People Who Don’t Matter: My Weird Love for Minor Characters

terrified red haired goblin at Gringotts in Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows 2
One of my favorite all time characters, the one and only Terrified Red-Haired Goblin at Gringotts

As a word nerd, writer, and obsessive reader, I have long since discovered something about myself: I have a slightly odd tendency to obsess over minor characters in stories—both mine and other people’s.

Here’s a great example: the Terrified Red-Haired Goblin who is shown for exactly two seconds in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 during the protagonists’ escape from Gringotts.  (I just realized that I’ve gone over a year on this blog without more than the merest mention of HP.  This is…unacceptable.)  He is unnamed, probably unlisted in the credits, and has no bearing on anything.  But he stands out in the scene because he looks convincingly terrified.  I’ve always loved him, I thought he was one of the coolest characters in the whole story (or, at least, he makes Top 50).  I never knew why, just sort of laughed at it and listed it under “Cara’s Quirks” (a rather extensive list, actually).

I also always loved Dean Thomas.  Like, “Hey, if Ginny doesn’t want him, he’s all mine.”  Seamus Finnegan has a great name, but I couldn’t ever quite forgive him after Order of the Phoenix (book—I don’t remember much about the movie, except that the plot, like all the other movies except Deathly Hallows 2, was lacking rather severely).  Angelina Johnson rocks.

There are more.  Lots more.  Not just in Harry Potter either.  I can’t think of any right now.

In Novel #2, when I was drafting it for the first time, I made up a name on the spot in the last chapter as a place filler.  Instantly, I just had to create the character’s entire life story, and I ended up loving him so much that I had to give him a larger role in the second or third draft (I’ve lost track of what happened in what draft).  Recently, in rewriting, I expanded one pre-existing character and created another three, and I love them all to death, even though only two will ever have any “screen time” and then only briefly.

The thing about the minor characters is that they don’t technically matter to the story, so it should be weird to get so attached to them.  But when I do, I view that as the sign of a really great story: the author took the time to develop every character individually enough that their personalities and identities show through for the three sentences that they’re mentioned.

Minor characters actually are important, though most would never think to say it.  Sure, the Terrified Red-Haired Goblin doesn’t add much to the plot, but the people filming it decided to zoom in on his face for two seconds, and there was a reason for that: Showing a single individual in a situation makes the situation more relatable.  Most of us haven’t seen a blind dragon burst through the floor, but showing the pure terror of one person (or, you know, goblin) makes us able to relate to the feeling, and then, indirectly, to the situation.

Minor characters add to the story by creating depth in the world-building and by giving the reader opportunities to relate better.

And, you know, they’re awesome.

In loving memory of the Terrified Red-Haired Goblin—

Cara Kennaway

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5 thoughts on “People Who Don’t Matter: My Weird Love for Minor Characters

  1. I think it’s good to remember the importance of minor characters. Because you’re right; they serve a purpose. The protagonists and antagonists are never the only actors in a story, and those seemingly throwaway lines of text or quick zoom-ins remind the audience of that.

    My obsession is more with secondary characters – you know, the best friends, the sidekicks, that random sweet guy I totally ship the main character with until her actual love interest comes along and I’m all disappointed, etc. ‘Course, that can get really annoying if I’m reading a book with a deeply boring hero and thoroughly awesome side characters (which happens with unfortunate frequency), so that every time one of said side characters is in a scene I find myself asking, “Why couldn’t the book have been about *this* guy?”.

    But now I’m rambling.

    Anyway, great post! And long live the redshirts!

    1. Thank you for your support of my weirdness, Pearl! I appreciate it.

      I can’t say as I’ve ever read a book with secondary (or even tertiary or background characters) who were cooler than the main character. As cool, usually, and then I begin fervently hoping for a sequel about said secondary/tertiary/background character, and then never get it. The only time I can think of that there was a secondary character about whom a sequel was written was the Books of Bayern series. Unfortunately, I thought Enna was much better as a secondary character than a main character, and would have been thrilled to see sequels actually about Ani instead (what did you think of The Goose Girl, by the way?).

      That said, I am conspiring to convince J.K. Rowling to write a side-series about the goblins, and maybe a Beginners’ Guide to Gobbledegook. It’s gonna happen. Totally. :-D

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