I’ve said it before: Characters are the meat and potatoes of fiction. And Main Characters are the steak and the red, rosemary-roasted potatoes, with fresh basil, oregano, and sage.
How Many Main Characters Can There Be?
At a bare minimum, two. Your protagonist and your antagonist.
But how many more can there be? It depends on the length of the work you intend to write.
I’m a fan of goal-setting—and goal-tending—on this blog. So what I do is:
- establish the target word-count goal for the finished manuscript.
- As the word-count grows, the number of main character viewpoints that can be sustained in scenes likewise increases.
So if you are writing a bare minimum novel of 60,000 words, you can probably only have the two main characters, possibly three.
And you may not have the opportunity to use the antagonist’s viewpoint.
But if you’re writing something epic in length and scope (up to 100,000 words), you might be able to get away with as many as six main characters.
But I wouldn’t recommend more than six main characters unless you’re writing something truly saga-length. And at that length, all bets are off anyway.
What Do Main Characters Do?
Primarily they hang around at the fiction bars and trade the day’s stories of hope, adventure, glamor, and suspense. But occasionally they get called to work.
On those glorious days, when our main characters show up to work, when they’re eager and excited to see what happens to them next, you might get a few good pages toward the end of your novel.
That’s what main characters do: they get you a few more pages toward the end of the novel.
They have conflicts with the hero, they have romantic relationships with the hero, they do the hero’s laundry, and they shine the hero’s shoes. But they do so in way that advances the resolution of the story-question in a meaningful way.
Because you should avoid them: I will list a handful of roles that characters in books have traditionally played when they have succeeded to the exalted role of “Main Character.”
“So why list them if we should avoid them? Duuude… Aren’t we better off burying our heads in the sand and trusting in our artistic inspiration?”
No. The reason why it’s important to know the list is so that you understand what roles there could be to fill in your story.
But then: Yes. You have to work together with the character to find a real human (or human-seeming) kernel of a soul for the character to fill that “type.” That’s the artistic part.
From that kernel of a soul, you draw up the main character by exploring fundamental questions that real people face (or face away from) every day. What does he think of religion? Politics? What does a good day at the office look like for him?
For myself, I have a list of 172 questions that the characters have to answer in first person and under 1000 words. Thirty-six of those questions have been clinically shown to improve interpersonal closeness between interview partners, so the responses of the characters to those particular questions provide for an opportunity to draw a more intimate connection with the reader. Another thirty-six of those questions are “small-talk questions,” clinically proven to not foster interpersonal closeness. These questions give me a way of exploring how the character interacts—for example—at a cocktail party or a football match, with walk-ons and some minor characters.
And together they form a composite of the character’s relationship with the world in which he lives, the world of the story.
That character’s energy is put through these types into the role needed in the novel. Use images from the creation of that character. Show what the character is doing to effect for better or for worse the outcome of the story question.
The list of possible roles is long and varied. For those with an interest, I recommend TV Tricks & Tropes, to see how pop-media has been dissected and defined. If you write fantasy or science fiction, I also recommend the Evil Overlord’s Guide. If you don’t write SFF, I still recommend the Guide, because we use many of the same tropes in other genre’s of modern pop-culture.
But I leave you with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous caveat:
“Begin with an individual, and before you know it you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find you have created – nothing.” ― F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Top 5 List of Character Roles:
- Protagonist: A perennial favorite. Nearly every story has one, and they come in all shapes and sizes. This is traditionally the character through whose experience the story question is resolved. Depending on your genre, it may or may not be the character through whom the throughline of action also works. I highly recommend you pick one up immediately, if your means allow.
- Antagonist: The other perennial favorite. Going strong since the days of Aristotle. The villain, the adversary, the primary obstacle between your protagonist and the story goal.
- Romantic Interest: If you have a protagonist, she’s gotta love somebody, right? This is that person. Whether you want to explore romance and love as a major or a minor theme, this is the person that your protagonist is interested in, or who is interested in your protagonist. It’s possible to turn this trope on its head by introducing some non-human thing as the object of desire, but it’s also been done before: the Myth of Pygmalion and Galatea. Love is a ripe measure of the human experience, there’s always something new to do with a character in this role.
- The Sidekick/The Wingman: A character who enhances the protagonist’s good qualities or softens his bad ones. Often the Sidekick/Wingman is a foil to the protagonist. If the protagonist is stern, the sidekick might be a comedian. If the protagonist is handsome, the wingman might be less so or more so. The sidekick/wingman can sometimes become an adversary, insisting on putting themselves in harm’s way for the hero’s sake or giving away the hero’s secrets in order to achieve some greater good (in their own mind) for the hero. Very popular. I recommend experimenting with this type for the sake of practice, but advice against using the type “as is” in finished work. Don’t forget that this is a major character. They have to have a meaningful backstory and worldview that contributes in some way to the resolution of the story question.
- Mentor: The man with the plan, the female chief executive who helped your heroine ruthlessly climb the corporate ladder, the teacher who set you on your present path, the kindly old wizard, the avuncular family friend. This is the person whose seen a story-line like this before, and he kind of sorta knows how to get through it. Keep in mind again, this is a main character. If you introduce him as such early in the story, he has to recur at intervals throughout the story. If one follows the Joseph Campbell Monomyth practice, one might get the impression that after the “Meeting with the Mentor” is concluded, there’s no additional role for such a character. But whether you’re working through multiple viewpoint or not, the mentor’s wisdom and influence have to be felt over and over again through the story.
- Trickster: This is the man who makes all plans moot. He’s the capricious boss at the office who won’t stop scheming against you in the office politics. He’s the class-clown, always trying to make everyone laugh by disrupting the status quo. She’s the friend who swears she knows the guy and the party will be so much fun, everybody will be there, after all. Often, this is the irreverent character who points out where the hero’s plan is just so wrong. But he’s not always an antagonist. Sometimes he offers better, more clever plans for the story question’s resolution. Or sometimes he’s just there to be an ass, or for comic relief. See Allagash in Bright Lights, Big City.
- The Mother: This is the character who represents some form of healing or nurturing function in your story, or the lack of such warmth. Played straight, this character’s mission is to make sure that the protagonist and/or his team are just hunky-dorey, well-fed and -watered, and that there’s no major strife between allies. In team adventures, she’s the character who holds the team together and keeps them focused on the mission.
Note again that I said: Because you should avoid them. That’s why this list is here. So that you can avoid the most basic story-telling mistakes. Your readers are bombarded with media at every opportunity, all of which uses basic story-telling technology. You and your readers are inundated with “heroes,” “villains,” “sidekicks,” and “romantic interests.” We know what the types look like almost instinctively.
And lazy-writing writes to these “types” instinctively, because they’re common and everyone has an easy handle on them.
But successful writing has you make characters first, by creating fully-fleshed, well-rounded human beings. Only then can you use them as major characters to fill the roles of these types in the resolution of your story question.
Next week, we’ll talk more about character and look at the problem of multiple points-of-view.
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