One of the comments I often get regarding my novel Empty Sky is the number of primary characters it contains.
Yes! You know those characters that are neither main protagonist nor main antagonist yet without whom your story wouldn’t exist? Those are what I call primary characters. A working story with only two characters (and those two characters better be your protagonist and antagonist) is going to be either brilliant or short and perhaps both. Often those two characters needs to be complex to make the story interesting. A story with only one or two characters of only one- or two-dimensions that’s interesting…well, I haven’t read one (and am open to suggestion).
An example of a short story (a “palm of the hand” story, really) with only two characters is Man and Boy, Tennessee, 1932 (you’ll need to become a paying subscriber to read that post). That story is told in dialogue between the two main characters. It’s the dialogue – the verbal interaction between the two characters – that makes the story interesting.
Longer stories often become longer because more characters are required to help things happen and move the story along. These non-main characters are not the main focus, they provide focus. Now we’re getting into what I call Primary, Secondary, Minor and Stage Direction characters.
Identifying Character Purpose
Does a character provide focus often enough that the reader becomes interested in them but not so interested that the reader forgets that main characters? Those are primary characters. Primary characters have a reason to exist in the story but they are not the reason the story exists.
Diane Settlefield’s THE THIRTEENTH TALE is full of characters beyond Margaret and Vida and each of them has a reason they’re in the story but the story isn’t directly about them. That’s what’s important.
This “reason” means that that character comes back into the story for some reason. Diane Settlefield introduces the giantish Aurelius and at first the reader may wonder what his purpose is other than to startle Margaret during her researches. Later he returns and we discover this character’s importance to the story, the reason he exists within the story even though the story isn’t directly about him. In EMPTY SKY I introduce a college janitor whom students make fun of. Later he plays a pivotal (but not main or central) role in the story.
Ayn Rand’s ATLAS SHRUGGED is rampant with primary characters. It has to be. The themes Rand is dealing with can’t be told with only two characters. All these primary characters are important, all are necessary, and without them the conflict between Dagny Taggart and John Galt might exist but it wouldn’t be well explained, realized or demonstrated.
I mentioned in Characters Part 1 – Main, Principal, Central that EMPTY SKY‘s protagonist is the young boy, Jamie, and the antagonist is NSA SubChief Earl Pangiosi. These are the novel’s principal characters. Jamie goes through the most growth (as a side note, I attended a talk by best-selling author Diane Les Becquets recently and she agreed that character growth is the one undeniable necessity for any story to succeed (and many thanks to my sponsors for making such trips possible)), but consider EMPTY SKY‘s primary characters:
The main story is about Jamie and Earl Pangiosi although they don’t share the stage through most of the book. But without all these characters’ stories Jamie and Earl’s story couldn’t exist. They are central, quite important and not sharing their stories would make the Jamie/Pangiosi conflict meaningless.
Next time, Secondary Characters!