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Follows up this my question (How to choose ideal number of main characters?)

I want to write a book / series about 4 friends from school. A little inspiration comes from The Middle series. But I do not know, how to handle loads of side characters, such as other classmates, teachers and parents/siblings of main characters, which mostly are not important for the storyline.

While The Middle has quite enough of side characters, most of the plot happens inside one family and house and you have enough time to get familiar with heroes. But in classmates stories, it seems not be possible. Maybe Friends and The Big Bang Theory could help me, but I do not know these series and also they are about adults, while my story should start with circa 12 year old characters, which are not living in the dorms.

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Possibly you might mention various minor characters, such as other students, teachers, the principal, school janitors, the parents of the kids who are the main characters, etc. only when they do something that the main chracters notice briefly.

For example, the teacher asks a question and the smartest kid in the class answers, but incorrectly for once, and one of the main kids answers the question correctly.

Or the bullies might be mentioned only when they happen to bully the main characters instead of other victims.

Or the main characters go to the house of one of them and say hello to one or both of the parents as they go to the room of the kid who lives there. And maybe once or twice one of the parents yells at them to not make as much noise.

And the hallways and cafeteria of the school can be described as crowded with kids when the main characters are in them.

And maybe there can be a few scenes where a main character hears and passes along gossip about a student or teacher.

And maybe a main character has an embarrassing accident and nearby kids whose names are briefly listed laugh at him. And possibly he thinks that they are not as nice as he used to think they were.

And the main characters can ask permission from teachers, school staff, or parents to do something, like go to the bathroom or go on a school trip, etc.

So the story can be mostly the four main characters interacting with themselves, and any 'guest" characters who are important in a particular story. But other characters should be mentioned as existing in the background from time to time, or even interacting with the main characters in minor ways, to show that they aren't the only four people in the world or even in their town.

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Au contraire! The Big Bang Theory will show you exactly how to do it.

There are 4 main characters, and 4 others that are matched with those first 4; so those are regulars but not the MCs. Although by the end they do look like 8 MCs.

There are some regular characters eg. parents and folks the MCs work with.

And there are some special characters that show up for a small side arc of activity. The Dean, and the HR honcho for the school. Also some other scientists. And a couple of outside ones.

Some of the less regular characters may show up again when it helps bring laughs to the current story arc. Or they might be a glimpse of an alternate semi-long arc.

Overall the series arc was the MCs getting married eventually with the females except for the one which was part of a running joke.

And the overall overall arc ended up with Sheldon getting the Nobel Prize and then in the end tearing up his 100-page acceptance speech and talking briefly ad hoc to thank all the other 6 MCs for the help they gave him so he could win the Nobel.

In a novel setting I just read one book that had about 4 regular characters but brought in for one scene nearly a hundred others just to make it seem realistic. It was a bit hard to know who was who and if any of them would reappear that I needed to remember them. Better to just use first names if any and a general tag like what they do or where they live. These extra characters were different from the ones The Big Bang Theory used which you could remember and were pertinent to part of the story line.

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Let's start with a little exercise: take a minute, and write down the names of as many Hogwarts students from the Harry Potter series as you can (main timeline only, so no putting down all of the magical adult characters, and none of the kids from the epilogue). Done that? I imagine you've got somewhere between 4 and 20? Would it surprise you to hear that there are 48 such named students in the books? That seems like a lot, but it's out of perhaps a thousand kids at the school at any one time, and maybe double that over the course of the series.

So, what we can see here is:

