As a writer, you know that a story can't exist without characters. But have you ever wondered: “Why are characters important in a story?”
Perhaps you've questioned an even tougher problem: “When is a character important enough to keep in a story, and when does the narrative work better without them?”
In order for a secondary character—or any character—to matter in a story, they have to work as an essential character that impacts the protagonist, plot, setting, or another important aspect that shapes or moves a story forward.
In this article, you'll learn four ways that determine if (1) the character is essential, and (2) how they contribute to a story.
You'll also learn the major types of characters and ways to determine if—for the characters who don't qualify as essential—you're better off revising their role, or cutting them from the plot.
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Character-Driven Stories Don't Equal Lots of Characters
I love character-driven stories.
While opinions may differ on this topic, I believe that a story is ultimately about the characters—their choices, their consequences, their trials and tribulations, and the lessons they learn.
The characters carry the story and at the end of the day, it is the fate of the characters that the readers are most invested in. When you talk about stories that stick with people, they think of the characters.
Sherlock Holmes, Katniss Everdeen, Frodo Baggins . . . they're more than just fiction. They drive a compelling plot and form a personal connection with the reader.
So it might sound strange when I tell you that fewer characters is better.
Bear with me for a moment. Having fewer characters does not mean that you should have as few characters as possible, nor does it mean you should aim to tell a story that you have to cut your current cast for the pure purpose of reducing its size.
It simply means that when you tell your story, make every character count.
4 Qualities of an Essential Character
The first step in making characters count is to evaluate whether every character is essential.
Evaluating your cast is best done after the first draft.
This is because it’s hard to figure out which characters are important and which ones are not until you’ve been through the events of the story at least once.
An essential character makes at least one (preferably more than one) of the following four contributions to the story:
1. Contributes to plot
An essential character must help move the plot forward. If a character’s only purpose is set dressing, then their presence is probably not essential.
Some questions to consider:
- Does this character exhibit complex emotions? If your character doesn't seem to react to what's going on in the story emotionally, they're not likely to contribute to the plot.
- Is this character believable? Believable characters connect to the readers more and thereby help them connect to the plot. If a character is too exaggerated or flat, they're more likely to become a distraction.
- Does this character cause something to change in the story? If nothing changes because of this character's action, they're probably more of a background character.
2. Contributes to the main character’s development
Focus on what shapes your protagonist and how the supporting characters impact them.
This could mean someone is from the main character’s past and affected who they are in the time of the story, or someone is the reason the main character has certain principles or makes the choices they do.
If a character doesn’t have a direct impact on how or why the main character makes their choices, this character may not be essential.
Some questions to consider:
- Does your protagonist change their mind about something because of this character? Influencing decision-making, especially difficult choices, means the character acts as a catalyst for character development.
- Does your protagonist have a personality trait because of this character? Someone who is the reason your protagonist is happy/angry/jealous/fidgety is an essential character. This is especially true for child protagonists.
- Does this character contribute to the reason your protagonist succeeds or fails in the end? Having a direct role in the way a story concludes generally makes a character essential.
3. Contributes to at least one conflict
A character who causes conflict (for instance, arguments, fights, misunderstandings, miscommunications) is more likely to be an essential character.
Some questions to consider:
- Does this character have a personal conflict with the protagonist? A personal conflict with the main character almost always makes a character essential, even more so if it's conflicts with emotion.
- Does this character cause a conflict to happen even though they're not directly involved? Misunderstanding is a useful literary device. The one who causes it is always essential.
4. Resolves at least one conflict
A character who resolves a conflict is more likely to be essential. This could be someone who breaks up a fight, mediates an argument, resolves a misunderstanding, or simply communicates a convenient piece of information.
Characters who resolve conflicts may or may not be part of the conflict themselves.
Keep in mind that a character that is part of the “main cast” often has all four of the attributes above. If a character you consider to be part of the main cast doesn’t have all four attributes, you might want to consider if they are really “main” or more of a side character.
Some questions to consider:
- Does this character directly resolve a conflict? Characters who end conflicts have a huge impact on the plot.
- Does this character hold important information that could lead to a conflict ending? This could be something that solves a mystery, pieces together a puzzle, or resolves a misunderstanding. A lesser character can become an essential character if they hold the right information.
When to Combine (and When to Split) Characters
Once you figure out which characters make up the main cast and which ones are side characters, you should determine if every character is essential.
In a good story, every character has a purpose. If you’re unsure whether a particular character serves a purpose, maybe it’s time to combine that character into another one or cut it altogether.
To do this, consider if your characters fit one of the following types:
Set Dressing Characters
These are characters that show up very briefly.
A passerby, a street vendor, a fellow member of the crowd—any character that adds to the setting but not significantly to the story.
The narrative mentions them once and probably never brings them up again—but these characters should serve a purpose.
If your protagonist arrived in a new city, perhaps they look to see another person dressed in local colors, which helps set the scene. Or maybe they are captured and observe one of the fellow captives in a cramped cargo bay.
Set dressing characters should be treated as such—set dressing. They should not be named or given excessive description.
These are one step up from set dressing characters. They have names and interact with the protagonist, but they exist only to drive particular conflicts to to set up certain situations.
These characters are prime candidates for being combined into other characters.
As an example:
Say your protagonist is at a coffee shop with her friend. A woman ahead of them in line is rude to the cashier, who seems very sad and bothered by the interaction. The protagonist comforts the cashier and leaves them a good tip.
This interaction is meant to show that your protagonist is kind.
Is the rude woman really a necessary character? She won’t ever show up again and her sole purpose is to instigate the incident.
