Hey all! Welcome back to the six aspects that make up a story. These aspects go across all sorts of media, whether it be movies, books, television series, video games, or even oral stories! If you missed the introduction to this series, or if you’d like a refresher on the first aspect (Concept), click here!
This week, we’re going to be looking at the second aspect: Characters.
Characters can be major or minor, round or flat. But what’s the difference? And what makes for a really good character? And, for that matter, how do you define a character that’s “good”?
Major vs. Minor
When I was first starting writing, I used to get confused by this terminology all the time. I thought calling characters “major” or “minor” was saying how important they were or whether they were good characters or not. Minor characters had to be bad, right? So I wanted all my characters in my books to be major ones! Needless to say, my earlier drafts tended to have a stuffed cast and tortured backstories for each one. Yikes!
Obviously there was a flaw in my thinking system. But you can’t blame someone for getting confused by the writing lingo.
While major characters do more for the plot, it doesn’t necessarily make them more important–or better! In fact, there have been plenty of minor characters I’ve found far better than the major characters, either because they were more interesting, better-written, or just downright more entertaining to watch.
If we look at stories overall like a stage play, a Major Character would be one with the bulk of the lines and stage time. They’re the ones who really make stuff happen–or at least the ones that the story focuses on the most.
One mark of a good major character is that they actively make stuff happen (rather than always letting stuff happen to them and only reacting to it)–but we’ll talk about that more later. Protagonists, or main characters, are always going to be major characters, because they’re the characters the story focuses on the most. A protagonist’s job is to give us a glimpse into their world, so we spend a lot of time with them.
Usually the other major characters are closely connected to the protagonist, such as their main group of friends or the trusty allies that accompany them on their quest.
One character guaranteed to also be a major character is the protagonist’s biggest rival, the Antagonist. The antagonist is the one who’s trying their hardest to fight against whatever the protagonist is trying to do. Is the protagonist trying to survive? The antagonist is trying to kill them. Is the protagonist trying to rob a bank? The antagonist is trying to protect the bank’s assets. The antagonist may be “the bad guy,” but they’re always a major character!
Minor Characters, by contrast, are the characters who don’t have a laundry list of things to do in the story. You’ll often only meet a minor character once, and that briefly. That doesn’t mean they’re not important, though! If a story’s a good one, then every character you meet will be important in their own way. It is true that a minor character’s role, however, isn’t as far-reaching, big-picture, or all-encompassing as that of major characters. They’ll often be introduced just long enough to nudge the major characters in the right direction, and then they’ll disappear forever.
But sometimes minor characters can turn into major characters over the course of a story! This is more likely to happen if the story is a long-running series. For example, one of the characters in the video game series Kingdom Hearts was originally slated to be a minor character with appearances in only two of the eight games. But as it turned out, the creators enjoyed the character so much, they chose not to kill him off during this second appearance (Kingdom Hearts Wiki, “Axel”)! He has since undergone a significant character arc and has quickly risen to major character status.
Sometimes it can be hard to distinguish between major and minor characters, especially if the story has a complicated plot and a big cast of characters. Often, in order to distinguish between the two, I’ll ask, “Does this character do something to further the overall plot of the storyline? Does this character show up more than once, or are they mentioned later on in the story, even if they don’t make another physical appearance?” If the answer to any of those is yes, you’re looking at what I’d classify as a major character.
Round vs. Flat
This is another confusing-sounding pair of terms, mostly because you’ll see them used in differing ways depending on the context.
Put most simply, a round character is one that changes over the course of the story; a flat character is one that does not.
However, I’ve also seen writers and reviewers use these terms more often in critiquing a story rather than using it to classify characters. That’s because some people also use round and flat to describe how well (or how poorly) a character was written. If a character generally seems boring and stereotypical, people may refer to them as a “flat character”–as opposed to three-dimensional, interesting, or intriguing characters: “round characters.”
With the second definition, you never want any of your characters to seem flat. Even the characters with the smallest parts in your story should pop with life and color. They shouldn’t feel like a character (more on that later, too).
With the first definition, either major or minor characters could be flat–and it wouldn’t necessarily be bad. Sometimes a character refuses to change throughout the story. When that character is a protagonist, it’s usually to make a point–usually a negative one–about how it’s important not to stagnate and to allow life to mold us into different people. Minor characters are almost often flat characters in this sense, since it’s very hard for them to change over the short period of time we see them.
Although it’s possible, it can be tricky to write a major character that refuses to change. It’s very easy for these characters to come across as stiff or boring. We as an audience really enjoy seeing a character change in some way–even if it’s a change for the worse! It highlights the fact that we as humans are constantly undergoing some change, even if it’s outside ourselves, and how those changes can affect who we are or how we act.
So What Makes a Good Character?
Major or minor, round or flat, it’s still hard to say either of those is a recipe for a “good” character. Whether a character is major or minor really has no influence on whether a character is good or not; it just defines what their role is in the story. And if you go with the interpretation that round and flat define whether a character changes or not, that’s not particularly helpful, either.
So what does make a good character?
The answer is often going to vary from person to person, but in general, almost all good characters are well-written. This means that the writer is skilled at their craft; they have a lot of practice and experience and know how to make a good story. They’ve spent a good amount of time both honing their craft and designing their characters. A well-written character will be well thought-out. They’ll fit with the story (or ironically stand out).
So how do you make a well-written character, or how can you learn to spot the really good characters? Well, unfortunately, I think I’ve talked your ear off long enough today. You’ll have to check out part two to find out!
“Ballet” and “Teamwork” by Skeeze. Originally posted on Pixabay.com.
Photo of village by Thong Vo. Originally posted on Unsplash.com.
“Axel.” Kingdom Hearts Wiki. Square Enix Independent Wiki Alliance, 9 June 2016. Web. 05 July 2016.
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