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Classifying the Characters in Your Story

by Mitchel Whitington

I've heard people tell story after story of how they create characters: some cut photos out of magazines for inspiration, others pen several paragraphs of character background to get to know each individual intimately, and there are even authors who can't put a word on paper without doing a full bio sketch on everyone in their story. What is the best method? Who knows - it varies with each writer. The important thing is that in the end, you have crafted a believable story that will captivate the reader and pull them into the world that you have created. To achieve a better relationship with your characters, decide their role in your story: Are they Walk-On Characters, Bit-Part Players, Supporting Characters, or the stars of the show, the Main Characters?

Walk-On Characters - These people comprise the crowd shots, the bar scenes, and sports events of your story. Just like their counterparts in the movies, they have no speaking roles, never look at the camera, and are in the scene only to set the mood. Imagine a story starting with your two main characters, Beaunapart and Contessa, opening a door and walking into a crowded room. Everyone in the crowd is dressed in T-shirts and shorts, with several small groups surrounding silver kegs of beer, and random women running through the room being chased by cackling men. Most people in the room are moving to the blaring rock music. That scene paints a much different picture in the reader's mind than if the door is opened to chamber music with walk-on characters in formal attire sipping cognac and delicately munching finger-food. Use walk-on characters wisely, and they will be invaluable in setting the mood.

Bit-Part Players - Ah, the characters with the coveted speaking part, even if only a line. These are basically cliché characters, who serve only to interact with your major and minor characters. The fact that they can be cliché is a very valuable tool for you as a writer, since it saves you time in their characterization. After all, they will only be in the reader's attention for a few minutes. As an example, consider the following four professions:

  • Army Sergeant
  • Prostitute
  • Security Guard
  • School Teacher

Whether you wanted to or not, as you read each profession above, a mental image instantly appeared in your head. The way they looked, they way that they acted, and so forth. That is the advantage that we, as writers, can use when including Bit-Part Players. If two policemen walk up to question your main character, let the reader fill in the blank of what they look like, how they walk, how they talk, etc. This frees you to concentrate on the thoughts and reactions of your main character.

Supporting Roles - These are characters that show up throughout the story, but are not the primary focus. For that reason, you don't have to let the reader become totally intimate with them, although some degree of familiarity is beneficial. How they dress, their dialect, even the views that they express will help mold the reader's impression. This can be important, since they will directly influence your main characters. In Rocky III, the trainer "Mickey", played by the brilliant Burgess Meredith, takes the minor role of harbinger of things to come in Rocky's career. When discussing all the fights that Rocky has been winning, he breaks the news, "They were all hand-picked! If you fight this Clubber Lang, he'll kill you to death!" Looking at that movie as a stand-alone work, you have no idea whether Mickey is married, what his political affiliation is, or anything else outside of the fact that he loves Rocky as a son. You feel bad about his death when it happens early in the movie, but that is not the turning point of the story. He is only there to move the plot along. Still, with the gruff manner of speaking, and his small stature compared to Rocky, he is a memorable part of the movie. Strive to make impressions with your minor characters, but only in the sense that they further the cause of the Main Characters.

Main Characters - The Pulitzer-nominated novelist Robert Vaughn poses an interesting situation when speaking to writing groups about main characters: Take any one of them in your story, and mentally send him into a convenience store. He puts a canned cola on the counter, and gives the clerk a twenty dollar bill. The clerk, in turn, gives him change for a ten. How does the character react? Does he launch into a rage, calling the clerk names and railing on his incompetence? Or is he so shy that he slinks out of the store, embarrassed that he can't summon the courage for a confrontation? If you don't know how your character would react, then you don't know that person well enough. These few people are the ones on which to concentrate when crafting your story: to cut out photos, to do character bios, to try to delve into their inner psyche, or whatever it takes for you to know them well. The story is about them, and they will be the ones touching the hearts of the reader.

While there are arguably many other character types, these four provide a good model when laying out your story. Excellent characterization is crucial for story-telling. At the end of the movie "Jerry Maguire", the accountant/ex-girlfriend Dorothy (played by Renee Zellweger) utters the single line, "You had me at ‘hello'," which brought audiences to tears because the wants, needs and desires of her Main Character had been so well-developed throughout the story. If you weigh each character's role in the story, you will be able to give them the proper amount of exposure to the reader, and will use them to spin a tale that will create a lasting impression in the reader's mind.

© 2005 Mitchel Whitington

About the Author

Mitchel Whitington is an author and speaker - visit Mitchel's website at

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