The protagonist's friend is there, but she’s not doing anything, even though she’s supposed to be part of the main cast. Instead of using an extra character for this scene, why not make better use of the main cast?
Instead, imagine that protagonist's friend is having a bad day. She complains about her life and then is rude to the cashier when he accidentally gives her the wrong change.
The protagonist waits for her to walk off then quietly comforts the cashier, tells him her friend is not usually like this, and leaves him a good tip. Perhaps the friend’s mood is part of the story, in which case this scene not only becomes much tighter, but serves as a lead-in to the overall plot as well.
Deus Ex Characters
Deus Ex (from the phrase Deus Ex Machina) characters are similar to single-purpose characters, except they exist solely for one major plot twist and nothing else.
This kind of character tends to pop up in mystery stories or fantasies where the hero “discovers their mysterious power.” Rather than weaving the series of events through plot, it’s tempting to throw a character at the twist and call it a day.
Imagine that your protagonist is trying to solve a murder, and toward the end a character who hasn’t been mentioned suddenly shows up and says, “I am the victim’s brother’s third wife’s former roommate. I was the killer all the along!”
Or maybe your protagonist is in the middle of a crisis and has been building for half the book, when suddenly a mysterious stranger appears and saves them for no apparent reason. They mentor them in some power they never knew they had.
All of a sudden they gain super hero status and the course of her entire fate changes.
These are oversimplified examples, but you get the idea.
Deus Ex characters are lazy writing and can make the reader feel caught off guard. However, there are two ways to fix this:
- Eliminate this character. Merge them into another character like you would any other single-purpose character.
- Weave the character into the story. If you don’t want to eliminate the character and really want them to play the role of activating the plot twist, then maybe it’s time to elevate their role. Introduce them earlier in the story, find them other parts to play, hint at their presence throughout the storyline. This will make them into a better, full-fledged character rather than just a plot device.
Multitaskers are characters that are far too busy.
They’re the opposite of single-purpose characters. They play multiple—and sometimes conflicting—roles in the story. This results in them competing with the protagonist for attention or coming off as inconsistent in their development.
The best example I can give of a multitasking character is from my own book Headspace.
I needed someone aside from the main antagonist to challenge the protagonist. Someone on her side yet not quite on her side, a friend who cannot be trusted, or a supposed ally with an ulterior motive.
In the first draft, this character was Crish Michaels, a handsome and popular actor, and a far more beloved contestant in the game of Headspace than the main character Astra, who is spirited but quickly becomes controversial in the eyes of the public.
Crish Michaels openly challenged Astra and other contestants, showing contempt and arrogance toward them, while at the same time plotting behind her back to undermine her in the public eye.
There was a problem with this: he was doing too much.
By openly challenging her, he became less believable as someone with hidden agendas because he appeared to be more of a simple, one-dimensional jerk.
At the same time, plotting behind her back raised the question of why he would want to draw attention to himself if he wanted to operate in the shadows.
A multitasker is a rare instance where I'll tell you to add a character.
Split the multitasker up and figure out where their true intentions lie.
In my case, I asked myself, “Which one of Crish Michaels’s roles is more important to the story?” The decision I arrived at was that he was a deeper, more meaningful character operating in the shadows.
I still needed someone who challenged Astra in a more blatant, obvious way, so another character was added to play this role.
As a result both characters served different, dedicated functions and were better characters because of it.
To Make a Meaningful Cast, Murder Your Darlings
“Murder your darlings” is a common piece of advice given to writers. It’s often attributed to William Faulkner, but can actually be traced back farther.
This statement is meant to advise writers to approach their writing objectively and without sentiment, like killing a loved one.
Murdering what you love in your story—but also what doesn't add to your story—is critical to your character cast as well.
Creating characters is one of the most fun things we can do as writers. The possibilities are limitless. But sometimes those wonderful, amazing characters you created don’t fit the story.
Look back to the traits of essential characters section above and ask yourself:
- Is this character really essential?
- Does the story really need this character, or do I just want this character there because they’re fun to write?
It’s hard to be honest with yourself. Murdering your darlings isn’t easy, but it’s often necessary.
Of course, there are other ways to save your favorite characters. Just because they don’t fit into your current story the way they are doesn’t mean they can’t be saved.
Here are a few options to consider:
- Give the character a bigger role. Maybe they should replace the role played by a character you’re not quite as partial to.
- Give the character their own story. Maybe the reason you like them so much is because they’re too big to ignore and deserve to be the protagonist of their own book or short story.
Remember, never prioritize your love for a character over the story itself. If your character doesn’t fit, find a way to fix their role. If it can’t be fixed, take them out.
Removing a character will hurt for a second, but your story will be better for it.
How many characters are in your current work in progress? Let me know in the comments.
The good news is, the more you improve your writing skills, the better you'll get at creating convincing, complex characters that are essential to your story. Use today's practice to determine if your cast contains essential characters.
If you have a current book in progress, make a list of characters that appear in it.
Take fifteen minutes to evaluate each character's role against the list of essential character traits. See if the result matches your original impression of them.
Are some characters more important than you realized? Or maybe a character you thought was important turns out to serve no particular role at all.
Let us know how this exercise goes in the Pro Practice Workshop here, and if you're up for it, respond to another writer's experience.
J. D. Edwin is a daydreamer and writer of fiction both long and short, usually in soft sci-fi or urban fantasy. Sign up for her newsletter for free articles on the writer life and updates on her novel, find her on Facebook and Twitter (@JDEdwinAuthor), or read one of her many short stories on Short Fiction Break literary magazine.