Not all your characters are important. They cannot all have the starring role, or even the supporting role, but they should be important in their own way to the story. With this in mind, how do we sort the characters into groups in order to find out who should be there and who should not? To find out, we need to know what the different levels of significance are:
These are the central characters – the main characters. These are the people the story is about, revolves around. There may only one main character or several – depending on the story. Usually short stories have a limit of one or two main characters, but novels can have several. However, each scene should focus on, or be from the point of view of, only one character.
These characters are essential to the story too. They often supply the conflict. This might be the third person in a love triangle or the detective in a mystery. These people can, and usually do, have a sub-plot of their own.
These characters are lesser characters who are shown throughout the story, but are in the background. They play a part in the story such as the murder victim or they might act as a catalyst which triggers events. They can create joy, sadness or tension, but they don’t remain for the duration of the story.
These are the more incidental characters to the plot and only occur occasionally in the story. These people do things in the background to make the setting more realistic and descriptive. They are the drivers, the servants, the shopkeepers, etc and they don’t usually say much and don’t need a name.