Quick Thoughts: Main Characters vs Extras

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Main Characters vs. Extras

In writing stories, I often wonder how much thought or emphasis should be put on secondary characters—characters that may only make an appearance for a moment or two within the story. Do they need to be described fully or can they only be described if they have a distinctive attribute that will add to the scene or part of the story?

For instance, in one of the stories I wrote, I thought every character had to be known. Even the baker that would sell bread would be described head to toe. The baker was not an important character in the story, he was more of an extra—someone the main character came in contact with in passing. Knowing how the baker looked may not matter much to the reader since this character would not make another appearance again and especially since there was nothing distinct about the character. But even if there was something distinct about the character, would that add to the plot of the story or goal/resolution that the main character is seeking?

Sometimes, through reading other stories, I find that even extras are fully described. I can see that being necessary or helpful when the author seeks to describe the atmosphere/environment in which the main character is in, the type of population/people, or maybe even an era/time period. In such cases, it would be a good idea to describe extras since it can enhance the reader’s understanding of the environment and time frame in which the story takes place. But sometimes, when such things do not matter, it may be nice to leave character descriptions of extras to the mind of the reader—let them imagine for a moment or two who or what that character is to them since it does not affect the story.

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