The “Minor” Main Character
In Chapter 8 of the Elements of Writing Fiction: Characters & Viewpoint, Orson Scott Card breaks down the three types of characters and their importance in a novel. Here is the excerpt:
1. Walk-ons and placeholders. You won’t develop these characters at all: they’re just people in the background, meant to lend realism or perform a simple function and then disappear, forgotten.
2. Minor Characters. These characters may make a difference in the plot, but we aren’t supposed to get emotionally involved with them, either negatively or positively. We don’t expect them to keep showing up in the story. Their desires and actions might cause a twist in the story, but play no role in shaping its ongoing flow. In fact, rule of thumb is that a minor character does one or two things in the story and then disappears.
3. Major Characters. This group includes the people we care about; we love them or hate them, fear them or hope they succeed. They show up again and again in the story. The story is, to one degree or another, about them, and we expect to find out what happens to them by the end. Their desired and actions drive the story forward and carry it through all its twists and turns.
This definition was published in 1988, and from the way I see books and television going, minor characters have gone from being in the background to being more involved in their stories. For instance, look at the television show CHUCK. The series revolves around a typical computer geek, Chuck, who ends up with a military super computer inside of his head. There are two government agents (Casey and Sarah) assigned to protect him and go on missions using his new found “power” to help gather intel. That’s the major plot of the series, and if that element goes missing, you lose the essence of the story in the early seasons.
However, you also have the stories of Elle and Devon – Chuck’s sister and her “awesome” fiancé – as well as Morgan, Lester, Jeff and the rest of the staff at the Buy More. The actions that happen within these two minor character groups sometimes have major affects on the story, or sometimes happen completely separate from the story and run parallel to the mission of the week.
Card’s definition would make Casey, Sarah and Chuck the major characters. His definition would also state that we should not get emotionally involved with anyone else. But what is Chuck without these other characters then, even if they are not involved with the story, nor are they even seen consistently week to week? They have no effect most of the time at all on the “missions” that Chuck goes on, but yet they get a good amount of screen time for their own subplots, and affect the main character’s relationships with each other at times.
Are they major characters though? No. You can remove their element from the episodes and the stories will still continue on. But do they fall into the Card’s definition of minor characters? No.
From my experience, there is a group of characters that falls between the two definitions – the “Minor” Main Character: people who slip in and out of the story but appear in stories or episodes that capture the attention of an audience that moves them beyond the rank of a minor character. The audience gets attached to them. They want to see more of these characters. They cry when these characters are killed off.
And in some instances, fans of certain shows have such strong attachments to minor characters that they can even change the writer’s minds on killing off a character and expanding them into even a major character – I.E. Spike in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series was only supposed to last for a few episodes and then die at the end of the season he premiered in. Instead he lived on, became a major character through the rest of the series, and even was pulled into the series Angel because the fans did not want to see him go.
Another example is Wedge Antilles in the Star Wars empire. Wedge was the X-Wing pilot in A New Hope who pulled out of the trench before Biggs was shot (for those who don’t know). To date now, Wedge has been immortalized in no less than a dozen Star Wars novels – 9 of which as a main character – as well as a successful comic series by Dark Horse comics and written by Michael Stackpole. Not bad for a guy that had 3 lines and maybe 2 minutes combined of screen time in A New Hope, and another 6 or 7 lines in the sequels with about 3 more minutes of screen time total.
When you are writing, look at your minor characters and see how you use them. Are they just there to deliver dialogue and walk off, or are they an important part of your Main Character’s lives. Do they show a personality that you want to explore more? If so, let them be a bit louder – but not too loud as to shift the story plot away or disrupt the hierarchy of who the main people really are. Let them have their five minutes of read time. Rein them back if they start to get out of control. Perhaps they hold clues for you when the story seems to come to a standstill. Maybe they are actually main characters you didn’t realize you needed.
And who knows, they may end up being the gateway to another series for you when you think the story is done: that means more work, more stories and more fun in a world you’ve already spent so much time creating, but through a new set of eyes.