One helpful way to organize your characters in your notes/plot is by level. The three common ‘levels’ of characters are primary, secondary, and tertiary characters.
These aren’t titles you’ll prescribe to them in your story, but it can make your plotting and story development a little smoother behind-the-scenes.
Three Levels of Characters
Before we dig into each of these, let’s start with the basics:
- Primary: These are your main characters who play a major role in your story. We follow their lives closely, and readers probably form an emotional connection with them.
- Secondary: These are recurring characters who have a supporting role in your story. We don’t learn as much about them, but they’re still relevant and show up in multiple scenes.
- Tertiary: These characters show up in one or two times for specific reasons. They populate the rest of your world, and interactions with them will be limited. We don’t learn much about them, if anything at all.
Your primary characters are your main players in the story. They might be your protagonist and villain, but your primary characters may be your whole cast if you’re writing from multiple points of view.
These are the characters your story revolves around in. They’re personally impacted by your story’s plot, and we experience the story through their perspective.
Learn more about character development through these blog posts.
Secondary characters, though not main characters in your story, are important! You can’t simply paint them as a caricature to populate your world.
Secondary characters do help populate your world, but they also serve a few important roles. They can:
- Reveal certain details about your main character(s)
- Support your worldbuilding
- Inspire your main character(s) to take some kind of action
- Act as an antagonist (though not a villain) in a subplot
Use a mix of dialog and action to explore your secondary characters. And when you’re developing them, be sure to consider their backstory and motivations and how these play into the plot.
Don’t feel like you have to develop them or reveal as much information about them in the story. Yes, secondary characters need some autonomy and agency, and they aren’t simply props for your story, but you don’t have to give us ALL the info you would about a primary character.
Tertiary characters are very minor characters in your story. We learn little, if anything, about them, but that’s okay!
These characters show up one or two times in a story, and they serve a specific purpose. Think of these characters as ones who exist in the same universe, but they’ve accidentally crossed into your main character’s story.
Tertiary characters often serve to reveal some kind of clue the main character needs, or they may be there to fill stock roles and populate the world. The helpful barista, the grumpy librarian, the guard who delivers a message–you get the idea.
And just as with secondary characters, don’t rely on cliches or stereotypes to fill these roles. Though readers may not learn much about your tertiary characters, they’ll still be disappointed by boring, cliche filler.
Can these characters change levels?
If you do organize your characters like this in your own notes, just remember you aren’t locked into these tiers of ‘importance.’
Stories can always ebb and flow. While your main characters will likely remain your main characters in a given series, your secondary and tertiary characters can always become more important.
You can also create spin-off stories about your secondary and tertiary characters. This is a popular step in romance specifically, but I’ve also seen fantasy authors create new stories in the same ‘universe’ with old characters given new roles.
But don’t add too many…
While it’s great to have characters of varying importance in your story to make your world feel full and vibrant, be careful about how many characters you add to your story.
Adding dozens of named characters may be hard for readers to keep track of, and if a reader is frustrated, they’re more likely to stop reading your story. Add named characters as they make sense for your story, not just to fill up space!
Need help with your characters?
If you’re having trouble with your characters (or any part of your story), send me an email to learn more about how I can help you!