Main Characters are the reason readers invest themselves in a story. Main characters have histories that the reader comes to know as the story progresses. Main characters are complex: they might not do the expected thing, or they might do the expected thing in a way it has not been done before. Main characters have depth and inner feelings which drive them in interesting and/or understandable directions. Now, when I use the word “understandable” I do not mean to say “acceptable” or “moral.” Look at the Harry Potter series. We understand that Tom Riddle had a horrific childhood and because of this, we are not surprised to find that he becomes unstable quite early on. However, Tom Riddle becomes more than just unstable, he becomes a murderer in order to gain power and immortality. While most of us cannot understand the murderer’s mind and do not relate to Tom Riddle or his alter ego, Lord Voldemort, we do not question his actions: Riddle’s/Voldemort’s actions are understandable to us because they fit his character perfectly, unacceptable though they are. He’s a very complex character.
Harry Potter is complex as well. As one of the main characters and the protagonist, he resonates with readers because he is good as well as flawed. Unlike Voldemort, Harry is loyal, sympathetic, caring, fun-loving, and deeply kind. But even though Harry is a protagonist, that does not mean he is perfect or has never had trouble. His creator makes him an orphan on the outset: Voldemort murders his parents when he is an infant and he lives with that pain all his life. Though Voldemort sought to kill Harry as well, he was unsuccessful, something that had never happened to Voldemort before that time nor does it ever happen after. Because of this, Harry becomes known as “the boy who lived,” and he is the focus of attention that he doesn’t ever get used to. Harry can be rebellious, Harry is often lonely, Harry has been known to break the rules at school, to be moody because of inner turmoil he cannot understand—but Harry also puts others ahead of himself, he sacrifices for others, and he faces danger so others won’t have to (even the people who have been unkind to him). Harry is not a goody-two-shoes, Harry is a good boy with big problems. Harry has character. Harry has pluck. Harry is complex. Harry is a Main Character.
TWO TYPES OF “TYPES”
secondary characters. In the novel Sense and Sensibility, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, Edward Ferrars, Colonel Branden, and John Willoughby are main characters. Lucy Steele, Mrs. Jennings, and Mrs. Ferrars are all secondary characters, but without them we don’t have much of a tale. For instance, if there was no Mrs. Ferrars (a cruel, arrogant woman of society who will see her son disowned before she sees him marrying below his station), then there could be no heartbreak for the gentle Edward Ferrars, the crafty Lucy Steele, or the poor Elinor Dashwood. Now, some would say Mrs Ferrars is a “type” as she is a rich socialite and snooty to those she considers below her. Okay, I’ll grant you that this is a recognizable type and that Mrs. Ferrars does what we expect her to do within the perimeters of that type. However, though she may not be as complex as, say, Marianne, Mrs. Ferrars is more complex than a type, and her place in the story makes her a secondary character.
So What Are Types?
We see that types are not secondary characters, but that secondary characters can look like types. Types are different from main and secondary characters in that [A] there is really no reason for types to have a lot of back story, if any at all, [B] types aren’t complex, [C] types are easy to write into stories because readers already have their images locked in their subconscious minds.
Types can be slipped into our stories and can have little impact on our main/secondary characters (they are just the people on the plane, for instance), or they can have a great deal of impact, depending on what you want to use them to do. The mugger on the street might have no purpose in the story other than to snatch your character’s purse and run off, never to be reintroduced in the story. The mugger could also quite believably kill your character’s husband when he attempts to stop the crime, and still never be reintroduced in the story. In either case, we don’t need to know much of anything about the mugger to believe he is capable of stealing or even murder. “The Mugger” is a type. Put him in a dark jeans jacket, pull a cap over his greasy hair with the brim shading his cold watchful eyes, and slip a knife into his pocket—he’s ready to go. Put him in leather, make him a blonde with a crew cut—he’s still “The Mugger.” His vision will rise in your readers’ minds, and it will be an accurate enough vision. Write the words TV Preacher, Used Car Salesman, Sailor on Leave, and Mob Boss and you’ll get the same reaction: people have images of these types hiding in their subconscious. All you have to do is give a brief description and your readers’ particular images are there.
MISTAKES WE MAKE WITH TYPES
1). One mistake writers can make with types is in not adding them into their stories at all. I see this a lot with newer writers and with writers who are self-publishing and who aren’t getting enough feedback about their work (or who are ignoring that feedback), so beware of this. When there are no types in a story, the main characters are operating in a vacuum. This doesn’t make for good storytelling. Types cut your character off in traffic, bustle by him in the street, sit beside him in the doctor’s waiting room—types add action and color and realism to your character’s world.
When an estranged couple, Robert and Vivian, meet each other in a restaurant to discuss their relationship, it is much more interesting and true to life if they must endure the over-talkative waitress, knowing they only have this one precious hour to get some things settled. Bring in a fussy waiter to come by their table and fiddle with their salt and pepper shakers while Robert tries to convince Vivian to return to him, and you’ve added more tension. Or, have them sit in uncomfortable silence, that’s always grand. But uncomfortable silences can be turned up a notch when a child at another table begins to tantrum over his chicken fingers (can’t we all immediately picture the bratty child type?). Or, just write perfectly pleasant types into the scene, sitting around the restaurant, enjoying their lunches…but situate their tables a little too close to Robert and Vivian’s table and allow Robert and Vivian to hear snatches of their conversations. Can you see how the intense and heartbreaking topic that Robert and Vivian are trying to discuss discretely is made more frustrating for their not wanting to be overheard? This awkwardness is brought to your main characters through the vehicle of types.
2). The second mistake I have seen with types is when writers write them in a
contrived way. The thugs that guard your gun runner don’t have to be always cracking their knuckles and leering at people’s kneecaps, or constantly talking about all the ways they’re going to mess up other characters. I can hear you saying to your computer screen, “Thanks for that advice, Captain Obvious!” but this advice isn’t obvious to every writer, and I’ve dealt with it more times than I can count when working with editing clients. I edited a story once where the thugs were so thuggy that they were no longer thugs at all, they were caricatures of thugs. They knocked down strangers on the street, they leaped forward to grab the gentler characters in neck-holds, and for no reason except the writer was “writing thugs” and he believed they had to be beating on people all the time. If you are writing a thug into your story and he runs around attacking other characters with no provocation, he better be doing this for a reason (for instance, he is mentally ill, he is on drugs, he’s being paid by an even bigger thug to create havoc and instill fear, etc). As long as you’ve made his actions reasonable to your readers, your thug can go around knocking hats off in the street without your readers having to suspend their disbelief. He’ll be doing what thugs in his circumstance do. That’s the great thing about types: they are so necessary for peopling your stories and, if written well, they are like little toy soldiers that your wind up and let go.
[Photos: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Amazon.com); Sense and Sensibility (Amazon.com); On the Waterfront (Amazon.com). Lady in red dress, Vintage-Dior.]