Shelley Widhalm

Major vs. Minor Characters

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on April 8, 2012 at 11:00 am

Identifying the characters in a story or novel boils down to those you see a lot of and those you encounter in a few chapters, pages or even just once.

The characters you see a lot of are called the major or main characters because they play the primary role in the story’s action. The top dog among these characters is the protagonist, also called the main or the major character. If there are two or a few protagonists, they are the co-protagonists who copilot the action and progression of the story.

The protagonist should have a minor flaw; she should want something; and she has to change as a result of the experiences she undergoes.*

If there is an antagonist who acts against the protagonist, trying to prevent her from getting what she wants, this character has to have a major flaw and at least one redeeming quality.

In screenplays, the protagonist is called the hero or heroine. This protagonist has a fatal flaw tied to a need that messes up her world until she can figure things out to make them right again.

The antagonist is the villain who has many flaws and dislikable features but at least one redeeming quality.

The anti-hero is similar to a hero, but at the beginning of a movie does not act out of good and is self-serving, but ends up on the path of redemption.

In both screenplays and novels, the minor characters are not the main point of the story. They are not the major players to whom the story is happening, but they interact with or grab the attention of those main characters.

There are three types of minor characters, including:

  • Walk-ons: they serve as the background or scenery of the story and shouldn’t distract from the storyline. Examples include the waiter serving a meal, the cabdriver giving a ride or the bartender pouring a drink.
  • Supporting: the sidekick in a mystery who helps the protagonist solve clues.
  • General minor: they are momentarily involved in the action and play a minor role in the story. Examples include the protagonist’s best friend, mother or a sibling.

The minor characters, unless they are the walk-ons, should be given a name and a few quirky details. They can be made memorable by being eccentric, if they have exaggerated qualities or are obsessive about something.

Minor characters need to appear as independent people with personalities, motivations and desires of their own.

If the minor characters do not have a purpose in the story’s telling, then get rid of them.

* Note  1: I use the feminine gender to refer to the protagonist because that’s the gender I tend to use for my main characters.

* Note 2: See Zoey’s blog on her take on major versus minor characters at http://zoeyspaw.wordpress.com/2012/04/08/a-dogs-best-friend-plus-the-other-friends/

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  1. really good and helpful stuff, as ever! i always play around w/minor, one scene characters who pop in (usually a drunk in a bar or a homeless guy ‘ranting’ on the street) and lay what seems like arcane gibberish on my ‘hero’ at the time but, if thought abt long enough, can reveal itself to be a glaring indictment of said ‘hero’s’ motivation.

  2. I love writing minor characters. They can be a little more over-the-top than main characters because they only stick around for a little while.

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