This week I’m deviating a bit from my Year of Science Fiction list to read one of the newest Star Wars novels, Crucible by Troy Denning. I noticed something yesterday while I was reading. Spoiler alert. One of the characters, Senator Luewet Wuul, appears for a scene with Luke Skywalker and then is reportedly assassinated later. When this news arrived in the story, my immediate thought was, “Oh no, not Wuul!”
And then I sat back and thought: why do I care? I actually had a gut-wrenching reaction to this minor character’s death. This got my writer’s brain working to figure out how Denning and the other writers of the Expanded Universe got me to care so much about Wuul, and in turn to think about how we generally can make readers care about minor characters.
Based on my notes, I came up with a list of four essential methods to make readers care about a minor character:
1. Make Them Memorable: Though they’re not the focus of your story, minor characters should have depth if you want your readers to feel attached to them. Cardboard cut-outs are easily replaceable, but well-developed characters have an impact even if they only show up in a few scenes. Senator Wuul was such a round character because of his realistic combination of trained craftiness, pragmatism and a sense of honor. The goal with this kind of character, who appeared across several novels, is for just the mention of his name to make the reader think, “Ah, that wily old bastard.”
2. Make Them Likeable: The easiest way for readers to grow attached to any character is if they’re liked. There are a variety of archetypes for this – like Uncle Ben in Spider-Man or Charlie Francis in Fringe – that can be built on to make a character that readers adore, so that when that person is taken away, they’ll grieve with the characters that remain. For Wuul, he was the one person in the Senate that the Skywalkers and Solos could trust no matter what; his death is all the more poignant given that his loyalty is partly what gets him killed.
3. Make Them Important: If a character doesn’t matter to the plot, then their death is immaterial – so make it matter. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways. Perhaps a minor character’s death has a huge impact on the main protagonists, like the death of Sophia in The Walking Dead. Or their death is the event that sends the entire plot twisting in a different direction. Even if a minor character doesn’t show up very often, they can still be integral to the plot. In the case of Wuul, the Solos are counting on his backing to stand up to Crucible’s main antagonists, and with his death that’s no longer an option.
4. Make Them Seem Invincible: The thing that probably got me the most about Wuul’s death is that I didn’t see it coming. In a previous scene, the senator went to incredible lengths to ensure that his meeting with Luke Skywalker was kept secret, and he had already survived a variety of other threats in his long life, including a civil war and an apocalypse. Having lived through all of that, it seems impossible for such a character to die by any means. This is the moment when you pull the rug out from under the reader and remind them that no character is immortal.
Remember: minor characters are not just there for scenery. Make them as vibrant and integral as your main characters, and they become useful aspects of your overall story.