Overlapping and Unique Character Roles: An Overview

Before I get into this post, I think it’s important to note a few things. Defining character roles – or even most writing-related concepts – is partially subjective. My reading and writing experience has lead me to draw certain conclusions and to assume certain generalities, but by no means are the definitions included in my blog the be-all-end-all of fiction writing terminology. Posts like this should be a guide for writers, never shackles. So, in case it’s helpful to hear, I’m saying that if you ever feel the need to pick and choose which definitions apply for you and your writing style, that’s perfectly okay. More precisely, it can be helpful to bear in mind that oftentimes terms and definitions stand fairly strong on their own until you try applying them to specific fiction stories, and then certain parts of the definitions might not cleanly “fit” – and that’s very normal.

At the same time, these terms and concepts come up frequently when it comes to discussing writing fiction, so here’s what they are commonly accepted to mean.

There are two top-level categories of characters: major and minor. Major characters have the largest roles in a story. Minor characters serve a limited purpose and are in the story either for plot or character development. Major characters can fill secondary roles, but secondary characters cannot fill major roles (if they did, they would be a major character).

Major characters will have larger, dynamic roles in a story. They almost always have their own emotional arc, and will show change or growth before the end of the story.

Minor characters are typically flat, and will have smaller, more precisely mapped roles (although this will likely not be the case in a first draft). Minor characters can be identified by less “screen time” than their major counterparts, but also by their lack of growth or change.

As we’ve talked about before, stories are about having two sides that oppose one another driving the conflict. Major and minor characters are roles that fall on both sides of the divide, meaning, for example, that both antagonist and protagonists are major characters.

Major Characters:

Protagonist – The character working to complete the Story Goal in opposition to the antagonist.

Main Character aka Point-of-View Character – The eyes, ears, and emotions that inform the reader of the story. The main character can be the protagonist but the protagonist is not always the main character.

Antagonist – The character who doesn’t want the protagonist to achieve the Story Goal and will make deliberate efforts to get in their way.

Obstacle Character – This character challenges the protagonist’s belief system, such as attempting to convince them that the Story Goal is not what they really want. The obstacle character can be the antagonist but the antagonist is not always the obstacle character.

One example that illustrates those four roles represented in four separate characters is in To Kill A Mockingbird. The audience follows Scout’s Point-of-View, but Atticus is the protagonist. Boo Radley is the obstacle character, and Bob Ewell is the antagonist. In my reading experience, it is more common to have a single character representing at least two major roles than for them to be separate. This is typically true when it comes to the antagonist and obstacle character. This is likely because an antagonist can use discouragement against a protagonist – which is more the purview of an obstacle character – to get in the way of achieving the Story Goal.

Minor Characters aka Secondary Characters aka Peripheral Characters:

Contrasting Character aka Foil Character – Any character whose personal qualities contrast with another character. By providing this contrast, we get to know more about the other character. (Antagonists are often contrasting characters to the protagonists, as an example of a major character filling a secondary role.)

Supporting Character – Characters that assist the [main character and/or protagonist] in some way. This can be either emotionally, physically, or even to serve as a foil. These characters serve a purpose and often disappear from the story afterward.

There is more to be said for Major Characters than for Minor Characters. However, this shouldn’t undermine the important function that Minor Characters serve in stories. The reason why we don’t see dynamic Minor Characters is because their growth would either dilute the narrative, be redundant, or would slow down a story’s pacing. It can and should happen in the background, but it shouldn’t be on the page.

Minor Characters earn their place by being necessary. During their limited moments “on screen” they should be doing things that are worth paying attention to. Given the chance, they will be memorable, both to the major character they interact with and to the reader. Problems can arise from having too large of a cast. When looking for places to cut content, some scenes put under a magnifying glass will include some with Minor Characters. Sometimes it is necessary to cut a character, or combine them with another. Overall, Minor Characters have a lot of potential to either enhance or distract from the stories they are in. There is very little in-between.

Do you have any favorite minor characters? How do they interact with the major characters that make them stand out? Have you ever written a story where the antagonist and obstacle characters are two separate people? In ensemble casts, can you still identify your protagonist? What is your favorite trope for minor characters?

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