All animals are created equal. But some are more equal than others. – George Orwell
You’ve probably heard terms like “main character” and “secondary character” and “minor character.” Chances are, the actual definition of these terms was left to your imagination, as if they were self-explanatory. And in a way, they are. Each is a method of gauging the relative importance of a character to your story.
But it’s hard to measure the exact importance of a character. It’s not like importance is sold by the yard or measured in square meters, after all. Yet you as the writer must know—and let your reader know—exactly which characters are most important to the story. Some are vital to the story and deserve the reader’s care and attention, while others will quickly disappear. But the reader doesn’t know the difference until you show the difference.
Generally speaking, there are three types of characters in terms of importance, and the distinction between them can be useful.
- Walk-ons. You don’t develop these characters at all. They’re intended to be “just folk,” people in the background. Their only purpose is to lend realism or perform a specific function, and then they’re gone, forgotten.
- Minor characters. These characters make a difference in the plot, but a reader isn’t supposed to get emotionally invested in them, whether positively or negatively. The reader doesn’t expect them to keep showing up in the story. Their desires and actions might cause a plot-twist, but they play no part in the unfolding drama. A minor character does one or two things in the story, and then disappears.
- Major characters. This is the cast of characters that readers care about; readers love them, readers hate them, readers cannot live without them. They inspire fear or hope, showing up again and again in the story. In one way or another, the story is about them: the reader expects to learn what happens to them in the end. The desires and actions of these characters drive the story forward and carry it through to its inevitable end, no matter how many twists and turns the story takes.
But you have to keep in mind that there’s no “glass ceiling” dividing one type of character from another. The different types of characters blend into each other. But there are methods and techniques appropriate to each level. With them, you can create characters that match the degree of importance necessary for your story.
We’ll look at each of these types of characters in turn over the next few weeks, starting with The Walk-On.
Unless your story takes place in a hermitage, there’s a good chance that your main characters are surrounded by many people who are utterly unimportant to the story. They’re just part of the universe, background, filler.
In any story, the reader can “meet” a whole host of characters in just a few sentences: taxi-driver, skycap, hotel desk clerk, bellman, irritated horn-honkers in a traffic jam, suspicious neighbor, uniformed policeman. But most of these are walk-ons: they fulfill some brief role in the story and then disappear from sight.
But how do you make people vanish? You have a crowd of people on the page, and they have to be there or the setting won’t seem realistic. Yet you want them to be like scenery, movable pieces of the universe; you don’t want them distracting your reader’s attention. What do you do?
The answer is contrast:
- The walk-ons are dressed in drab clothes.
- The walk-ons stand absolutely still until they absolutely have to move, and then they only do so with smooth and gentle motion.
- The walk-ons don’t make any sound beyond the general murmur of nonsensical “rhubarb” crowd-noise.
- Their attention is riveted on either their own quiet tasks, or on the main action in the scene.
- They face away from the action.
- No single walk-on appears on the page for very long, lest the reader begins expecting something from him.
By contrast, your main characters are dressed in bright and vivid clothes. They move constantly. Their motions are big and bold. Their voices are loud. Their motivations and intentions create the main action in the scene. They face the action, chins held high. The spotlight is on them and they appear on nearly every page. The reader is intended to expect something from them.
Sometimes, however, our walk-ons get uppity. They fidget when they should stand still, or they start doing some clever bit of business that distracts the reader from the main action. When this happens, you cut the character out entirely. Unless, of course, the clever bit is exceptionally funny or meaningful. On such rare occasions, you have to stop and figure out what it is that’s so interesting that you’ve spent more time than intended with that character. You may find yourself revising the story to make that character even more important.
But most of the time, you just want the walk-ons to walk on, through the scene and off the page, back into the scenery from whence they came.
As a rule, one should never fall back on stereotypes for characterization. Stereotypes are a lazy way to develop characters, they are unfair to the vast majority of people they claim to represent, and they lead to embarrassing false assumptions, needless fear, and even vicious unfairness.
However: Stereotypes are exactly the tool one needs when handling walk-ons. A stereotype is, by definition, a typical member of a group. A stereotype does exactly what the reader expects him to do, and nothing more, and in doing so, disappears from notice. In real life, this is an extraordinarily unfair way of dealing with people. But in fiction, the character that “breaks type” and violates expectations becomes strange, and that which is strange inevitably draws the reader’s attention. Such a character steps forward from the scenery and joins the scene itself. Unless you have a good reason for letting this happen, you need to take the strange back out of your walk-on and blend him back into his surroundings, or else send him back to Central Casting.
We’ll explore the moderately important character type—the Minor Character—in my next post.
Until then, keep writing!
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