Character Types That Are In Most Stories

There are different types of characters in every story. All stories need a main character and, while short stories require another one or two characters, novels need to include many other different types.

Protagonist
The main character (or protagonist) is the person that readers should either identify with or understand and feel an emotional connection to the character. Writers want readers to cheer for their protagonists when they succeed and help them or feel sorry for them through the tough times.

Deuteragonist
Main characters will often have someone they can rely on and who is supportive. Depending on the storyline, this character can be categorised as a side-kick, second-in-command or best friend. This character has an important role to play and can offer comic relief or inner strength when the main character needs it the most. That doesn’t mean they can’t cause some conflict of their own.

In Merlin, the television series, Merlin was the main character and King Arthur was the deuteragonist. This was an interesting twist where in other stories King Arthur was the main character who relied on his wise, wizard friend Merlin.

There can also be multiple deuteragonists in a story, such as Harry Potter had Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley. Without those two, the story would be very different.

Antagonist
Where would we be without the malicious plotting of the villain (antagonist) in the story? Actually, the story would probably be a non-event. Antagonists have their own reasons for their desired outcome, which is in contrast to the main character’s wants and needs. The antagonist can be a person, a group (aliens invading the planet), or it can be an illness or disease.

Love Interest
This character is the main character’s love interest. It may be a bumpy road, a temporary relationship or a lasting relationship. The character could also be the deuteragonist, which could cause some conflict at times. This type of relationship is quite common, such as The X Files with FBI agents and partners Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, or Laura Holt and a thief who steps into the role of her mysterious boss in Remington Steele.

The person taking the role as the love interest may not be a prominent character and can be identified as a secondary character.

Secondary Characters
Some writers refer to this category as Tertiary Characters or they may even break this section into two groups: Secondary Characters and Tertiary Characters. But to keep things simple, it is included all under the one category.

These characters may help or hinder the main character or even the villain, which can be quite unintentional. There are usually multiple secondary characters in a story. This would include the suspects in a whodunit story, or people who show up every so often like the gardener who mows the lawn or the friendly shop assistant in a frequently visited shop. It includes all the characters that flit in and out of the main character’s life – some temporary and others for the long haul.

Ghost or Unseen Characters
There are often characters mentioned in a story that are never seen or heard, but these characters are mentioned and can often be the reason why the main character or other characters act in a certain way. These unseen characters may have died, been a childhood friend, or someone else that is referred to but never appears in the story.

Basically all your characters should fall into one of these categories. There are other groups, such as mentors, but they usually fall into one of the mentioned categories in this article.

 

Image by analogicus from Pixabay

The Perfect Protagonist Is Flawed

Writers can fall into the trap of making their protagonist perfect. No one is perfect. We all have undesirable quirks; some are reasonably easy to hide and others are more obvious. While villains have good qualities, heroes need bad qualities. This makes your character more believable, more recognisable and more – dare I say it – likeable. A story with a flawless protagonist is flawed.

Besides giving your protagonist less desirable qualities, consider what else you can add to make your hero more interesting. Is it a mysterious or torturous past? Does your character have well-guarded secrets, which are hinted at but slow to reveal? What drives your character? What turmoil does your character deal with?

Let’s look at the classic superheroes who originally started out as always being true, good and courageous. They hardly ever made a bad decision, and their sole problem was trying to keep their identity hidden. Now, they are far more developed, make mistakes, and vulnerable. Superheros are more likeable, even funny, if they struggle with their inner demons.

The Avengers – each a superhero with a desire to help and protect – still have individual issues. Bruce Banner battles with his violent alter ego, The Hulk. Thor struggles with his arrogance and his weakness for his adopted brother. Black Widow’s tortuous past as a child turned her into a brilliant assassin and her heart into stone. She did unmentionable things and is trying to make amends but she has to fight her dark past on a daily basis. As for Tony Stark – a genius inventor struggles with … well, everything. He struggles with being neglected by his work-obsessed father, with usually being the smartest person in the room (unless Bruce Banner is present), and with feeling inadequate to his alter ego invention, Iron Man. You may think Captain America is perfect; he comes close, but he still has issues. Due to a 70-year sleep in the Arctic, he loses all his friends including his girlfriend and wakes up to a different world to what he knew with different values. That would weigh heavily on anyone. While he has good common sense, he’s naive. He’s lonely and in need of an inner purpose beside the obvious ‘save the world’ purpose.