  1. The large majority of the students in your school aren't characters. They're set dressing. They're there, sure - it would be weird if this school had barely anybody in it, but they don't matter at all. They probably never get mentioned other than just as a crowd (and even then, there's probably somebody actually relevant enough to get a name in that crowd, if it does anything interesting), and don't even need names.
  2. Even the majority of the students that you are going to give names to are still set dressing (looking at you, Terry Boot). They won't do anything much that matters to the plot, and nobody will remember the names that you give them: the names are there to make the dialogue less awkward if your characters who do matter need to talk to/about them (Justin Finch-Fletchley gets a name purely so that the main characters can talk about him being basilisk-ed without it being awkward), or to provide background stuff. They need a name, and quite possibly literally nothing else.
  3. The majority of the students that actually do something do very few things, and aren't particularly important (did you remember Anthony Goldstein, Michael Corner, or Marietta Edgecombe? Because they all did actually relevant things?). Give them names, sure, and a hint of a personality (literally like 5 words or less), and bring them in on occasion when you need something doing and none of the real characters are in a good place to do it, but otherwise, they don't need much.
  4. We're now starting to get to the real characters. At this point, people probably need some, well, character. They aren't the main characters, but they're relevant side-characters who might turn up in lists like yours (you might have come up with Katie Bell, Lee Jordan, or Dean Thomas). You'll probably have a handful of these, but not that many, compared to the above categories. They have some actual personality, something to make them memorable to readers, but probably aren't anybody's favourite character.
  5. You then have a small number of actual major characters: the people that I can refer to by first-name only and you'll know who I'm talking about (Harry, Hermione, Ron, Luna, Ginny, Fred, George, etc.). These are the characters who need development and arcs, the characters that people really care about, but they're only present in manageable numbers.
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    +1! Amazing answer, it really did make me appreciate how J.K. Rowling could pull off such a wide range of characters. – Nai45 Jan 19 at 18:47
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Class mates are no different from any other kind of side character like (to go with your family example) the grandparents who sometimes visit, the grumpy neighbour, the big brother's girl friend etc.

In the context of class mates, first you need to determine the size of the class. However, if there are 20 pupils in the class, that doesn't mean you need to add 16 extras. In fact, it might be better to have just a few as stand-in for the class as a whole, who turn up again and again.

It helps to think of roles that tend to get filled in every class.

  • the jokester
  • the popular boy/girl
  • the studious boy/girl
  • the teacher's pet
  • the one who's always helping others
  • the lazy student
  • the bully

Any kid could fill one or more roles (for example, you could have a bully who manages to be popular by making mean jokes about others). You can also have a few pupils filling the same role form a clique.

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  • I would avoid stereotyping characters as 'the bully' or 'the popular kid' because those characters can come out flat and boring. Characters should have character, not labels. – Nai45 Jan 17 at 19:57
  • 4 main characters are like this: 1) Nerdy, but clumsy guy. Has Asperger syndrome and has weird hobbies. Social awkward. 2) Practical guy, can fix anything, leader of the group. 3) Happy and funny girl, but she tends to be too annoying. 4) Shy girl, which does not speak, because she was abused by her family till she was moved to loving family. She is able to withstand with 3). – Busspotter Penguin Jan 17 at 21:12
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Generally there are some recurring numbers. Trinities are pretty common and tend to follow an Id, Ego, and Superego personifications in the characters (Instinct/Emotions, Middle Ground, and Logic/Rationalism). Generall examples of these trinity are "Bones, Kirk, Spok" or "Ron, Harry, Hermonie". You'll note the "leader" tends to be the Ego, as the two secondary characters on the trinity team are going to almost play as Shoulder Devil and Shoulder Angel to the main character's choice.

"How I Met Your Mother" shows a group of five dynamic where each group of people do have enough personality traits that they have common reasons to interact with each other in smaller groups but can interact with anyone as needed by the plot. In the show, the main character Ted has different reasons for having each group member surrounding him (Marshall is his Roommate. Lilly is Marshal's college sweetheart turned wife, Barney kind of inserted himself into Ted's life and everyone was too amused by him to not just roll with it, and Robin was Ted's girlfriend and later ex-girlfriend, albiet a mutally accepted switch to platonic friendship after their break-up (her introduction into the group is where the series starts and she's often the character who prompts explaiantions of the other four's injokes and backstories.). The format of the show allowed for different characters to break apart into groups of twos and threes (and rarely two groups of twos and one on his/her own OR even all 5 having their own adventures at the same time).

In the Justice League cartoon series, the 7 members were rarely in the episode all the time with various character's absenses explained as having to take care of off screen problems or their naturally sporadic attendence being a given trait (i.e. Superman might not appear because he's dealing with another crisis that he can cover on his own, but assigning another leaguer would be too much. Batman was always a "part-timer" and favored monitor duty as it allowed him to work his own Gotham based cases while supporting the other heroes (a role that would go to Martian Manhunter in the sequel.))

Generally a larger cast may need a B-story plot that involves a subset of the cast not appropriate to the A-plot (In Big Bang Theory, the dividing line tended to the Guys and the Girls dynamic and earlier episodes have Penny-Leonard-Sheldon split into the Id, Ego, Superego dynamic while Raj and Howard got up to their own antics as a more "straight man/Funny man duo"). But not all characters have to do everything together. They should have a dynmaic in place where the group can be split into subsets and everyone has meanigful contribution to the story.

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