Broadly speaking, a novel contains two types of character: Major Characters and Minor Characters.
And still speaking broadly…
- The Majors are also known as Round Characters.
- The Minors are known as Flat Characters.
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.
Types of Fictional Characters
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…
- The Protagonist
- Other Major Characters
- Minor Characters
Let’s look at them one by one…
1. The Protagonist
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…
The father is the most obvious choice for a main character. He is the one who has been arrested, after all, and whose liberty is at stake if he isn’t found innocent. All protagonists need a goal, and to encounter opposition when trying to achieve that goal, and in the case of the father the goal is to prove himself innocent with the help of his lawyer – not an easy task when he has obviously been framed.
If you decide to make the wife the novel’s leading character, the story changes in nature. One of her goals is to see her husband released, but there isn’t much she can actively do about this – and so the court case aspect of the novel becomes more of a subplot. Her primary goal is to hold the family together in her husband’s absence, and so the focus of the novel shifts from the legal side of things to the domestic front, where the wife has to keep her son on the rails and also find a job so they can survive financially.
If you told the story from the son’s point of view, what would his goal be? It could be a million things, but here is one idea: the boy sees himself as the man of the house now, and therefore the one who must hold the family together while his father faces a hopeless-looking trial and his mother struggles to put bread on the table. When he gets in with the wrong bunch of kids, the temptation to join their gang and make some easy money from crime is too great to resist.
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!
2. Other Major Characters
Like I said, major characters can be virtually indistinguishable from the protagonist…
- They will receive a large amount of “screen time”.
- They will possibly be the Viewpoint Character for significant chunks of the story – that is, they will have chapters of their own to be the narrator.
- They will most likely have their own subplot.
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”…
- The novel’s central plot will be about the protagonist.
- The subplots – which should be closely related to the main plot, weaving their way in and out of it – will be about the major characters.
Needless to say, each of your major characters should receive virtually as much care and attention during the planning process as your protagonist.
3. Minor Characters
Minors are the exact opposite of major characters…
- They will receive very little “screen time”.
- They are unlikely to be used as a viewpoint character.
- They won’t have their own subplots (at least not a subplot of any great length or significance).
- Their appearances in the novel will be brief and infrequent – although that doesn’t mean that they can’t shine whenever they are in the spotlight.
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”…
- a young girl clutching a doll
- a fat man reading a newspaper
- and so on.
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.
A Closer Look at Major and Minor Characters
Having described the four types of character, I can now reduce them to just two broad types: majors and minors…
- The major characters are the small handful of principal players in your novel, the protagonist included.
- Everyone else – except for the extras, who really don’t count – will be minor characters.
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.
Creating Round Characters
– 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…
- first an initial impression
- then a process of having to revise our opinion as we get to learn surprising (but still believable) new things about them.
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.
- So in Chapter 1, you could show him snapping at his chauffeur on his way into work, then barking orders into his phone while he puffs away on a fat Montecristo cigar. The readers will believe that they already know everything there is to know this guy: a rich businessman who has made it to the top of the ladder by being a complete bastard.
- But then, in the next chapter, you show him swallowing some headache pills in his office, and suddenly the readers aren’t so sure – maybe this guy is just acting grouchy because his head is killing him.
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?
- That he was bullied at school and now enjoys being in a position where he can bully others? Perhaps, although it won’t make the readers feel sympathetic towards him.
- That he was the eldest of nine kids and had to learn to put bread on the table after his father drank himself to death? Perhaps, but it’s kind of obvious, in that it somehow reinforces our stereotypical impression of him.
- How about that he was hopeless at everything as a child, and that the only reason he became an entrepreneur was that making a fast buck was the only thing he didn’t suck at? Yes, this not only gives him a past, it has the additional advantage of unexpectedness.
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…
- can hand him the keys to his empire?
- can knock some sense into the boy?
- can tell him that he loves him?
Make it a little of all three and you’ll really have a round character on your hands!
Creating Flat Characters
– 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…
- a rude shop assistant
- a cheerful paperboy
- the old lady next door who always has the TV up too loud.
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…
- That the rude shop assistant volunteers at a soup kitchen on her days off, perhaps.
- That the cheerful paperboy is the school thug.
- That the old lady keeps the TV turned up to muffle the sound of her counterfeiting machine.
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.
How to Make Flat Characters Memorable
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…
- If a customer doesn’t wipe their feet, she has a go at them for traipsing mud through her shop.
- If they don’t have the right change, she sighs and curses under her breath as she rakes through the till.
- Anytime a customer wants help, it’s always too much trouble.
- Oh, and to really make sure that the reader won’t forget her, she always dresses totally in black and wears an oversized crucifix.
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.