All these characters have come to life because of their personal problems and that makes them human, which means the audience can understand and connect with them.

We’ve established that protagonists need good and bad qualities to make them three-dimensional characters, and that they need to deal with their own conflicts. There are many different types of protagonists and some can fit into more than one category. They are not all willing to face danger like superheroes; there are reluctant heroes too. Bruce Banner is a reluctant hero because it means giving up control and unleashing the Hulk. There’s also the protagonist who stumbles onto a situation that requires extraordinary bravery and effort to save one or more people when the protagonist just wants to pretend nothing is happening so he/she can go home to bed. Han Solo from Star Wars was simply trying to pay off a debt and didn’t want to get involved. Ellen Ripley certainly didn’t want to tangle with the slimy aliens looking for hosts.

Even everyday protagonists are still fighting for a desired outcome. It may not be to save the world or restore freedom; it may be something more personal like fighting an illness or dealing with betrayal. Whatever it is, don’t forget to give your protagonists a few warts and inner conflicts along with being basically good individuals.

 

Image by Alexander Gounder from Pixabay

The Perfect Villain Is Not All Evil

While the enemy can be multiple individuals forming a uniting force, such as invading aliens wanting to take over Earth, we will focus on an individual foe for the purposes of this article.

Every story needs a villain and that villain needs a purpose. No matter how dark and sinister antagonists may be, they are people too and must have wants and needs. The antagonist must believe his/her purpose is reasonable and justified, if not righteous. Gone are days when the villain was merely a shadow of a person and can no longer be portrayed as a man with a handlebar moustache, an evil glint in his dark eyes, wearing a black full-length coat and a hat, and looking to tie a damsel to the train tracks. The protagonist’s nemesis has morphed into characters of substance, someone who has plans, take calculated risks, and willing to do whatever it take to achieve his/her goal while eluding capture. As writers, we must dedicate the same effort in characterisation for the perpetrator as we do for our main character.

Today’s villain can be anyone, such as a bully in a children’s story or a murderer in a crime story or even a ruthless and power-hungry individual. Stories need a villain but the perfect villain is not all evil. That person has to have good points as well to give the character depth, such as a murderer might be good to a sibling. The antagonist must be three-dimensional.

Unless something unexpected has happened to turn a character into the antagonist, there should be a history of wrongdoing. Ordinary and law-abiding people don’t usually wake up and commit a crime or moral injustice. Those traits have to be there to begin with. The wrongdoing should be measurable, where the next action is worse than the previous. And with each action, the person slips further into his/her own dark world.

Antagonists need to be faced with difficulties as well. Of course, the protagonist’s actions in the story may be enough to cause our villain annoyance, but can you delve further? Are there other characters (knowingly or unknowingly) interfering with the antagonist’s plans? Is there some other conflict that burdens the antagonist? Perhaps a bully is bullied at home. Or a person may have murdered someone to protect another person, but tread carefully with this scenario – a person would still have to be capable of such an action. It would change that person for life and he/she would have to deal with being captured as well as nightmares and anguish over taking someone’s life.

While the reader may disagree with the villain’s actions from a moral or legal point, the writer must ensure the reader understands the villain’s actions. And if the writer can cause the reader to feel sympathy for the villain, then that writer has created an in-depth character. As strange or uncomfortable as it sounds, get into your villain’s headspace and think what actions you would undertake for the plans to succeed. Who stands in your way and how will you deal with them? Actually, as a writer, you should step into all your characters’ headspaces to ensure their actions and thinking are unique to them. It’s easier than looking at a character from a distance and guessing what that person would do next.

Be mindful not to slip into using dialogue that has been overused and should’ve been tossed out decades ago. Powerful and intelligent dialogue will make your villain a worthy adversary, whereas ridiculous and wince provoking declamations and comments will surely turn your villain into a cartoon buffoon where readers will wish for an anvil to fall on his/her head.

