means. And extensive use of the power or powers leaves the gifted person weak, physically drained, needing rest, food, and time to recover before being able to use the power(s) again. Some gifted have several magical abilities, others only one or two.

So the first thing I have done is to list the members of the Gifted Community and decide what powers each has and how proficient they are in the use of those powers, since training is necessary to use the powers well.

At this point I know that some of the Gifted will be much more important than others, but that aspect is still a work in progress. It may turn out that someone I think unimportant will turn out to have a much greater importance than I anticipate and another may have much less. So I want to do background on all of them. In addition to Kyla and her young ward Veronica, and not including Marta and Ed, there are 13 members of the Community. I have the initial paragraphs written about each one. Now I’m in the process of  working out  background information, most of which will probably not actually get into the novel, but which I need to know to determine their behavior in the novel. I’m looking at their family background, who their parents are and whether their parents are still living and what their relationship is with the parents, siblings, and other family members. Are they married? Have children? What is their educational background? What work do they do? How do they like their work? How do they relate to their coworkers? What is their economic situation? What kind of clothes do they wear? Are they vain? humble? shy? bold? boastful? How do others react to their magical talents, or do they keep those talents hidden from their associates? How comfortable are they about being members of the Gifted Community? What conflicts arise in their lives because of this?

And then there are physical characteristics: What do they look like? I sometimes try to find photos in magazines and newspapers of someone who looks like what I imagine my character to look like. I cut these out and either scan them into my character file or paste them into a notebook that I can refer to in describing my character. What physical limitations or special abilities (athletic prowess, strength) does he or she have? What are their tastes in food, music, literature, sports and other leisure activities? What nonmagical talents do they have?

For some examples: one character is a 33-year-old cripple who gets around on a wheeled board, having lost both legs in a tragic childhood accident. He is not bitter about this but is happy to be alive and believes his magical gifts are compensation for his physical handicap. Another is, at 29 years of age, a noted singer. Still another is a wealthy merchant, while one woman is a poor woman who lives by telling fortunes.  That’s not all I need to know about them, but it’s a starting place.

That’s enough to give you the picture. I still have much work to do on the backgrounds of all of them. But I have enough to continue the actual writing, filling in more details as it becomes necessary–and it will. The more I know about each character, the clearer it will become to me how that particular character’s use or misuse of his magical gifts will affect the plot and, whether well-meaning or not, will contribute to the confusion caused by the “mix of magics.”

I believe this type of background development is vital to writing a novel in any genre, not just fantasy or science fiction. Your characters must be believable, and they will be if you take the time to work out details such as these that I’ve mentioned, and others as well, so that the character becomes a three-dimensional person, not a caricature.



About E. Rose Sabin

Fantasy and science fiction author.
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