World-building is as much about people and cultures as it is about geography and magic. Minor characters are like mannequins that you can dress up in your world’s minutiae. Their attire, their mannerisms, their occupation: all can attest to elements unique to your world. You can also use them as a mirror held up to your protagonist. How they interact with the minor characters tells you a lot about their personality, their beliefs, their prejudices.
I’ll outline fifty different minor characters you can use to make a world seem filled with people. Here are the first 10.
50 – Stable Boy
His job is tending horses, from saddling them for riding to mucking out their stalls. There are lower spots in society, but on a daily basis, this is about the lowest that someone of the upper class is likely to interact with. How a protagonist treats one can say a lot about their thoughts on equality, courtesy, and plain old humanity.
49 – Librarian
The existence of a librarian says something about the world. It tells you that learning is gathered, and there is at least some small group devoted to curating knowledge. A librarian can also be a useful means to pass knowledge to both the protagonist and the reader.
48 – Ship Captain
Whether it be a galleon or a starship, if a story spans vast distances, the protagonist is going to travel. The purveyor of that travel doesn’t have to make an appearance, but it gives ample opportunity to give geography lessons if you do. A ship’s captain can also be a source of minor conflicts, since the captain’s goal may diverge from the protagonist’s once things get dangerous. (Please don’t tell me you put people on a ship for an extended period with no conflict!)
47 – Street Urchin
This is about the bottom rung of society, along with penniless drunkards and madmen (most, but not all, fantasy worlds have little in the way of mental health care). The urchin can be a source of pity, of a “pet the dog” moment for rotten character, or of information. Urchins learn a lot by being around a wide variety of people, often while being totally ignored.
46 – Traveling Merchant
To a traveling hero, a merchant met on the road can be a respite, a danger, or an opportunity to find out about the wider world. Traveling merchants make their money in the cracks between cultures. They know who values something and who produces more of it than they can use. Their presence in a story gives an indication of the state of geopolitical relations in the world, and can serve to introduce bit and pieces of a variety of cultures. They can be excused for having almost anything, from illicit trade goods, to weapons, to slaves, depending on the world.
45 – Gate Guard
“Halt, who goes there?” Well, if that’s all you need one for, you can probably gloss over the gate guards. But if your protagonists stops to chat (or is stopped and interrogated) you open up a number of options. The gate guard knows the comings and goings of the city/castle/estate, the local gossip, and just about everything about the locale they guard. They’re not the ideal vehicles for conveying concepts of the world at large, but they are good tone-setters for the local scene.
44 – Barfly
Taverns are a fantasy staple/trope. They are meeting places, crossroads, and hangouts for folk at various points along the social spectrum. The barfly isn’t your protagonist’s secret contact or some nefarious agent. The barfly spends all day drinking. They know the bar inside and out, are on a first-name basis with all the regulars, and hear a lot more about what’s going on that anyone assumes. They may take payment for that information, often at the low cost of another round of drinks.
43 – Messenger
Messengers are most often a passing breeze through the narrative. They come, they deliver news to the protagonist, and they disappear. What they do with that message can be more than a simple reading or the handing over of a piece of paper. You can have the messenger add an opinion, mention wider news, or give a warning of things that might be coming the protagonist’s way.
42 – The Protagonist’s Parents
If your protagonist is an orphan, feel free to skip this one. But you can never be a prophet in your own land, and much the same holds true for never being the hero of your own family. While your protagonist has gone off to change the world, make their fortune, or just shake the dust of the fields off their boots, the parents they left behind still sees the child they raised. This is great for introducing a bit of background for the protagonist, as Ma and Pa embarrass them with reminders of an inglorious youth.
41 – Bard / Singer
There once was a bard with a song
Who wanted to come tag along
He tells all your tales
And the crowd he regales
With stories of right against wrong
You don’t need any talent with song or poetry to include a character who does. This is a one-singer toolbox filled with world-building potential. A traveling troubadour can have stories and songs collected from across the world. Not only are they willing to tell those tales, but it might be a challenge to stop them telling you all about their travels and adventures. This can be used to ram a square peg of world-building trivia into a not-quite-square hole, as the irrepressible songster blathers on about their worldly knowledge.