When you’re breathing life into your villain, make sure they:

  • have redeeming qualities as well as negative traits
  • have wants and needs like everyone else
  • doesn’t perceive themselves as antagonists to the protagonists (from the villain’s viewpoint, those roles are reversed)
  • believe their actions are justified and reasonable
  • are intelligent, otherwise they would be caught in chapter two (where’s the fun in that?)
  • encounter conflicts of their own
  • use believable dialogue that is commonplace for the period of the story (avoid cheesy cliché’s and speech that is stereotypical of villains).

 

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

The Pros and Cons of Going On and On and On …

laptop's keys

When a Pencil is Just a Pencil
It’s easy to fall into the rambling trap. Taking up an entire paragraph where a simple sentence will do the same job. There is little point, for example, describing all the uses of a pencil (its colour, its size, the smoothness or scratchiness of the lead, and so on). Even with technology taking over nearly every aspect of our lives, I think it’s safe to say we have all used a pen or pencil, so we already know these aspects without reading about it.

Re-Discovering a Pencil
Is it ever useful to describe the details of a commonplace item? Sticking with the pencil idea, we would describe it if it were new to the character. Perhaps technology has completely taken over and manual writing instruments no longer exist and haven’t done so for centuries. If a character unearthed one and the character has never seen it before, then a description would be appropriate, but the challenge would be to make it come alive for the reader, after all let’s not forget that the reader still knows what a pencil is. The writer may try to make it a bit comical until the character finally works out the pencil’s purpose and how to use it correctly. Then there’s another opportunity when the lead becomes blunt and the character has to work out how to sharpen it.

When a Pencil Reveals More
There is a reason to draw attention to the pencil without describing its purpose. How a character treats and uses a pencil can benefit a writer in developing that character. A pencil with a chewed end shows the user’s habit of gnawing on a pencil. Perhaps the user does this subconsciously while thinking about what to write, or it may be a nervous habit that surfaces during exams. It shows the reader more about that character.

Let’s call our character Jim. So what happens if Jim’s pencil is broken and he borrows a pen – is the urge to chew on the pen overwhelming even though Jim doesn’t own it? And how would the other person (we’ll call Melanie) feel when receiving the pen back with the end crushed and evidence of saliva still clinging to it? Melanie might get some satisfaction if the pen’s ink is now spread all over Jim’s lips, mouth and teeth, but what will Melanie do? Would she yell, cry or become violent because it was a gift or an expensive pen? Would she bin it in disgust or tell Jim that he can keep it vowing never to loan him anything ever again?

A chewed up pencil shows the reader more about a character, but a row of perfectly maintained pencils on a neat and organised desk will also reveal a character’s habits, nature and mindset. What if the owner of these pencils and tidy desk was Melanie? Imagine the conflict between Jim and Melanie then. It poses the question – what is their relationship? Are they merely students in the same class? Co-workers in a training session or general meeting? Are they related or have they recently started dating? Their relationship could impact Melanie’s reaction to her chewed pen.

Unleashing the Pencil
Developing characters, creating conflicts or even writing about a pencil’s description are good ways to ignite the creative flow and unlock writer’s block. It doesn’t matter what is written as long as you write. It might trigger an idea, inspire a story or help with solving a writing issue. Even if it ends in the bin, at least you’re moving forward with your writing. So, pick an object and write about it.

Put in every detail you can think of. Ask questions – who would use this object and why? You may find that you move onto other things as ideas start to form. Don’t fight it; go with it. This isn’t the time to worry about where a comma should go.

Exercising the Pencil
As a writing exercise, create a character and give that character good and bad aspects, habits, a job, family, and then put an odd object into the character’s possession. This creates more questions. Why would this character have such a thing? Does the character treasure the object, or is the person ashamed of it? Has it ever been lost before? Did the character try to get rid of it, but couldn’t for some reason.

Questions move writers forward. Never stop questioning, never stop moving forward and never stop writing.

Sharpening the Pencil
Once you have finished your draft, go back and tighten your writing. If one word can do the work of multiple drawn out words or one sentence gets to the point better then a paragraph then replace it. With the exception of the writer’s style, each word has to earn its place on the page.