Here’s a post at Book View Cafe: Characters, Their Care and Feeding
There are vital, primary characters (the protagonist, the antagonist), secondary characters (companions, love interests, foils), and (to use film terminology) bit players, walk-ons, and extras.
One way we signal the reader about a character’s relative importance is by whether or not we give them names. The professor is less important in the reader’s mind than Professor Denning and Professor Denning is less important than Professor Joseph Denning or Joe.
All true, and it’s a difficult point. Sometimes it seems unnatural for one character not to refer to another by name, and then there you are, kinda stuck. Or sometimes you have a good handful of extras in a scene and you feel that the reader is likely to mix them up or lose track of them if they don’t have names.
This post — it’s by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff — offers some good tips about how to manage that:
Let’s say you’ve got a technician who appears in a scene or two in your book. You can identify him by giving him a visual trait—carroty red hair. This visual trait allows the reader to identify him as an individual through unique tags—”the carrot topped tech” or “the red head” or through other characters reacting in some way to the brightness of the guy’s hair.
Yes! This is a good way to handle this problem, and no doubt results in many minor walk-on characters being, say, bald, or having a scar on the face, or as above, having red hair.
You can even provide no identifying characteristics except “the thug on the right” and that’s enough to keep a fight scene clear, even if your super-competent protagonist demolishes three or four or more bad guys in one brief scene.
More at the linked post, of course.
I tend to name characters if they might be somewhat important later. Or if this is a walk-on character, but his backstory just unfolded to me and I think he might become a more important character, but I’m not sure.
This sort of thing sometimes results in an named character, maybe even one you personally like, who doesn’t turn out to have anything important to do after all. The best way to handle that is most likely to meld that character into another character or remove him entirely. This is often a tedious job, but there you go. I will just add — no need to inquire too closely as to how I found this out — that it may be wise to do a global search for his name, to make absolutely certain you have cleared every single mention of this character out of your manuscript.
I’ll add, as a related issue, that there are definitely times when a situation would logically call for more people. For example, when Aras goes into the winter country in Tarashana — oh, that’s up to 43 ratings on Amazon, nice to see — anyway, I think it would have been reasonable and sensible for him to take more soldiers with him. I mean, not sixty or anything like that. But four, five, eight maybe. But good lord above, I had so many important secondary characters already going along. Did you ever count them? Aras, Ryo, Rakasa, Bara, Geras, Suyet, Lalani. And then Tano. Eight people! And I had to handle them in such a way that the reader never forgot anyone was there and they all seemed to actually be there all the way through. The entire reason Aras took only two soldiers with him was to keep the numbers down for that journey for my sake, not for his. Hopefully I made that sound plausible, but everything else was just an excuse.
This reminds me of yet another related phenomenon: killing off the parents of younger protagonists in the backstory. Sometimes there’s an important reason that’s connected to the plot, such as, oh, actually quite a few of mine. In The Floating Islands and The Keeper of the Mist and Black Dog, the death of the parents in the backstory is crucial to setting up the story. Some others too, probably. But sometimes the sole reason to kill off one or both parents in the backstory is to clear out the cast of characters and thus make the story easier to write. This was the case for Kehera’s mother in Winter of Ice and Iron, for example. In fact, some of these dead parents are never even named. It’s enough trouble coming up with names for characters that are alive and doing stuff during the story! Every name you don’t have to invent spares you that little bit of attention to put toward doing something else.