Saturday, July 16, 2011


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
• Extras

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.
Winnie's website:
Winnie is a regular on Petticoats and Pistols:



  1. The coffee bar is ready.

    Lot of food for thought here. Thanks.


  2. Hi Winnie:

    I agree with this 100%.

    Plot the story, assume you have to pay your characters (so you won’t have more than you need just like a TV show with a budget), and then hire the characters (actors) who best fulfill the needs of the story.

    But…I think all this assumes you are a plotter. If you are a true pantser, you may not even know which characters will eventually be more important than the others. Are you a plotter?

    BTW: you seemed to have an exceptionally large cast of characters in your contemporary romance, “The Heart’s Song” which I just loved. I’m reading “Second Chance Family” now and it does not seem to have as many characters. (I’m only on Chapter 4 so there may be many more to come.) Was “The Heart’s Song” atypical for its many characters.

    Is the editor after you to write another contemporary?


  3. Wow, Winnie, this is an exceptionally helpful post.

    You are not only a lovely writer but a gifted teacher as well.

    And your new release cover is beautiful.

  4. What a very informative post. Thank you. I always enjoy stopping by as I feel like I learn something every time I visit.

    Have a blessed day!

    Smiles & Blessings,
    Cindy W.


  5. Good morning, Winnie! Welcome to Seekerville! Excellent breakdown on the types of characters and their purposes in story evolution. Excellent point as well, to try to let characters do "double duty" where feasible.

  6. Oh, love the cover. It's so pretty. I really enjoy reading all the Love Inspired books. Would love to read this one.

    Helen, I'm headed for the coffee bar!


  7. Good morning everyone - so glad to be here. I always have a lovely time when I drop in at Seekerville. Let me just grab a cup of cocoa while I read over your posts...

  8. Stacey and Helen, so glad you enjoyed the post.

    Vince, I'm a high-level plotter. I work out my basic story line and character arc, but not all the scenes that will go into it. And yes, The Heart's Song had a larger cast than I usually use, primarily because it was dealing with the formation f a handbell choir and I had to give each member of the choir a distinct personality and backstory. That book was actually a lot of fun to write as I love Secondary Characters

  9. Winnie - I sure love the cover of your Second Chance Family!

    Do you find any particular challenges in developing characters for an historical novel versus a contemporary?

  10. Hi Winnie:

    You wrote:

    “I'm a high-level plotter. I work out my basic story line and character arc, but not all the scenes that will go into it.”

    I think I’m in love! : )


  11. Hi Winnie,

    Thanks so much for your post! This one is definitely a "print and keep". And you used "verisimilitude"! Thank you! Your entire post spoke to my English-major's heart.

    Your comments on the secondary characters - "the key thing to remember is that their importance stems entirely from their relation to the Primary Characters" - started me thinking about my own secondary characters. I'll have to take some time to reevaluate each one.

  12. This is the exact kind of information I need as a beginner novelist. Thank you so much for sharing your experience and knowledge with us.

    Pass the coffee and put me in for the 5 page critique, please.

  13. hi everyone! barely awake here!
    I've read several of your books - someone recommended Christmas Journey and Hand Me Down FAmily on another forum and I decided to try them(in spite of them being historical which I dont' usually read a lot!) I enjoyed them - I did get a bit ticked at the hero near the end of Christmas Journey though - I didn't like that he let a kid's choice take precedence over the woman he wanted to marry - it's like her wants were once again shoved to the bottom of the heat for the 'better good'. now it did end ok but I felt sorry for the heroine big-time. My mom read it and I was asking her 'bout it and she just shrugged and sorta smiled and said 'ain't that the way it usually is?' sigh..good thing I'm single sometimes! :-)
    I enjoyed the handbell choir as well - I think those are the only 3 I've read- of course I loved the hand me down family story - and I want that house on the cover!!


  14. Today's post shows me another reason or two why I don't write books! I'm a reader, not a writer!

    Thanks for sharing the awesome tips. Amazing detail....

