Let us now praise the innocent bystanders of fiction, for they play an invaluable role: they witness the narrative, and lend it a helping hand. Ever imagine yourself living in a fictional world‘s setting? You would most likely expect to be one of the main characters; at least, to interact with them… but one can interact with the pivotal characters, without being one. Try to picture what it might be like to be a walk-on character in a larger story… even a glorified extra, too, has an entire story of his or her own, as do we all.
Think about how that walk-on views the world. He or she “stars” in a story not being told in greater detail, at the moment we first encounter this specific, fictional world. So-called minor characters live entire lives that may happen to intersect just once with the lead figures, but that’s enough to acknowledge their contribution. (Richard Linklater‘s quirky comedy film Slacker employs an entire cast of walk-ons, to great effect.) The saloon keeper who knows something about cattle rustlers; the person who provides a lead to a detective working on a case; the below-decks crewman who lends the ship’s captain a helping hand; the folks in the bleachers who cheer at a game: they’ve got their own, huge stories, of which we may learn nothing in the story we’re experiencing.
We may think that the only character whose narrative matters is the main one, because that is the life-path upon which the story is focusing at the moment we are paying attention to it, but think about it: this person, too, has lived a number of years prior to entering this scene, which means a wealth of experiences informs that person’s own viewpoint. This means there may be no “unimportant” or “minor” characters; only characters possessing some degree of mystery. To be little more than a “glorified extra” in a larger narrative is something closer to common experience than being the central figure is, and while we all want to be the celebrated figure, each of us already plays such a role, even if unsung, somewhere off-stage.