Broadly speaking, a novel contains two types of character: Major Characters and Minor Characters. And still speaking broadly...
We'll cover how to create each one lower down. But first, let's take a high-level look at the range of fictional characters found in a typical novel, and run through some tips on how to handle each one during the novel writing process.
Not all characters in a novel are created equal. Some are important to the story and will demand a great deal of your time and attention as you create them. Others might appear in just a single scene.
A typical novel contains dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of characters, though few of them will be significant enough to command much of the writer's time and attention.
In order of importance, there are four main types of character...
Let's look at them one by one...
This is your leading man or woman – the person the novel is "about," or the character whose story lies at the novel's core. They are also known as the leading character, the central character, or the main character.
Novels can have two or more protagonists, though it's generally better to stick to one if you can. Even if a novel has several leading characters, all of them of seemingly equal importance, it is usually possible to single out one of them as laying at the novel's core.
Who they should be is usually obvious, right from the time you first come up with the idea for the novel. But if your leading man or woman isn't obvious to you, the following example should help you to make a decision.
Imagine you are writing a novel about a family: a father, a mother and their teenage son.
The father gets falsely arrested for a crime he didn't commit, and the bulk of the novel is devoted to the court case.
The story also concerns the mother and the son trying to hold things together back at home while the father is in jail.
Who is the protagonist of this novel?
The answer, of course, is that it could be any of the characters...
You can see, then, that who you choose as a novel's protagonist will fundamentally alter the kind of novel you write. Make one choice and your novel ends up one way, another choice and the book will be totally different.
So if you've come up with a bunch of characters but you're unsure whose story to focus on, sketch out all the possibilities, like I've done above, then go with your instincts.
If I were to write the novel above, I would make the wife the main character – for no better reason than her story is the one that interests me the most. You might decide to go with the man or the boy, and you would be just as right.
Alternatively, you could decide to make all three of them equal, giving them a third of the novel each in which to be the viewpoint character and writing a multiple viewpoint novel.
As with a lot of things in novel writing, there's no right or wrong here. The choices you make will be different from the choices I make – but that's what makes us artists, not fiction writing robots!
Like I said, major characters can be virtually indistinguishable from the protagonist...
The overall story will be "about" the protagonist, but the subplots – each of which should have a bearing on the main plot – will be "about" one or other of the major characters.
What do I mean by a story or a plot being "about" a character?
Simply this: if a plot consists of a character struggling against some form of opposition to achieve a specific goal, the character with the goal is the one the plot is "about"...
Needless to say, each of your major characters should receive virtually as much care and attention during the planning process as your protagonist.
Minors are the exact opposite of major characters...
Minors are essentially two-dimensional stereotypes, or flat characters, so there's no need to spend much time fleshing them out on paper before you begin to write.
A few broad brushstrokes will be all you need.
Just as a movie needs hundreds of extra characters for the crowd scenes, so too do novels.
If your character eats in a restaurant or walks down the street and there is no mention of the people around them, the scene will lack realism.
The good news is that extras in novels aren't really characters at all, more a part of the setting. They're unlikely to speak or even be named, and if they are singled out at all, they don't need to be characterized so much as "labelled"...
And what all of that means is that extras don't involve much work – hardly any, in fact. All you must remember to do is to mention them, just as you would mention other aspects of the setting, like trees and motor cars and what the weather is doing.
So if your central character is travelling on a bus, for example, don't just describe the dirty windows and the uncomfortable seats, describe the passengers, too, perhaps singling out the odd interesting one.
Having described the four types of character, I can now reduce them to just two broad types: majors and minors...
In a nutshell, the single biggest difference between them is that major characters are three-dimensional and minor characters only two-dimensional.
Or to put it another way, major characters are round characters and minors are flat. Let's finish by looking at each type in more detail...
It's a common misconception that round characters are a good thing in novels and that flat characters (also known as "cardboard" characters) are bad. The truth is that you need both types in a novel.