  15. Tina - you're way too kind.

    Cindy - glad you were able to take something from the post

    Glynna - that 'double duty' thing is something I struggle with. I just love secondary characters and sometimes get carried away :)

  16. Patsy - I know. Love Inspired always does such a great job on the covers for their books.

    Rose - thanks for stopping by.

  17. Glynna - that's an interesting question. It's actually easier for me to do historical characters than contemporary. I guess it's because of the kind of story I gravitate toward, stories where the heroines don't have all the freedoms and choices that the modern woman does.

  18. Winnie,

    This is a great post, and a definite keeper. It's probably one of the best lessons is characters I've read. Thank you.

    And the cover for your new book is gorgeous!


  19. Winnie -- you're so right about few social "restrictions" in contemporary stories.

    I find, too, that today's technology (like cell phones) sometimes makes it hard to put in uncertainty, suspense or a disruption of communication in relationships because everyone walks around constantly in contact. The ability to test DNA and analyze all sorts of other "CSI" type things also can limit a contemporary author from certain story lines that the historical writer isn't confined by.

  20. Vince LOL What can I say - Pantser, plotter - why chose when you can do a little of both

  21. Jan - You're welcome! And versimilitude is such a lovely word isn't it.

    And yes, it's easy to get caught up in fun secondary characters and let them steal the show. The best way to handle it is to remember that little 'rule' that not only their importance but their entire story function does stem entirely from their relation to the Primary Characters

  22. Jan C. I'm so glad you were able to extract some value from the post. Best of luck with your writing endeavors.

    Anonymous - thanks so much for taking the time to pick up my books and read them. Sorry you were disappointed by the actions of my hero Ry, but I hope you understood his underlying motivations.

  23. Winnie, I understand his motivations but doesn't mean I didn't wanna slap him LOL! ;-)

    are you doing any more contemporaries?


  24. Great information, Winnie! Now I have to go back and examine each secondary character and their role!

    I'm like you - sometimes I love the secondary characters more than the main ones!

    Thanks for sharing and I'd love the chance to win your book. I haven't had the pleasure of reading your work yet.

    It's my son's birthday today, but we have a family 'do' to attend, so we'll be celebrating tomorrow.

    Have a great weekend, everyone!

    sbmason at sympatico dot ca

  25. Great information Winnie. I purchased your book yesterday at Wal-Mart. :)

    Jodie Wolfe

  26. "I'm a high-level plotter. I work out my basic story line and character arc, but not all the scenes that will go into it."

    So tell us a little more about this high level plotting of yours. What sort of tools and toys do you use?

  27. Speaking of plotting ..don't forget Seekerville. We are also drawing for a five page critique as well as Winnie's latest Love Inspired Historical release.

  28. Laney4 - Don't apologize for being a reader rather than a writer - readers are among my FAVORITE people!

    Kirsten - Thank you so much for those verry kind words

  29. Glynna - You're oh so right about modern technology making things difficult for the writer, especially when ot comes to trying to isolate your characters. Makes a writer have to be extra-creative!

  30. Susan - Glad you enjoyed the post, and wish your son a happy birthday from me!

    Jodie - Bless you! Thanks so much for purchasing my book - hope you enjoy!

  31. Tina - Ah, you give me to much credit by assuming I have a coherent process :)

    One of the 'tools' I use, though, is a backstory tracker I developed to help me capture and track all those little tidbits that my character encountered during thier lifetime - family, peer, spiritual, societal, etc.

    Once I have a firm handle on all of this info I compare the notes for my two protagonists and see what will cause conflicts between them and what aspects will attract them.

    Then I figure out where my character is emotionally in the 'here' of the story opening and how he/she must change by the end.

    Once all that is done, I figure out my opening and ending scenes and maybe a few key 'turning point' scenes along the way.

    That's the point where I dive in and actually start writing :)

    LOL - I didn't mean to go on for so long - you're probably sorry you asked.

  32. Are you kidding? Not at all. That's is very helpful and interesting. And a very organic approach.

    Thank you.

    And this is Seekerville, you didn't go on and on. Trust me we have on and on records set here daily! HA!!

  33. What a fantabulous post. SO needed this one, as I'm working on character sheets and plotting and stuff. I KNOW I've got some characters that need the axe.

