The stories you write undoubtedly have casts of varying numbers, descriptions and personalities. And while every character in your manuscript works together to tell your story, they each perform a different function depending on the roles you assign them.
In fiction there are four tiers of characters. These are:
• Primary Characters
• Secondary Characters
• Bit Players
Let’s look at each tier in more detail.
Primary Characters are those characters who carry the most weight in your story and are its focus and drivers. They must be fully rounded, with a distinct style and voice, and with well delineated goals and motivations. These are the characters your readers will invest in as they follow the thread of your story.
There are three types of Primary Characters:
• Main Character - the character through whom the reader experiences the story.
• Protagonist - the principal focus and force behind the effort to achieve the story's goal.
• Antagonist - the character whose main drive is to undermine the protagonist or stop him from achieving his goal.
NOTE: Your story will not always have all three types present. In many cases the Main Character is combined with the Protagonist or Antagonist. An example of where they are not the same can be found in the Sherlock Holmes stories. We see most of the action unfold through Dr. Watson’s eyes, making him the Main Character, while Sherlock Holmes himself is obviously the Protagonist.
Next, let’s take a look at Secondary Characters. These characters carry slightly less story weight than your Primary Characters, but are still well rounded and crucial to the arc of your story. They are important, but the key thing to remember is that their importance stems entirely from their relation to the Primary Characters. Secondary Characters, by definition, are those characters who stand beside or against your Primary Characters, who highlight their flaws and virtues, and who provide the reader with an additional perspective as the Primary Characters struggle to meet their story goal. You should give Secondary Characters only enough history and depth to equal their weight and importance to the story.
Some of the many roles a Secondary Character might perform are:
• Catalyst - spurs one or more of your primary characters to act
• Mentor - gives your primary character the tools they need to undertake the journey toward their goal.
• Informant - has information or insight about the backstory or motivations of another character and shares this insight with the protagonist and/or the reader.
• Confidant - a sounding board for a primary character.
• Foil - provides a contrast to a primary character, highlighting various facets of that primary character's personality or worldview.
• Expendable Victim - a character who is soundly defeated in some way - physically, financially, morally - during the course of the story. It serves to bring home to the reader how vulnerable the protagonist is to the same fate.
• Competitor - vies for the same goal as your protagonist - a job, a love interest, an award, etc.
• Obstacle - stands in the way of your primary character achieving his goal, whether deliberately or otherwise.
There are other roles these characters can play, but these are the main ones.
Next up are your Bit Players. These are characters who carry much less story weight than primary or secondary characters. You might give them a physical characteristic or two and may or may not name them, but they are usually defined primarily by context. These are the clerks, teachers, waiters, neighbors, etc. who have a brief moment in the spotlight via a bit of dialog or action, but who are there merely to move the story along in some way.
With bit players you have more leeway to paint with a broad brush, to make the characterization less subtle. It’s not necessary or even desirable to tell the reader much about them - that would only bog down the story and dilute focus from your main thread. You want to sprinkle in only enough information to make their actions believable, and this can normally be provided by context or station.
Now for the fourth tier of characters - the Extras. These are the nameless throngs who are almost invisible except as props. Because your other characters don’t normally walk around in an empty world, you must people it with the multitude of everyday folk who make their world believable and give it context. These could be people passing by on a crowded street, other motorists in a traffic snarl, fans seated in the bleachers at a game or the throngs of soldiers in a battle. These are not characters your reader will pay much attention to as individuals - like furniture and scenery, they exist only to add verisimilitude and detail to your story world, and to provide a backdrop against which your other characters live out the story.
Using Your Characters Effectively
Now that you know how to differentiate the tiers of characters, here are a few guidelines to keep in mind when you are casting your story.
1. Make certain each character serves a story purpose. Characters should not merely exist to pad your pages or because you thought it would be fun to throw in a bit of comic relief or a moment of poignancy. Before adding any character, you need to think about his reason for being there. Be ruthless about this. If you can’t articulate the ‘why’ of having a particular character in your story - and do it in terms of story purpose - give him the ax.
2. Don’t use two characters where one will serve. If you have a secondary character or bit player who serves your story in only a minor way, take a hard look at whether that function can be passed off to another, more essential character. Streamlining your cast can strengthen the focus and impact of your story.
3. Provide goals and motivation for your characters that are equal to the weight they carry in the story. This allows your reader to understand enough about what makes your characters act as they do while allowing her to not be distracted by extraneous information that doesn’t further your plot.
4. Which brings us to the key takeaway from this article - Be certain your spotlight remains firmly fixed on your primary characters and their story journey. Secondary story lines are fine, but again, they should exist to highlight some aspect of the primary characters and their pursuit of their goals, not usurp center stage. The primary characters should maintain the reader attention, command the majority of those memorable, exciting/ intriguing/ heart-rending scenes, and own all of the key plot elements, motivations and goals.
In the end, your characters are most effective and engaging to the reader when you cast them thoughtfully and with an understanding of the needs of your plot.
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