There’s a fairly popular adage going around these days about how every character is the protagonist in their own story. And while I appreciate the spirit behind this concept in that each character should be treated with the same attention you garner your protagonist, it’s simply untenable in execution. I mean, think about just a single battle scene with 1,000 soldiers: Are you, as the author, supposed to know the backstory and inner life of pikeman #367?
Of course not.
There’s a clear caste system to writing characters, with the Protagonist obviously on top, followed by Main Characters, then Secondary and Tertiary Characters, and the lower on the totem pole you go, the character is drawn in broader strokes until they’re just defined by their roles rather than names.
In terms of the Protagonist, it’s understood s/he should be multi-dimensional and full of facets. This means s/he can actually contain contradictory traits such as being both compassionate and cruel. In fact, it’s the conflict between these two contrary traits that often makes the protagonist compelling as s/he must reconcile these diametrically opposed impulses over the course of the story.
The same is true for Main Characters, in that they are multi-dimensional, have competing desires, backstories, arcs, and in many ways the only reason they’re right below the Protagonist is because the plot does not depend on them. Effectively, it’s not their heroes journey.
To wit, in Star Wars, Luke is the Protagonist while Han, Leia, and Obi Wan are all Main Characters because the story doesn’t really kick into gear until Luke begins his quest. Same holds true for Lord of the Rings in that Frodo is the Protagonist since it’s his story while Gandalf, Sam, and Aragorn are all Main Characters.
Now in both cases (especially LOTR), it could be argued that all these Main Characters are more interesting than the Protagonist, but I’m not going to stir that particular pot here. Just making the distinction before we move to the next levels down in the cast list.
In his seminal screenwriting work Story, Robert McKee maintains all characters are there simply to act as counterpoint to the protagonist, who sits center in the cast list. Secondary Characters, therefore, are less complete than the protagonist and are there simply to reveal his/ her true character (another of McKee’s concepts we won’t get into today). This is not to say that Secondary Characters cannot have clear backstories, multiple defining traits with these traits perhaps even in opposition to each other, or even arcs; it’s just that these characters aren’t the center of the story, and mostly exist to help move the protagonist along down the plot. In screenwriting, these characters are definitely given names, but they’re not given nearly the same mental effort in drawing as the protagonist(s). A good rule of thumb here would be, if you’re writing a bible, this character receives a paragraph of pertinent information rather than pages like your protagonist.
In Star Wars Secondary Characters include R2D2, C3P0, Lando, and Chewbacca while in LOTR we’ve got Meri, Pippin, Legolas and Gimli.
Tertiary Characters are even further away, and have no real purpose than to oppose/ assist the protagonist. As such, they’re not really defined by anything except this role. In screenwriting, these characters are often just known as perhaps “Taxi Driver” or “Nurse.”
But circling back to the spirit behind the idea that every character is the protagonist in their own story, the author wants his/ her characters to be memorable to the audience by popping off the page despite barely appearing on it. To make these fairly ill-defined characters memorable, Blake Snyder employs his “Limp and an Eyepatch,” which is to say he defines each character by one simple, physically memorable trait for the audience to latch on to. It’s always physical for screenwriting because film is a visual medium, but you could definitely employ mental limps for characters in novels.
To me, probably the best limp/ eyepatch of all time is for Jack Andolini from The Dark Tower series. If you haven’t read the series, know that he was a Secondary Character (had a name) antagonist for Main Character Eddie (Roland the Protagonist). Jack’s purpose in the story was only to oppose Roland/ Eddie, and his defining trait was his ugliness; so much so that Eddie always referred to him a “old double ugly.”
The reason Jack is the best limp/ eyepatch tertiary character I can think of is because, despite him instantly leaping to my mind when I came up with this article, I had to google him to find his actual name. Despite playing a minor role in the story as a whole, he was utterly memorable for his ugliness and role, but definitely not for his name.
And that there, that’s what you want for your secondary and tertiary characters: Something for the audience to latch on to and remember.