    Thanks so much, Winnie!

  34. Oh and feel free to share more about your back story tracker.

    (crossing fingers you will share more)

  35. Anonymous - LOL I think all our heros need a little slap occassionally. And yes, I'm working on a proposal for a contemporary to turn into my editor as we speak (or rather type )

    Joanne, yu're quite welcome! And good luck with your WIP

  36. Tina - my backstory tracker is really just a simple excel spreadsheet that I've customized to meet my needs. But it's been an invaluable assist to me in my writing since I really need to know ALL about my characters before I feel ready to tell their story.

    Hmmm - Maybe I can come back for a visit here again soon and do a full post on what it looks like and how I use it...

  37. Thanks for the post, Winnie! It really helped me think about my characters. One thing I've struggled with is resolution. Is it necessary for the primary and secondary characters to have resolution in a story? One of my characters plays a strong secondary part, but towards the end of the story the primary characters' conflict kind of takes over and my secondary character kind of drifted off. I guess I need to fix that. :) I'd love to be entered into the drawing!

  38. Thank you for the chance to win this. This looks like a great book. I would love to read this. Thanks again.


  39. Winnie, I have to remind myself (think baseball bat to the head) of that takeaway regularly.

    Thank you for saying it so well!




    We pantsers have our place, too.

    And you're married. AND YOUR WIFE LIKES MY COOKIES.

    'Sall I'm sayin', my friend!


    So there.

    And I bought out the Winnie Griggs section of my local Wal-Mart for future Seekerville giveaways because I love visits from "the Winn-ster"...

    But I did hear/read/see her use the word "spreadsheet"...

    Oh my stars. Those little cells/boxes give me agita just thinking about them. Seriously, girls, isn't it just way easier to write the story THREE OR FOUR TIMES than to plot it????



  41. Italian for heart palpitations because we get so agitated!

    It's even worse if an Irish girls says it because we're just ... weird. Out there. Dorky.

    Winnie, I love your work, the strength and depth you bring to characters. They come alive on the page. Is that just the creative brain, or is that the result of character planning/plotting?

    Whatever it is, it works beautifully.

  42. Winnie,

    Were you an Enlish teacher in your former life? Excellent lesson on characters! I'm saving this one! Thanks!

    And please come back with your spreadsheet. Not sure if I'd get "agita" like Ruthy...

  43. Stacey - Thanks! As for the necessity for your characters to have resolution, normally that is the case, and it is the kind of story I find most satisfying. There are examples of stories that don't, especially those that are part of a series, but they always seem somehow unfinished to me.

    Rebecca - thanks for stopping by!

  44. Ruth - some of my best friends are pantsers, I've even got a touch of it in me as well :)

    As for spreadsheets, they're nothing to be afraid of really. The beauty of this one is that even a dedicated pantser can use it without fear of accidentally plotting :)

    And thanks for the nice plug on my books!!

  45. Ruth, I missed the question in your last post (thanks for the nice words about my characters BTW)

    As I said in an earlier post I'm a character driven writer. I really dig into my hero and heroine's backstory before I ever start writing and then add to it as I go. I think maybe that's what helps me depict them the way I do.

  46. Debby - Hi! Me an English teacher - Oh my goodness no! Just the thought of getting up in front of a classroom full of students every day gives me the hives . But I sooooo admire those who can do it.

    I was a math major in college and worked in the Information Technology field for 30 years. Very behind-the-scenes stuff.

  47. Winnie, you've mentioned this when I've 'seen' you before, and Robin Lee Hatcher had talked about doing the same kind of thing. Or similar, anyway.

    And I've done the 'backstory' development ever since. So maybe I'm more a plotter than I pretend to be because that character build-up is a huge part of how I go into a book. It's clutch.

    And I never mind learning more good stuff, and a little baking soda does great things for "agita".


  48. Great post! I was reading along, one eye on a chat room, when I hit the 'don't sue two characters when one will do'. I was just thinking last night that two characters I had were very similar, and could possibly be combined to save words (still over word count). Thanks for the push!

