Some authors claim that characters live in their head, sometimes ignore their directives, and even argue with what the author has planned for them. These authors long for characters that seem as real to their audience as they feel to themselves. However, this is not always apparent in their writing. The difficulty with capturing real characters is the finite number of words in a book.
Readers have a short period of time to become acquainted with the character before the action starts. There is an easy way to capture the essence of the main character. Describe the protagonist as a tall, muscular, fearless, an impatient man who speaks four different languages, has a preference for blonds and BMWs, and a severe allergy to peanuts. Then, there is a better way–write the narrative in a manner so the reader can observe the character, follow what he does, see how he reacts, hear what others say about him, and even listen to what he thinks about other characters. That requires to reader to actual concentrate to comprehend the nature of the protagonist.
The second challenge is embellishing the less important secondary characters. This is necessary unless you plan to write a new version of Robinson Caruso. Even this book introduces a secondary character called “Friday,” and a group of cannibals to enliven the story. You cannot use the same detailed development reserved for the main characters, unless you want to drive your readers up a wall. Simply naming and describing each character is also confusing. Readers only want to spend their mental energy keeping track of the names for a few major characters and their sidekicks. However, any minor character who is seen repeatedly should still show individuality, like a quirk in behavior or a physical trait to make them distinguishable from the others.
Here are some usable shortcuts to creating side characters:
Archetype: This is the embodiment of a collective set of characteristics for universal human types . Archetypes include the mentor, a wise old man or woman willing to share their wisdom, and the trickster, a lively character whose loyalty is always suspect. Archetypes still must be fleshed out with details to make them different from other characters you have encountered in books that are the same archetype. Otherwise they are simply a stereotype.
Doppelganger: This character looks almost identical to a main character. The doppelganger can be an empathetic companion or an evil twin. Technically the doppelganger is an archetype, but their traits may be the same or opposite of their spitting image. They also don’t have the boundaries of other archetypes.
Foil: This character is pretty much the opposite of another one, often the protagonist. For example, a clumsy, shy foil would make your protagonist seem athletic and suave.
Semi-round character are partially developed character that has a contradictory trait or two to keep them from being flat and boring, such as an actor with stage fright. They serve well as less important secondary characters.
Creating complex characters for the protagonist, the antagonist and their cohorts is usually both more difficult and more satisfying for the writer and the reader. Of course, some readers would rather simply be told what each character is like. They actually enjoy major characters who are stereotypes. Semi-round main characters are predictable and do not require any close observation or deep thought while reading. As a writer you have to decide who you are writing for, and if you can live with your decisions.