What is a character?
A fictional person. The person could be male, female, neuter, an alien (with or without gender) or any other combination of living entity you can think of. Normally they are sentient, or self-aware. In Star Wars, R2D2 and his side-kick are characters. Even though they might not actually be self-aware, they act and are treated as if they were.
You might even give character attributes to an animal, vegetable or mineral. Each of the species in The Lord of the Rings has character attributes. The Fanghorn forest trees are considered characters, too.
In fiction, a common assumption is that there is only one main character. He/she/it is the one who predominately drives the action, makes the major decisions and causes the story resolution to occur. In sales, he is called the Decision Maker and makes the final binding decision on what to do.
Not all the characters in a novel create the same effect on the story. That along with the idea that there is only one main character leads us to conclude there is a hierarchy among them. That says you could explicitly assign a value to each character during our design phase.
You can keep the basic character list in a spreadsheet so you can sort them on any attribute desired. If you do an ascending sort on Character Level, you’ll end up with the protagonist at the top, the antagonist next and so on.
Level 1 characters
Assign these the values from 1.0 to 1.9. With these values, you can always remember who are the important players. These are relative values of the magnitude of their roles and have little to do with the innate “goodness” or “badness” of their character.
As the Highlander says, “There can be only one.” The main character is the one who turns out to be the Decision Maker and the one who makes things happen at the end. It’s the Hero/Heroine. Note that the protagonist doesn’t have to be “nice” or “good,” either. He can be thoroughly nasty and still be the lead.
While there are possibly some novels that have only one character, most have more than one. The protagonist will usually have someone of equal magnitude of personality, character issues and the like to compare and contrast against. The protagonist is the one who gets the Oscar as Actor/Actress in a Leading Role; the next value down (up, numerically) gets the Oscar in a Supporting Role.
The other character could be a “good guy” such as in the Romance genre of Heroine and Hero, or an actual opponent whose different goals conflict with the protagonist. He/she could be a partner, business associate, school chum or whomever.
The protagonist gets the 1.0 value. If there is a partner or antagonist, they’ll probably get a 1.2 or so. The protagonist gets most of the page time, at least in the way he affects the plot or story development. There’s no rule or guideline to say he gets 50% more page time than the next one down, either. He simply gets the proper amount of time to show the character development and that he is driving the story.
Don’t have too many of the Level 1 characters; it might confuse the reader. These values are for you, the author, to help keep things straight. While it might be part of your plot or character development to keep the reader guessing who is actually the lead, you yourself have to know.
You will need to develop (in the writing) a full-blown, three-dimensional character for everyone in this level.
Level 2 characters
These are the side-kicks, allies or secondary antagonists who reappear frequently. They do affect the story and plot, but not to the extent the Level 1 characters do. Yes, they can have character arcs and their own “thing” as subplots, but they don’t get the same amount of character development as the Level 1s – they are two-dimensional with some forays into three dimensions.
As allies, these characters often have a specific role to play, such as the detective in the Perry Mason TV series who almost always comes up with the significant clue, or Bones in Star Trek who is the one to say, “He’s dead, Jim.” They are on-page quite a lot.
They can act as moral anchors, brain trusts, straight men or what have you. They sometimes get the Oscars as Actor/Actress in a Supporting Role.
Assign them the values 2.0 to 2.9. They get a fair amount of page time but significantly less than the Level 1s.
Level 3 characters
Good guys or bad guys, makes no difference. The main thing is that they tend to have a recurring role somewhere in the story, but don’t directly affect the story. Some of their actions might create an effect – the Doorman tipping off the protagonist that there have been some suspiciously-acting characters nosing around lately – but they rarely have direct actions which affects the story.
These would sometimes appear in the credits for a film but not on the poster or DVD cover.
Assign them the values 3.0 to 3.9. They get only a two-dimensional character development with little or no character arc.
Level 4 characters
These are the “bit parts.” They could be the pizza delivery girl, the slightly-colorful coffee shop clerk, the sword cleaner-upper or the Star Trek crewman who dies the agonizing death on the unknown planet. One-dimensional, somewhat stereotypical character “development” is their lot.
They might reappear in the story from time to time, but nowhere near as much as the Level 3s.
They get 4.0 to 4.9. You list them mainly for continuity; Sarah as female in Act 1 who reappears in Act 4 should still be Sarah female, not Sahra (different name) or Sandy (male or gender-indeterminate).
Level 5 characters
You might not have even one of these. They are one of the thousands in the Cast of Thousands. The spear-carrier, the serving girl, the waiter and the soldier killed during the first battle. Don’t even list them; if they have an influence on the story besides developing the story world, they probably should be Level 4 or 3.
Many novels have a list of characters. Find one that does, make a copy and assign them the levels they assume in the story. You’ll probably find mostly Level 1s and 2s, an occasional 3, but rarely the 4s or 5s.