  49. Sorry, *use* not sue! Ha! Never, ever sue the characters...

  50. Yes. I vote you come back and tell us how to use your tracker.

  51. I'm voting for a return visit from Winnie - I'd love to see how her backstory tracker works.

  52. Hi Ruth:

    Do you know what they call a published pantser?

    A plotter in denial.

    Plotting isn’t just straight line, A to Z, outlining. Plotting can be horizontal. Plotting can be backstory. Plotting can be how a character got from stage A to stage D before the story even begins. Plotting can be how the setting/environmental will follow along and mirror the character’s inner journey. Plotting includes both tactics and strategy. Plotting is life with a purpose. : )

    Now, I fully understand where you are coming from when you write:

    “Seriously, girls, isn't it just way easier to write the story THREE OR FOUR TIMES than to plot it????”

    It’s easier but it can take eight to ten years longer until you get it down to 3 to 4 times.

    I believe that Moses was a pantser. In fact most men are ‘directional’ pantsers. It takes longer to get there but you see more countryside. The journey’s the thing not the destination. Right? It’s the journey! It’s the journey! (Except when you have deadlines.)

    Presto, before I get tutto agito – all shook up—I need to convince my wife to go to St. Louis! I want to hear you give your acceptance speech. I might need some more cookies!

    Finally to quote the bard: “It’s not that I love pantsers less, but that I love plotters more.”

    (Of course, it doesn’t help that Brutus said that!)


  53. Vince you are once again...


  54. Hi Tina:

    I also vote to have Winnie back.

    I love Myra’s spreadsheets and she says she is a pantser. Imagine a spreadsheet created by a plotter! Holy Rolaids!

    That sounds like a good topic for a workshop. In fact, I think it would make a great on-line workshop like Missy and Lindi just did (on plotting).


  55. Your post was so helpful. Thanks for sharing!

  56. I vote yes on Winnie's return as well.

    Vince, Vince, Vince.

    Acceptance speech?


    Love you. And tell her I want to meet her and give her a big Ruthy hug in person. Unless money's tight. I would never encourage someone to spend money they didn't have.

    But you get to see The Teenster in October, right?

    That's worth two Ruthy's and 1.5 Mary's put together with a Missy tossed in on the side.

    A live visit with TEEEEEEENA.

    Life could not possibly get sweeter than that, my good friend.

  57. Hi Winnie, what a great post. Thanks for breaking down the responsiblities of each character. Sometimes the line blurs and secondary characters start taking over the spotlight.

    Bad, bad, bad.

    I'm printing off your advice. It's definitely keeper material.

    Love the cover of your new release!!

  58. Winnie, I'm all for you returning and explaining ANYTHING spreadsheet related. LOL! I look at a brand new excel file, untouched in all its glory, and writer's block takes over.

    I wish I had more thatn a smattering of our Pammy and Myra in me.

  59. LOL folks I'll be glad to come back any time (any time after my daughter's wedding that is).

  60. Virginia and Jackie - glad I could help!

    Audra - You're welcome and thanks for the nice words about my cover. I love how great a job Love Inspired does with the cover art.

  61. So clear and helpful! Thank you, Winnie! =]

  62. Okay, just read through the comments. Please, please, please can I vote for the visit to show your spreadsheets--your backstory tool? I'm a spreadsheet junkie and would love to hear about that!


  63. WINNIE!!! GREAT article, girl, and THANK YOU for coming to Seekerville again -- it is ALWAYS a pleasure!!

    I have never seen characters broken down like this, and it's very insightful!! I tend to have LOTS of secondary characters, so it was helpful to get your take on it.

    And I'm with Tina -- PLEASE come back to tell us about the "backstory tracker"!!!

    Oh, and, RUTHY ... I do NOT break the "length record" more than you do ... your last post put you on the throne ... :)


  64. Expendable Victim

    Like the red shirts on Star Trek. This is a true but cruel character, someone you create just to kill off. :)

    Writing is a strange and wonderful business.

  65. The best thing about secondary characters is how they shape the primary characters.
    I remember a wise woman once saying, "Make your characters likeable by having someone like them."

