Minor characters serve an important role in literature. Frequently, it’s the minor characters in novels that the reader will connect with and especially enjoy, even more than the protagonist. Mansfield Park’s deliciously manipulative Mary Crawford is infinitely more intriguing than the painfully good Fanny Price. J.K. Rowling has created a small army of wonderful minor characters in the Harry Potter books, from the inspiring Sirius Black to the downright infuriating Dolores Umbridge.
Sometimes the minor characters are so fascinating that they take on lives of their own. Playwright Tom Stoppard was so intrigued by the two-facedness of Hamlet’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he made them the stars of their own play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Though very minor characters in Hamlet, they’re the protagonists in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (as the title would suggest), with the “stars” of Hamlet appearing rather infrequently, almost as an afterthought.
There’s just about no better compliment that can be paid to a minor literary character than to make him the star of his own story. Just as Tom Stoppard decided to devote more time and energy to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Gregory Maguire set out to tell the “true” story of the Wicked Witch of the West when he wrote his novel Wicked. Though she’s a villain and a minor character in The Wizard of Oz, Maguire reimagines her as simply misunderstood. What’s interesting about Wicked is that it’s currently a musical that was inspired by a novel which was inspired by a movie that was inspired by a book. All that’s missing is a television show, and considering how successful Wicked has been on Broadway, it’s highly likely that one is already in the works.
Even when the minor characters don’t inspire a whole new work of literature, they can still be incredibly powerful. It’s hard to imagine a minor character as interesting as Boo Radley from To Kill a Mockingbird. Boo is fascinating not only to the reader, but to the major characters of the novel. Jem and Scout Finch spend a good portion of the book speculating about his history, personality, and current whereabouts. Though he doesn’t appear in the novel until almost the very end, Jem and Scout’s speculation about him is almost a character unto itself.
Minor characters can also serve very important functions in the plot of a literary work. The three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth are crucial to just about everything that happens in the play. By prophesying that Macbeth will someday rule Scotland, they set all of the play’s events in motion. In a kind of reverse-Oedipus move, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth learn of the prophecy, delight in it, and do everything they can to make it come true.
In addition to inspiring the action of the play, the witches (sometimes known as the Weird Sisters) are delightful characters in their own right. They’re the ones responsible for some of the most famous Macbeth quotes (“double, double, toil and trouble” and “something wicked this way comes”), and provide some much needed comic relief in what is otherwise a very dense play.