If you're being held back by attempting to write a unique persona in your characters, don't panic. There are only a handful of types of characters that your creations can slot into. This doesn't mean you can't write original characters. But, you should be aware that any character you come up with should fit into one of the 7 main character roles or classic archetypes.
If you deviate too far from these characteristics, you will risk alienating your audience and any producers or executives you wish to impress.
So let's get started on the types of characters in a story.
Before we think about what attributes your characters embody, we need to consider what roles your characters play in the story. In the course of one story arc - and usually within a series - this is not something that can change. We need to consider what kinds of characters are typically found in fiction from the start of the process rather than altering characters significantly as we go along.
There are exceptions to this. For example, Luther's nemesis in Season 1, Martin Schenk, who is investigating him for corruption and breaching police guidelines, becomes his boss and confidant in Season 2. But it would have been highly unusual for this change to occur halfway through a series. Such a move would have been too jaring and risked falling flat.
Instead here are the seven main roles your characters will fit into.
But they should be relatable, and we should attempt to understand and empathize with their goals and desires. They should be a round character. They have their flaws but learn to overcome or embrace them.
The antagonist - your villain - opposes your protagonists' goals. They pose a threat to their identity and perhaps to the entire world your protagonist and their sidekick inhabits.
The antagonist will clash with your protagonist in the climax. Usually, they are defeated in some way. Either they realize the error of their ways, are killed or are prevented from carrying out their mission.
Every hero needs a love interest. This could take many forms, such as the girl next door - think Mary Jane in Spiderman. The love could also be unrequited in some way.
Generally, the love interest is unaware of the protagonist's feelings or visa-versa. Therefore, the journey to love is the perfect sub-plot.
Major feature films and series have a string of secondary characters that inhibit your main character's world. The amount of secondary characters your novel or film contains depends on your plot's setting and the circumstances.
If you are writing a story set at a boarding school, your story will contain many characters, such as other students and teachers. However, a story like Interstellar has relatively few secondary characters since most of the action takes place in a contained space: a spaceship heading to other planets.
However, the mark of a well-written screenplay is that all of your secondary characters are fleshed out, even if they only have a little bit of screen time.
Foils are characters that have the opposite characteristics of your main characters. They often have skillsets your main character lacks, which are necessary for your protagonist to complete their mission.
Your foils might initially clash with your main character, but the conflict and their clashing views are what will bring them together and form the glue of their friendship.
Folis are one way authors and screenwriters can create dynamic characters because they reveal the flaws in the protagonist but we can empathise with them. They simply approach the world differently rather than being in direct conflict. Hermione - bookish and a deep thinker - is the foil to Ron who is often full hardy and reactionary. Both characteristics come in handy for Harry at different times in the narrative.
Hermione's intellect solves riddles like the mystery of the location of the Chamber of Secrets in that film but by contrast it is Ron's full hardiness in Philosopher's Stone that enables Harry to win at the game of Wizard's Chess and go on to the final chamber to face Voldermort.
Your main character needs to confide in someone, a wise sage. Think about Yoda in Star Wars. They tell your main character the truth and don't sugarcoat things. This honest advice allows your main character to reconsider their decisions if they are on the wrong path.
A character will often turn to their confidant for advice following or during their "dark night of the soul" moment as they are confronted with their own insecurities before the climax of the screenplay.
What does the "dark night of the soul" mean? Learn more about story structure here.
Tertiary characters are on the outskirts of your main character's circle. Maybe we only hear about them, or their screen time is minimal.
Consider Nicholas Flamel or Newt Scamander; both are merely minor characters in the main Harry Potter films, but they later appear as significant characters in the Fantastic Beasts series.
If you're writing a police procedural, then tertiary characters might be family members of a murder victim that we see being confronted or ruled out by your lead detective.
Character archetypes are different from character roles because a character fulfills the same role but represents a different archetype. Archetypes represent certain universal human traits that we can all relate to, first defined by Carl Jung. For a more in-depth definition, check out our post on archetypes.
Here are some archetypes your characters might embody.
The hero is often a lone warrior on their journey. They leave home and usually head into the unknown to undergo a transformation.
Home and the unknown are interchangeable. In ancient stories, the unknown is the jungle where the hero goes to learn the skills of becoming a man, such as hunter-gathering.
In science fiction, the jungle is often another planet, while in fantasy, it's a magical kingdom or world. In time-traveling stories, the future and the past are both alien.
Whatever the setting or genre might be, the hero returns from the unknown a changed character. In a bildungsroman, this change is characterized by the transformation from boy to man.
The lover can be characterized in many different roles.