    That's a great job for secondary characters to play, simply to LIKE the hero/heroine.

  66. Patty - you're quite welcome

    Julie - thanks for the kudos - I love it here at Seekerville

    Mary - LOL Strange and wonderful describes it well!

  67. Hi, Winnie,

    I hope you haven't tucked in for the night.

    I'm the Seekerville fan with the endless questions. You have a great chart there, but.... :)

    Can you explain a little about an extra vs the next type up, for instance. I had written a story where a will was read by an attorney. I described the attorney just a bit, his mannerisms and attitudes. One of my critiques said I was giving him too much attention unless he had a part later.

    In an effort to show not tell, how much do we describe the bit players--the waiter, the fellow passengers on the train or whatever? I find this balance difficult. I want to describe a scene so we "see" the people and then someone will say "You told so much about him, I thought he was more important than he was."

    I'm someone who observes people with bit parts. I was fascinated by a thin young woman dousing her popcorn with butter at the Harry Potter midnight premiere, for example. She sprayed on the butter. Shook the bag. Shook it hard. Sprinkled on the salt. Repeated the process--two more times.

    If a character observes that, can't they just be noticing it? Or does the popcorn girl have to become his sister adopted out at birth to have that much space? I know, everything has to have a reason to propel the plot. However, we see people that just interest us at times and that's all there is to it.

    Any tips on this?

    I'd love to win your book.

    cathy underscore shouse at yahoo dot com

  68. Cathy - ok, I'll take a shot at this.

    First off the difference between extra and bit players. An bit player is a discreet character that plays a very small contextual role - for instance the check out girl at a store, the waitress at a diner, etc. In terms of a movie you can point him/her out in a scene. An extra is a faceless member of a throng such as the fans at a concert or the rush hour crowds on a metropolitan street.

    As for your other question, based on your post I think you already know the answer . Putting focus on a character does set reader expectation that he/she deserves their attention.

    One way to handle this, though is to let your primary character's observation of this bit player tell us something about him/her, about his value system or about how he views the world. For instance, in your example of the popcorn eating patron, if in viewing this your heroine thinking about how sad that people go to excess over such things while there are so many hungry people in the world, then you have given her a story purpose.

    Does that make sense?

  69. Winnie, excellent answer. I was waiting to hear your response before I posted.

    I do the same thing Cathy, and I can hear my editor's response. But how does this move the plot forward and how does it relate to the protagonist???

    (ie. the heroine watches the fastidious lawyer and his rigid demeanor -he reminds her of her own step father. She shudders)

    You can tweak the scene just as Winnie said other wise push delete.

  70. Hi Winnie, I'm taking notes on this one. I'm going to list my characters and see where they fit, or don't fit.

    I'm a pantster slowly swinging toward plotter. I guess I'll be somewhere in between eventually. I can't see myself being all plotter. I vote for the spread sheet blog. I love organizing tools, but I'm excel challenged.

    I still refer people to your Pitch Workshop archive. That was a great week!

    I'd love to win your book or the 5-page critique if it's not too late. 7/16 10:10 here in PDT.

    christy at christy olesen dot com

  71. Cristy - Hi! So glad you enjoyed the post AND the online Pitch Workshop - I had a lot of fun doing that one and there were lots of earnest, talented participants who made my job very rewarding.

  72. Wow, what an informative post. I've never read about the breakdown of character tiers before. I'll be linking to this post in my newsletter. I tweeted, FB'd, and Google+'d it. Thanks for sharing!

    Karen Cioffi Writing and Marketing

  73. Awesome information! I used its info to 'categorize' each character...what a great exercise!I also liked your idea of using excel for backstory tracker!

    Please enter me into the drawing as I'd love to read your book. I'd also like to be entered into the 5 page critique.


  74. Karen and Eileen - Thanks for the upbeat comments! So glad y'all found something that resonated with you in this post.

  75. Great post! I think that the book looks like a wonderful read. Please enter me in the drawing.
    Linda Cacaci

  76. What a wonderful post. Thank you! And that book looks wonderful.

  77. Linda, Krista, Eva - thanks for stopping by and thanks, too, for the kind words about the post