It can be tough, managing a large cast of characters, working out how to give them all the right amount of page time, deciding who needs developing and who doesn’t. One way to look at this is to know how you’re categorising your different characters. There are a bunch of ways to do this, of course, but in this post I’m going to give you the run-down on my approach.
For the record, I don’t think this is necessarily a useful way to look at your characters during the writing process. It’s a way you can get a different perspective on them while editing or redrafting, to work out whether you want to do more or less with the various personalities in your story. Once you can work out how important a character is within the narrative, you can use that to decide how much to develop them and how much of an independent storyline they should get.
Top Tier: Your Protagonist(s)
The main character, or characters if you’re dealing with a multi-perspective story. Given that the whole plot of your story presumably revolves around the protagonist, if you’re not sure what to do with them you need a whole different kind of advice, so I’m not going to dwell on them. Suffice it to say, if the story is about a character, that is a main character, and they should probably stay busy!
These are the characters who are important, but not the beating heart of your story. They might be plot-vital, they might have a central role to play in your book and to your main character, but they aren’t a consistent driving force of the narrative. The line can get a bit blurry between main and secondary characters—for example, looking at Ron and Hermione in Harry Potter, I think you could make an argument either way. The reader will spend a lot of time with your secondary characters, and—love ‘em or hate ‘em—you want them to be invested.
Secondary characters should get some proper development through the course of your story, they should get some form of character development or story arc of their own. That arc might be completely dependent on the story arc of the main character, but if they’re getting significant page-time you want them to feel three-dimensional, and so you’re going to want them to grow and change to at least some extent.
I talked quite a bit about managing your secondary characters and making the most of them in another post, if you wanted some more ideas for how to ensure they’re earning their keep.
These are the characters who get maybe a line or two in the story, maybe a few little dialogue exchanges, but they’re not really features of the plot. They might be there to deliver a little exposition or create an opportunity for one of your other characters (we could uncharitably say one of your ‘less important’ characters) to have a specific interaction. Think, like, the shopkeeper who flirts with a character to give you a chance to illustrate their witty comebacks.
Important things to note about background characters: you can’t give each one a full backstory and flesh them out for the reader, because you’ll kill the pace of your narrative. That said, you don’t want them to feel like cardboard cut-outs either. It’s a tricky line to tread, I recommend looking for a way to give background characters a spark of individuality—in the way they talk or react to your other characters—without getting into unnecessary exposition about their histories.
Wait, so those are your three options? That’s it?
I didn’t exactly say that. I know I described these as character categories, but maybe it would be more helpful to think of it as a spectrum of character importance. Background characters are at one end, main characters at the other, and secondary characters are… probably more like the two-thirds mark. Maybe three-quarters. In between secondary characters and background characters though, you’re looking at what I’d call minor characters, those who might show up a few times but may or may not be worth giving a proper arc of their own.
These might be characters like family members of your main character, people who you need to have around (probably, more on that in a second) but don’t need to develop beyond just being generally present in the story. Your minor characters might not have a plot thread to themselves, but they still need to have personality.
Also, consider whether your minor characters could be either done away with (sorry minor characters, it’s nothing personal, promise) or stepped up into more important characters. Not all characters need to be more than an extra in your story, so if you do want to leave characters with small parts because that serves the plot best that’s legitimate, but it’s always worth considering whether those small characters could be more impactful or interesting with a little more to work with.
What are your tips for managing characters?
How do you decide whether a supporting character needs more or less to do? Do you think of your characters in terms of their level of involvement in the plot? Do you have a different way of separating them out? I’d love to read your advice and suggestions in the comments!