"The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way. If it never surprises it is flat."
- E. M. Forster
If flat characters are stereotypes defined by just a single trait – a "short-tempered businessman", for example – round characters are impossible to label in this way.
For every characteristic they have which places them into one pigeonhole, they have another which works against it.
So if the businessman is a major character in your novel and one of his traits is his short temper, you could counterbalance it by giving him, say, a love of ballet.
Whenever we meet anybody in real life, we're all guilty of "categorizing" them, of thinking we know everything about them based on our initial stereotypical impression of them.
When we actually spend some time with that person and get to know them, our initial impression (even if it was accurate) will be altered by traits which work against this stereotypical view.
And it's exactly the same with a three-dimensional character in a novel...
How are round characters created?
Imagine that the short-tempered businessman is the protagonist in your novel. When you first introduce him, don't be afraid to concentrate on his stereotype – in fact, play it for all it's worth...
The process of rounding him out will begin soon enough (in Chapter 2, in fact) but it's good to begin with a two-dimensional, yet vivid, portrait.
And so it continues...
As you show the readers the businessman's mean side, his sweet side, his ruthless side, his loving side, and so on, so his character becomes more and more rounded.
But it's not just through a complexity of character traits that three-dimensional characters are made...
When you tell the readers about a character's past, for example, and about what kind of future they see for themselves, that adds dimension to their character, too.
Flat characters exist only in the present – their pasts and their dreams for the future aren't mentioned. By giving a round character a complete life, you make them more of a complete person.
What could you say about the businessman's past?
Another thing which helps to add dimension to characters is motivation – specifically, the motivation behind their goal in the novel...
Let's say that our businessman's primary goal is to find his illegitimate son. The question that we, as writers, must provide good answers for is this: why does he want to find this boy? Is it so that he...
Make it a little of all three and you'll really have a round character on your hands!
"... flat characters are very useful to (the writer), since they never need reintroducing, never run away, have not to be watched for development, and provide their own atmosphere - little luminous discs of a pre-arranged size, pushed hither and thither like counters..."
- E. M. Forster
Most of the characters you ever create will be flat. In a novel with a cast of dozens, perhaps even hundreds, only a small handful can ever become rounded, three-dimensional characters.
The minor characters will all be flat – as a matter of fact, they must be two-dimensional.
Just because a fictional character is flat, though, doesn't mean to say that he or she cannot stand out from the crowd.
I'll talk about how to make them memorable in a moment. But first let's be clear about what these characters are, exactly...
A two-dimensional character is essentially a stereotype...
They are defined by a single character trait – rudeness, cheerfulness, deafness – and we never get to know anything more about them. Now, as readers of the novel in which these characters appear, we know that there must be more depth to them than this...
Such things would be the first step towards giving these characters greater dimension.
But because their role in the novel is minimal – just two or three brief appearances, perhaps – one or two brush strokes is all that the storyteller needs to paint their picture.
You won't want all of your minor characters to be vivid. Most of them should be little more than extras. But it's a good idea to take one or two of your minor characters and make them stand out.
How? Through exaggeration. If flat characters are defined by a single character trait, simply take that trait and magnify it tenfold.
For example, don't just make the shop assistant rude to the customers, make her spectacularly rude...
Do everything you can to make her vivid, even comic – but don't turn her into a round character.
Her stereotype is "rude shop assistant," and that is how she must stay.
If you start adding depth to her character, by giving her traits which work against this type, the reader will expect her to be a more significant character in the novel than she is – and they'll be disappointed when they never hear from her again.
Flat characters always act according to type and never surprise us. But that doesn't mean they can't steal the occasional scene.
Making one or two of your minor characters really shine and stick in the readers' minds is important.
Think of a favorite novel or movie and the odds are that there'll be at least one character who really has little to do in the story but nevertheless makes a vivid impression during their brief appearances.