Shelley Widhalm

Posts Tagged ‘Main Character’

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

Grounding Character Identity

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on April 1, 2012 at 6:59 pm

Like sugar to cookies, characters have essential qualities that turn them from a mass of words into living beings, at least in our minds.

To give readers those essential qualities involves telling the story and identifying the features and traits of the characters as individuals and in how they relate to one another.

The protagonist, or the main character of the story, is more fully developed than the antagonist and other minor characters. The antagonist can be a character, group of characters or an institution that serves as the principal opponent or foil of the protagonist. The protagonist has to contend or deal with this opposition to achieve his or her goal.

Before writing, I ask a few questions about my protagonist, which is Kate Letts in the novel I’m currently writing. I’m exploring how Kate deals with the after-effects of losing her home and belongings to a fire. I need to know why Kate is telling her story, what she wants and what she will learn.

I ask general questions, such as:

  • What does she want above all else, or what is her major goal?
  • What is she afraid of?
  • What doesn’t like about her situation?
  • What are her secrets?
  • Does she have a lovable quirk or a nervous gesture?
  • What is her main unlikable quality?
  • What is likable about her?

More specifically, what does this character look like and act like and how does she behave around others:

  • What is her hairstyle? What are her facial features? How tall is she? How does she dress? What kind of jewelry does she wear?
  • What are her speech patterns? What is her cultural and religious (if any) background?
  • What are her mannerisms? Her gestures? Her tastes? Her hobbies?
  • What is her job? What is her education? What does she drive? Does she bike or walk to get around? Where does she get her groceries and clothes?  

Another trick I learned is to envision a character and then try to find him or her in a magazine photo, store ad or online and cut out the image. I found magazine ads for Kate, as well as two of my minor characters, Samantha and Emma.

It’s a thrill to have turned imagination into a real image that I can refer to for inspiration as I continue on my path in the telling of Kate’s story.