The hopeless romantic is a type of lover: your main character could take on this role, or they could be a different character. This character role has unrealistic ideas of what a relationship should be. They are always chasing after girls or guys who are unsuited for them. However, this role can provide comedic value to your screenplay.
The magician can be the protagonist, the confidant, or the antagonist in your script. Their sole objective is to gain power through knowledge and magic.
As an antagonist, they are characterized as being corrupted by power and wanting to take over the world. They are often brilliant, but their logic is flawed. Grindelwald in Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore is a prime example of this type of character.
As a protagonist, they are motivated by wanting to change the world for the better. They often sacrifice their personal life to accomplish this goal. In the film by Aaron Sorkin, Steve Jobs is a great example: his obsession with creating the perfect computer that can change the world is what motivates him even at the expense of his personal life and relationships.
Whatever character role they embody, the magician is skillful, ambitious, clever, disciplined, and powerful. Their downfall is their arrogance, indifference to other people's plight, and a lack of empathy.
The explorer is interested in understanding and traveling the world around them. They are led by curiosity and want to use the experience of travel to learn about themselves.
They hate being trapped or tied down and despise the idea of the mundane. Often they strive to have an exciting job at the expense of their finances. An explorer could be heavily in debt or be very poor.
They rarely fit in with the people around them due to their desire to explore and their restlessness. An example of this type of character is Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The sage is the wise character steeped in life experience and is usually older than the protagonist. Their biggest desire is to find the truth at all costs. They want to conquer the world through reason, logic, and analysis.
The pursuit of knowledge is central to their lives, so they are often - but not always - professors at universities or school teachers.
Their downfall is their inability to act on the knowledge they have discovered. They could be described as cowardly in some regards, but they will rarely be duped or misled since they question everything.
The innocent character is a shy figure who often has a naive view of the world. Their naivety could stem from having lived a sheltered life with loving or even overprotective parents, or it could stem from them literally being a child.
Nevertheless, their innocence leads them down a dark path and to make poor decisions, particularly if they meet an evil character who will take advantage of them. They will need to be rescued or grow up to rescue themselves. This often results in realizing they need to change instead of resisting it.
Their loss of innocence through this experience often symbolized the end of their childhood. A great example is Buddy from the movie Elf.
The bad guy or outlaw is a character who is self-destructive. They react to problems in their lives by acting out, alienating those who love them, or being physically destructive to the world around them.
Their poor behavior often brings them to the attention of authorities - the police, the sheriff, the headmaster, or a parental figure.
A bad guy will typically have a good girl chasing after him, attracted to him for his outlandish behavior, drive, determination, and ability to express their emotions and not care what others think. But their self-destructive nature will often drive them away, leading to inner turmoil and heartbreak.
Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean is an excellent example of the outlaw or bad guy archetype.
Like the magician, the creator is obsessed with making something of quality. Whether they are a blacksmith, a computer engineer, or a magician, they are motivated by a desire to make the world a better place through technology. They also see the value in making art for art's sake.
A creator sees beauty in objects and people that other archetypal characters can't. They are highly talented, but this talent often comes at a loss for their personal life.
The ruler feels the weight of history on their shoulders and wishes to rule as fairly and as justly as their ancestors or predecessors in office. They take on the responsibility as the leader to protect others, whether as King or Queen, Emperor or Empress, President or Prime Minister.
A ruler fears being overthrown and having to give up their power. If the ruler is an antagonist, they crave power for their own selfish ends and are easily corruptible.
However, a protagonist ruler fears the void that will appear in the kingdom if they are dethroned or removed from office or the consequences for their people of the usurper if they should succeed in overthrowing them.
It's easy for a ruler to get into bunker mode where they lose faith and trust in their advisers and want to govern alone. The depiction of Adolf Hitler in Downfall is an excellent example of an antagonist ruler who has lost all faith in any of his ministers.
The caregiver's greatest downfall is giving too much help to others. They risk losing something or someone close to them because they have been duped by a character trying to take advantage of them.
A great recent example would be the character of Diana, Princess of Wales, in the fourth series of The Crown. She is the caregiver of Prince Charles, who cannot return her love.
The jester is the class clown. They can't take life too seriously and constantly clash with authority figures who find their immaturity frustrating. They have to rise to the occasion, grow up and seize the day to defeat their nemesis during their story arc.
Think of Seth Rogan's character in Superbad. Seth has to mature throughout the film to stand a chance of forming a relationship with Jules.
Wondering where to start when plotting your story arcs and crafting your characters? Considering the many types of characters and archetypes can help you along your way.
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