You’ve got your heroes and your villains. You’ve even got a sidekick. But who inhabits the rest of the world?
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.
Here are the next 10 minor character archetypes.
10 – Custodian of an Heirloom
There are three ways to use this character:
At the beginning of a story, to give your protagonist the hook that sets off the adventure.
In the middle of a story, to give something that your protagonist needs
At the end of a story, to bestow a reward.
In any case, the custodian of an heirloom should explain enough of what they know for the protagonist to get the appropriate use from the object, and no more. Leaving a little mystery is good.
9 – Retired Hero
The retired hero makes for a great mentor for the protagonist. He’s walked their path, if not exactly, then close enough for the protagonist to relate. The retired hero probably has a lot more practical advice than most other minor characters, though it can be fun for the protagonist not to follow it.
8 – Investigator
You can make this character work as an ally, but they’re better suited to an adversarial role. Protagonists have a nasty habit of not following the rules. Whether well-intended or just reckless, it doesn’t matter to the investigator. They are going to piece together the protagonist’s misdeeds and put an end to them. This is a good characters for stories with themes of social justice and dystopian societies. The investigator can be a means to convey all that is wrong with the accepted norms of that society.
7 – Bully
The bully is a goad, jabbing at an unformed hero while they are still weak. Whether physically or emotionally, the bully will inflict any pain they can manage on your protagonist. The motivation can be complex, or as simple as the protagonist being an easy target; it doesn’t matter. You can weave in subtle bits of back story through the bully’s taunts, disparaging the protagonist’s family, nationality, or physical traits – things that polite characters might not mention and which otherwise not fit smoothly into the narrative.
6 – Treasure Hunter
Treasure hunters tend to be larger than life figures who live on the outskirts of polite society. If they were respectable, they’d be collectors or archaeologists. If they were nefarious, they’d be hard pressed to gain the social connections to both find out about lost treasures or sell them once found. The treasure hunter is 50% braggart, 40% adventurer, 30% con artist. A treasure hunter can be the engine that drives a whole story. They make a great companion (though watch out that they don’t steal too many scenes), or a wonderful competitor.
(I’m aware of the math used above; 100% isn’t sufficient to contain the larger-than-life personality of a treasure hunter)
5 – (Former) Enemy Prisoner
The enemy prisoner was once held captive by whoever opposes your protagonist. They might have been captured in battle, kidnapped, or thrown in chains over political differences – whatever works best in your story. The important things to remember are bitterness toward their former captors and an inside knowledge from a unique perspective. How your protagonist receives the former prisoner’s aid is up to you. It might cost money, an opportunity for vengeance, or simply be repayment for enacting their escape (assuming the protagonist was involved, on-camera or not).
Elaborate, vindictive, cold-blooded plots for vengeance can make for compelling minor characters. Consider what a former prisoner might be willing to do to achieve such a goal, and how it might fit into your own plans for your protagonist. It’s quite possible for them to work together but have entirely incompatible end goals (which the former prisoner may pick up on and fail to mention to your protagonist until it’s conveniently too late).
4 – Farmer
The “farmboy that saves the world” didn’t grow on a tree somewhere. There was a farmer at some point that raised him (or her). The farmer is the stand-in for all the common, easily oppressed people in a feudal society. Their connection to the land makes them reluctant to uproot their lives when war or calamity strike. Thus, they suffer along with the the fate of kingdoms, riding good times and bad. How they are treated by the upper classes and their own outlooks on life give you a window into how the less privileged fare in your world. A king takes from his nobles, the nobles from the merchant class, and the merchants from the farmers. The farmers have only the land for recourse, and they already take what they can. Any widespread suffering in your world will be felt most keenly by the farmers.
3 – Smuggler
A criminal by definition, smugglers circumvent trade laws and make a profit in the margins between (legal) supply and demand. Whether they simply seek to import goods without paying tariffs or they traffic in contraband, the motive is always money. The smuggler knows a great many people, and is known by a relative few. Smugglers operate as low-key a business as they can, but to keep out from under the scrutiny of authorities, they have to know a great deal about how the world (or at least their corner of it) works. They can either be a great source of information or goods for the protagonist, or even light the spark that sets off a story. Living so close to trouble, the smuggler can get the protagonist into or out of messy situations without much difficulty.
2 – Prophet/Seer
Visions of the future are always tricky, both for the writer and the characters in the story. How much is real? How much is guesswork? Are they gifted by the gods or just cheap charlatans. A good story can keep a prophetic plot going while juggling these questions along. Answer them too easily, and you can slip into cliche. It’s generally best to keep the prophet’s appearance in the narrative brief. Their words can live on in the story, but constantly hearing about the future or being badgered about visions will get tiring to read about, and a lack of consultation with someone who can (or claims to) see the future will make your characters seem like idiots.
Warning: While you can have a protagonist fit this description, you are way into “overplayed trope” territory. You’d best have a fresh spin on things to avoid being the subject of eye-rolling by readers.
1 – Tavernkeeper
Oh tavernkeeper, what would we ever do without you? You live at the nexus of adventure, or perhaps the genesis of it. A dozen shady deals a day take place beneath your nose. You’ve handed ales to knights and brigands. You’ve witnessed more brawls than a gladiator trainer. You’ve been threatened, bribed, cheated, and bargained with. You know more tales than any bard, though you may not have the talent for recounting them. You preside over the roughest, most drunken segment of society, all armed with little more than a bar towel (ok, and maybe a crossbow hidden away under the bar). You could have been anything before settling into a live of pouring drinks.
As a writer, especially of fantasy, the tavernkeeper never gets old or stale. They are marginally respectable as a cornerstone of a local business, but thoroughly disreputable by demeanor. You can conceal nearly any back story in a tavernkeeper’s past, or simply use them as a fixture in a tavern. They can be excused for knowing nearly anything; even if lords and ladies don’t drink in their establishment, their servants surely do. Rumors and gossip flow through taverns like canals cut for just that purpose. Had such places as taverns never existed, writers surely would have had to create them.