CHARACTERS - MAJOR AND MINOR
Other Major Characters
Depending on the length of a story, there may or may not be a need for additional major characters. Longer fiction will often depend upon additional major characters to help develop the situation into a full story. They will generally appear throughout the story with frequency and have a role in the actions and events that affect the protagonist and antagonist. They might appear only once, but in order to be considered major, their contribution to the story will be significant.
Example: In Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, each of the major characters of Christmas Past, Present, and Future appear only once in the story, but their roles are so significant that without them there would be no story. None of these characters would be considered a protagonist or an antagonist, but they are, nonetheless, major characters. The story cannot move forward without the appearance of these characters.
Other major characters can be the reliable side-kick/best friends of the protagonist. These characters play a major role in moving the story along, helping the protagonist, raising important questions the protagonist must answer, getting in the way at times, etc. But they are not responsible for resolving the problem(s) or achieving the Protagonist's goal—only helping to get to that resolution. On the antagonist side, other major characters will help the antagonist throw roadblocks in the way of the protagonist. An interesting turn is when a character turns out to be a false friend to the protagonist or an undercover agent to the antagonist. But as with the major characters on the protagonist’s side, their role is secondary to the true antagonist.
Although major characters will, and should, get the lion’s share of the attention, the minor characters each have a role to play in the story—even if they appear only one time, on one page, in one sentence. Minor characters may appear with moderate frequency, but they will never rise above the role of “minor.” They may be vividly drawn, but not fully developed. The minor character(s) should not be in opening paragraphs of short fiction so as not to confuse the reader. They should help move the story along by supporting the main character(s). Regardless of the role minor characters play, they should contribute something to the forward movement of the story.
If you become captivated by a minor character to the point where that character takes on a life of its own and begins to scurry away with the story then you need to reevaluate the role of that character in the story. If the story begins to change because of your infatuation with that character, you need to stop and revisit the theme and the situation.
A hard note about characters: If, as the situation blossoms into the story, the writer becomes aware that one or more characters are not relating to the story, it may become necessary for you to delete those characters in their entirety. This is not always an easy decision because we become attached to our characters, but it is, nonetheless, a decision that sometimes needs to be made.
Minor characters can appear just once and conduct some activity important to a scene, such as a waitress or a bank teller; or they may have recurring roles that do not raise them to the importance of a major character, and yet their importance is generally to a scene or scenes, as they occur.
Example: In Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Bob Cratchit’s children are all minor characters, yet their roles are vital to the theme of the story. Even Tiny Tim is a minor character, but his role is noteworthy to the story.
These characters are present as part of the story; they add realism to story settings but you should not give these characters any more attention than is needed to get through a given scene. They should have a purpose or not be in the book, and they should advance the theme. Background characters are generally seen in group settings.
Example: Restaurant patrons, bank customers and tellers, automobile garage attendants—any gathering of people would be considered background characters. This collection of characters at any one place can provide a good hiding place for the major characters, to keep them out of harm’s way or out of the view of the protagonist or the antagonist. An empty restaurant is not a good hiding place.
Absent Characters; Past Characters
These are characters that are not present in the story; they provide background and motivation for action. The degree of development depends on their importance to the story.
Example: In Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, the absent character is the title character: Rebecca. She was the first Mrs. de Winter; the lady of the house; self-confident, arrogant, and self-centered. She never appears in the story as anything other than an absent character, but she leaves her mark on her husband, Maxim; her friend, Mrs. Danvers; and all the minor characters in the story. Most important is the effect she has on the second Mrs. de Winter. She does not appear as a ghost or any other type of apparition, but her role in the story is significant.
Where Characters Come From
Observation—An author will be observant in all aspects of his writing, but character development is probably the element that requires this activity more than any other. When you watch strangers at the supermarket or observe friends and family at picnics, parties, weddings, and funerals, listen to speech patterns, watch gestures, sense emotions. A writer can take these observations from many, and combine them into one character.
Caveat: Observation is also the activity that can get the writer into trouble. Be careful when changing real people into fictional characters. Do not allow your characters to reflect exactly the traits of the people you know or have observed at close range. Any individuals who recognize themselves, especially in a non-flattering role, could, at worst, seek legal consequences, or at best, distance themselves from the friendship.
Personal experience—As Ray Bradbury said, “…the character you choose, like it or not, will be yourself anyway.”
In the end, regardless of where you go for the bulk of your character personalities, it is your vision of yourself that will round out each character. After all the observations have been completed and the character traits defined, you will project yourself into your character(s) by drawing upon your own experiences to define them. Personal experience will flesh out through dialogue as well as narrative. You may find yourself developing the character through emotions you are familiar with—joy, anger, love, envy, etc.
Memories, photographs, diaries, and letters—Historical and genealogical reference materials are especially good resources for developing characters. These resources can be helpful in historical fiction, where they may provide the writer with firsthand information about events in another era on a personal, regional, national, and global scale.
News stories, TV, obituaries—Today’s events frequently arouse our curiosity about people and how they handle situations. Newspaper and television reports are generally peppered with strong emotions because the emotional scenes draw readers’ attention. This is also true in fiction. Notice how people react to various situations in newspaper or television interviews, on the street, or in accidents and other emergencies. Obituaries are particularly good places to look for character information—even when it is indirect or implied.
Example: An obituary in 2014 that carries a photograph of a young woman whose hairstyle and dress speak of another era, for example, World War II, tells the writer that some family member—perhaps a loving spouse or a sibling— posted this photograph as they best remembered the woman in her youth. While the photo does not depict the woman as she would have appeared in the twenty-first century, it says a great deal about how she is remembered. This could provide the writer with emotional depth for two characters—the person in the obituary and the person who submitted the obituary to the newspaper.
Next week we will close the discussion of character development by discussing the process of development. See you then!