"Minor" characters

On DorothyL yesterday, a writer posted this comment:

The woman who came across as "flat, stale" is a side character.  Yes, one of the more important side characters, but still only that.  How much time should an author spend developing the minor characters in a story?

Here's my reply:

At the beginning, what struck me about Crais' work was his ability to make the clients real.  Sure, Elvis and Joe were good, engaging characters.  But what I remember most about THE MONKEY'S RAINCOAT is Ellen Lang, and Crais' portrait of a woman who's so dependent on her husband that she doesn't even know how to write a check.  This was the focus of my short essay on this book that's in 100 FAVORITE MYSTERIES OF THE CENTURY, but you could also say the same about Karen Shipley in LULLABY TOWN or the kids in INDIGO SLAM.

When Elvis is focused on his clients and their problems, I'd rank him among the great fictional private eyes of all time -- right at the apex of the "private eye as social worker" movement.  (I'm often asked which among the mystery booksellers associations 100 favorites are my personal favorites.  My answer is look at the book; I was assigning the essays, so there's a clue in which titles I wrote up myself.)

When Elvis is dealing with his own issues (girlfriend, etc.), he's a bore.

Minor characters?  No such thing!  Great fiction only works when every single character is a vividly portrayed individual.  One other example: take a look at S.J. Rozan, if you haven't already.  She's an extraordinarily talented writer who does everything right -- intricate plots, great wisecracks, pitch-perfect portrayal of the uneasy relationship between her two principle characters.  But what single things do I remember most about CONCOURSE?  It's Ida Goldstein at the piano and, late in the book, the girl and the kitten.  Small moments with characters most would describe as incidental, but these small moments make big impacts.  CONCOURSE is another one of my 100 favorites essays.

Not familiar with IMBA's 100 favorites list?  Visit your local IMBA store (find one at http://www.mysterybooksellers.com/), or you can order the book online at http://crumcreekpress.com/titles/100-favorite-mysteries-century.htm.