Characters are probably the most important element of any book as they form the backbone of the story. In fact in some cases, in those stories that are classified as “character driven”, they are the story. As in a film or stage play, the characters in a book also fall into three main categories; Major Players, Supporting Characters, and Walk On parts.
As the name suggests, a Major Player is a character that has a major or leading role to play in your story. He/she is someone who has a presence, whether actual or referred to by the other characters, throughout the story. They are a character that helps propel the story forward. If we stick with the theme of the story we began in the previous post, “What is a McGuffin”, where Jack, our hero, finds the murdered body of a young woman in a barn, then he is definitely a Major Player. The story will probably revolve around him, what he has found, (the body and the mysterious note) and the efforts he then goes to find the real murderer and clear his name. Depending on how you construct the story, you may wish to delve into the victim’s past, going back in time to tell her story before the murder, detailing who she was, what she did, and the lifestyle she led. A lifestyle that may well have contributed to her death. If this is the case, then even though she is no longer alive, she is still considered a Major Player. As is the young detective investigating the crime, and the real murderer, whoever they may be.
These are characters that don’t have a major part to play, but they are there to support the Major Players, provide the links between the various aspects of the story and help it along, in fact, anybody who helps Jack fulfil his quest. For instance, the lorry driver who gives him a lift to London and without whom he would never get there, but once Jack has arrived in London, it is possible that the lorry driver is never seen or heard of again. Likewise the elderly desk Sergeant, who shares his hard-earned knowledge and experience with the impatient young detective investigating the crime, but like the lorry driver, has no influence over the outcome of the story itself. Then there are the characters that drift in and out of the plot. People that Jack comes into with contact with on a regular basis, like his landlady, who merely turns a blind eye to his comings and goings.
The Walk Ons
These are the characters that have no influence whatsoever on your story or its outcome. They are there because without them the story would be two-dimensional, not true to life, and cease to function properly. For example the waitress who serves him tea in the East End café; and the man he buys a newspaper from outside Liverpool Street tube station.
So, how do we signal the importance of a character to the reader?
Numbers are very important. If you think back to when taking on a new employment position, or joining a sports or social club, most of us will struggle to remember any more than six to eight new names at a time. Well, it’s the same for your readers: too many major players and they will struggle to remember who they are and their relevance to the story. The end result being that they could get confused and the story is ruined. In an effort to avoid this, you should try to limit the number of Major Players in your story to no more than eight.
The names of the Major Players should be short and easy to remember. When using foreign names, choose names that are short, easy to pronounce, and in some way fit in with the character’s description. A simple test is that if you can pronounce the name phonetically, for example, Rowinski, an authentic Polish name, Row-in-ski, or Kafka, a Czech name, Kaf-ka, then it will probably also work for the reader, but try and stay away from foreign names with silent letters.
The description of Major Players should be detailed, after all they are a major interest to your reader, as a result, they need to know everything about them. A good description should provide the reader with information that will make the character memorable, and create an atmosphere that follows them through the book. In addition, try to create a subconscious link between the character’s name and their description, something that will instantly give the reader a picture of the character every time they read his/her name.
“Jack spotted a well-muscled man with powerful shoulders heading in his direction. He estimated that he was in his mid-forties and weighed close to two hundred pounds. His face was stripped of fat, which gave it a chiseled appearance, and he had thick black hair brushed straight back off a wrinkled forehead. Below his chin was a powerful neck, trying in vain to escape from the collar of the white shirt, and a dark blue tie that were both doing their best to strangle him. If it hadn’t been for the near straight nose you would have sworn he was a former boxer. Although one built for stamina as opposed to speed. It was Butala”.
The subconscious link, as the character’s appearance would suggest, is that Butala was “brutal”.
Supporting Characters are just that. They support the Major Players, but that doesn’t make them any less important to your story.
When it comes to their names, the same rules apply. Like the Major Players, their names should be short and easy to remember. However, their descriptions do not have to be as detailed as that of Major Players, but they should still be memorable. Pick out one or two things that quickly tell the reader what type of person they are.
“Leaning on the counter was the Desk Sergeant. Jack looked down at the silver buttons on the jacket of his freshly pressed uniform, they were straining against the buttonholes. His near white wavy hair gave the appearance of someone who was both knowledgeable and approachable, and Jack relaxed slightly.”
“Jack looked at the man’s hands as they slid around the large steering wheel, they were heavily stained, black with oil and grease, and unlike his meeting with the detective earlier that morning, where the smell of cheap cologne had made him nauseous, the cab of the lorry was filled with the heavy smell of diesel.”
As already stated, Walk Ons are characters that have no influence whatsoever on your story or its outcome, but are there because without them the story would be two dimensional, the various elements would not be linked properly, and would cease to function as a story. Consequently, Walk Ons do not necessarily need a name or a detailed description, but you do need to attach sufficient information to each one in order for them to fulfil their role.
“The pretty brunette behind the desk lifted her head. `Can I help you sir?`
Jack stared at the maroon piping on the lapels of her jacket. It was the same jacket that had laid beside the body of the woman in the barn, and he immediately knew he was in the right place.”