I often enjoy minor characters in literature, and as a writer I thoroughly enjoy creating minor characters. In literature minor characters play a variety of roles. One of their major roles, of course, is to help move the plot forward. If they weren’t there, then the major characters would have no interaction with anybody but themselves — which could become boring.
Another important role of minor characters is to help characterize the major characters — either in being like them, or in offering a different viewpoint or a different behavior. Minor characters often help us understand one of the major characters better. Minor characters are sort of like reflective screens: they help the light illuminate the major characters.
And in addition to aiding in plot advancement and character development, minor characters help develop a novel’s tone. By tone I mean the novel’s mood, the emotions it evokes, and the perspective it presents. A minor character who exists in a romance is going to be very different from a minor character who exists in a serious novel such as Paulette Jiles’ News of the World. In each genre, minor characters serve to reinforce the traditions of the genre and the expectations of the reader.
In She’s on First I created a lot of minor characters. This was necessary because the protagonist, Linda Sunshine, was a major league baseball player, and MLB teams have a roster of twenty-five players. In The F Words, I didn’t need as many minor characters, but I did need quite a few.
For starters, I needed Cole’s parents: Hank and Stacey. Then I needed Mrs. Green, owner of the greenhouse where Cole works. I needed fellow students of Cole’s. I needed the coach of the cross-country team. And I needed a neighbor or two: somebody who was part of the Committee to Save Public Education.
There are two kinds of minor characters: ones who have “major” roles in the book and are part of several scenes; and ones who don’t have major roles and may or may not be part of scenes. I really enjoyed creating and developing each of these many characters . . . but it would take me a long time to analyze each of them.
So, I’m going to look at four of the minor characters: Emerald Jackson; Nikki Zurlo; Coach; and Ethan. Nikki, Coach, and Ethan fall into the minor minor character roles. Emerald is a major minor character. I want to talk mostly about minor-minor characters to show that there should be a reason for every minor character you create, and that character should play some sort of role in helping develop plot, character, or tone.
Ethan — It’s not always necessary to give full names to minor characters, and Ethan is one of the other six runners on the high school cross-country team. None of them receive last names. It would be too cumbersome to do so: readers wouldn’t remember the characters’ full names.
On one of the bus rides to cross-country practice, Cole and Ethan talk about empathy. The reader sees empathy from Ethan’s perspective. Later, when Cole wants to invite friends to the pro-immigrant rally, he invites Ethan and reminds him: EMPATHY.
Ethan comes to Felipe’s party and he listens to Fatima and Hasna talk about how they carry extra hajibs because theirs are sometimes snatched off their heads by people who hate Muslims. Ethan is a fellow student who listens and absorbs what he’s seeing and hearing. I think he’s typical of many of the students at August Mersy High School. Mostly I think Ethan contributes to creating the tone of the book — ordinary people can be inquisitive, can think, can learn, can change.
Coach — When I was writing the book, I tried to come up with a name for Cole’s cross-country coach. Nothing seemed right. Then I thought, “Well, the runners are apt to call him just ‘Coach.’” And so I went with that.
The fact that he has neither a first nor a last name puts the emphasis on this character’s function. He trains young runners. He helps them improve their skills as well as their analytic abilities. And he especially helps them improve their thinking of their group as a team.
Coach challenges the runners to do more than they think they can. This is evident in the scene where he tells Ricardo and Cole to pass Palatine in the last half mile. He expects them to stay in the lead for that entire last half mile.
Coach also delivers ironic statements, though neither the Coach nor Cole nor the reader know they’re ironic at the time. An example is when he tells the team that winter runs are fun runs. For Cole, they turn out to be anything but fun runs.
And Coach is also an adult character who really cares about the students he’s entrusted to teach. He takes one look at Cole in the hallways in December and tells Cole to cut back on the running. Even though he has no idea why Cole is looking stressed, Coach does recognize the strain that Cole is under and wants him to not be under that strain.
Emerald Jackson — Though Cole is white and Emerald is Black, they are good enough friends that they exchange texts, and it’s Emerald that Cole turns to when his father’s visitation privileges are cut off. Cole respects Emerald because she’s very intelligent and widely read. Emerald in turn thinks highly enough of Cole to speak openly to him about matters such as Black people being political prisoners.
Emerald happens to be the nearby classmate who Cole, Felipe, and Treva start their photo campaign with. She grasps the situation instantaneously, grabs two fellow tenth graders, and — the campaign is off to a fun start. In fact, it’s Emerald who sets the tone for the campaign photos.
I think that Emerald’s main role is to set the tone for where the political struggle should be. She wears a Black Lives Matter button and goes to BLM demonstrations. She is on a higher plane of political understanding and commitment than are most of the students. But she’s also a member of her high school class and seems to be able to relate to everybody. Emerald is incredibly observant and can summarize a situation instantly and wittily.
When Mr. Nachman brings members of the English class to watch the cross-country meet, Emerald utters one of my favorite lines in the book. “She organized it. He was merely the chauffeur.” While I thought that was typical of Emerald’s wittiness, I didn’t realize, as I was writing it, that this statement is also full of foreshadowing. Only later did I see that.
Emerald’s role is a a bit like Treva’s: a fellow student who’s slightly ahead of others in her level of commitment and understanding. In this way she’s a contrast to Ethan.
Nikki Zurlo — Nikki is secretary to Ms. Delaney. She lives in Cole’s neighborhood and is friends with his parents because she, like them and like Mrs. Green and Mr. Cafasso, is a member of the Committee to Save Public Education. Her children go to Euclid Grade School.
That these three minor characters are members of the committee is something I think most readers won’t notice. But they are, and all three serve part of the same function — to show that ordinary people are affected by the school closings, and to show that ordinary people can (and do) think and act. They can be brave . . . thereby surprising those who think such people are forever subservient. Nikki’s function is to show the quiet heroism of common, working class people. She is an adult and she functions as an adult: she takes responsibility for her own actions and, most importantly, she does what Spike Lee urged us all to do — the right thing.
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