I’d be hard pressed to think of any story without characters. Perhaps the most fundamental building blocks of story, characters are the people we love, hate, scrutinize, and try to understand. They’re our way in the gritty underworld of drug empires or a perspective into a far-flung fantastical science-fiction society. So let’s get familiar with the types of characters you should be using in your screenplay.
Like cogs in a machine, each has a different function and serves to make your story that much more powerful. First I’ll go over the core trinity of characters (the protagonist, antagonist, and deuteragonist) and afterwards I’ll delve into the most popular kinds of side characters (the mentor and the love interest).
Undoubtedly the most important character in a story, the protagonist is a fancy word for the “main character”. Conventionally, we meet the protagonist at the beginning of a story, follow them through a series of trials and tribulations, before leaving them at the end of the story in a new form.
Each scene should bring out something new in the protagonist, inviting the audience into their head to try and figure them out. Additionally, the protagonist usually has a direct connection to the theme of the story, and the plot will have them reckon with, and ultimately change their relationship with that theme.
Some of the best examples of protagonists come from the realm of Shakespeare, but to make it more modern, I’ll use Walter White from Breaking Bad as an example of a Shakespearean style protagonist. Throughout the series we are invited to understand Walt, his relationship to the theme (what does it mean to “break bad”?) and how he as a character transforms.
At the start of the show Walt is an ineffectual and underappreciated chemistry teacher. By the end he is a hardened, cynical, and world-weary drug kingpin. He’s also our entry point into the criminal world of Albuquerque and beyond, letting us explore a whole suite of peripheral characters. One such character is the antagonist.
Due to the amount of screentime a protagonist gets, this is the character that needs to be fleshed out the most. For example, giving your protagonist a tangible and relevant flaw is a well-worn method of adding all-important depth.
Remember Newton’s Third Law of Motion? “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”. What is true in physics is also true in storytelling. While the protagonist pushes one way, the antagonist pushes another. They are the oppositional force in the story, doing everything in their power to make sure that the protagonist fails and that they succeed.
The antagonist isn’t necessarily evil either. They just believe something different than the protagonist. If you’re playing a tennis match, you will see yourself as the protagonist while seeing your opponent as an antagonist. The key to writing a good antagonist is to remember that this cuts both ways. They see themselves as the protagonist and the true protagonist as the antagonist.
For example, let’s take a look at Killmonger from Black Panther.
While undoubtedly the antagonist in the film we see, it’s very easy to see the same story from his perspective because he has a point. T’Challa (our protagonist) is hiding away the technology of Wakanda and letting the “two billion people all over the world that look like us” suffer as a result. Killmonger seeks to rectify what he sees as a moral outrage, driving the story forward. In the end, it’s only by truly confronting and reckoning with Killmonger’s perspective that T’Challa is able to truly change by the end of the story (which also demonstrates the power of the the three-act structure)
If your protagonist moves one way, make your antagonist push in the exact opposite direction. Having such diametrically opposed characters throws up instant opportunities for dramatic and entertaining scenes.
Not all characters can take center stage. Some thrive in the sides. The deuteragonist is a character that the script isn’t focused on, but they still play a big part in the story. Often they’re a friend or ally of the protagonist who offers a differing perspective on the events of the story.
The Deuteragonist also offers an opportunity for tonal contrast. A deuteragonist can often be a source of comic relief or they can be what anchors the protagonist in reality. The B-story of a script can sometimes focus on the deuteragonist’s story and how that affects the protagonist’s.
For me, the prototypical deuteragonist is Sam Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings:
Sam is never the spotlight of the story, but he is key to it progressing. In this scene the protagonist, Frodo, is at one of his lowest moments. Here, the deuteragonist uses their unique perspective to enrich the journey of the protagonist. Without Sam, Frodo might not have kept going, but it’s due to the multitude of perspectives a deuteragonist offers that the story keeps on going.
While the deuteragonist is usually a peer, a mentor is usually a wizened elder figure to the protagonist who takes them under their wing. The mentor is etched into some of humanity’s oldest storytelling traditions for good reason. In an age of oral tradition, the only way for knowledge to be passed on was for elders to share their experience with a younger generation.
The mentor character can also be a deuteragonist, or even sometimes an antagonist, but it’s rare they’re a protagonist. The mentor has come to the end of their journey and are usually at a state of self-actualization, a place the protagonist hasn’t gotten yet. It is the mentor’s job to set the protagonist on the path towards thematic revelation and to offer sage advice when it is needed.
One of my personal favorite mentors is Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid:
This shows that the mentor doesn’t have to be infallible. Miyagi is clearly haunted by a traumatic past, but through his mentorship of Daniel he is able to fulfill a role he didn’t know he needed to. Without Miyagi it’s impossible to see Daniel as anything more than the listless soul we see at the start, but due to Miyagi’s tutorship Daniel is able to evolve and change far beyond what we might expect of him.
Last but not least we have the romantic interest. This character type has a more complicated history than the rest. Film history is littered with lazily written romantic interests who exist purely at the pleasure of the (usually) male protagonist or for blatant sex appeal. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with either, more that it’s become a symptom of lazy writing.
The romantic interest has a key role in story structure. Unlike the mentor or a friend-style deuteragonist, a romantic interest is uniquely capable of getting underneath the protagonist’s skin and revealing their emotional side. Think about the things you would tell a romantic partner that you would never tell a best friend. These are the sides of a protagonist the romantic interest can reveal. Additionally, sometimes an audience just wants an old-fashioned romance story. There’s nothing wrong with that.
A recent traditional example of a love interest is Ellie from Yesterday. Played charmingly by Lily James, this character doesn’t break down any major boundaries of what to expect in a romantic interest. She challenges the protagonist to be better, to truly analyze his motivations, and to evolve in the climax of the film. The varying states of her opinion on the protagonist is a core part of what makes the emotional highs and lows of the plot function. However, the character is ultimately at the service of the protagonist and not an interesting counterpart.
For me, a far more interesting romantic interest character is Samantha from Her:
Part of the genius of Samantha as a character is that she is a deconstruction of what the romantic interest is. There can’t be any sex appeal in Samantha because she doesn’t have a corporeal body. Instead we reckon with her as a person and come to understand how the relationship she holds with Theodore helps grow both of them in turn. Theodore is a quiet protagonist, but through Samantha we are able to get a better look into who he truly is, and what effect he has on others. Two birds with one stone.
Think about these characters as tools in a toolbox. The vast majority of scripts are going to feature a protagonist, and antagonist, and a series of deuteragonists. The mentor and the romantic interest are very common character archetypes that pop up in storytelling history, but you by no means have to include them. Just like writing exposition, characters are a tool that, done well, can elevate a script.
If you want an easy way to keep track of your characters and how they interact with each other you can use Arc Studio Pro’s outlining cards to help.
If you want to explore the art of writing fleshed out characters further then check out this article that uses real-world psychology in the realm of screenwriting: How to Use Myers-Briggs to Develop Authentic, Compelling Characters in a Screenplay