9 Character Types to Use in Your Novel
Chapter 5 “Designing Characters” – Section 1 “Characters Types”
"You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality”
Now that we've begun the process of giving depth, goals, and personality to our characters, we need to begin our look at what part they play in your central plot. Below, I've compiled a list of different character types to consider when planning your story—although you will likely create many more as you require them in the midst of writing (some poor fictional soul has to deal with your characters' nonsense). Remember that not every story has every type of character, and that characters often fall into multiple roles. It is simply a good idea to know what sort of characters and options that you have, in order to bring your story to life. I will go into further detail with each of these types before we move on to the story.
Character Type 1: The Primary Protagonist
This is the character that will drive your story, and is usually a type of Hero or Antihero, but could even be just a regular person who is determined to reach some goal. In more recent works of literature and film, the Primary Protagonist has even included villains. However, the common features of Primary Protagonists are that their personal plot line forms the core of the novel's structure, they are given the most attention by the narrator, and they generally bring about the action in the story. It is possible to have more than one Primary Protagonists; however, most stories will be centered around just one because of the complexity of structuring the core plot of a story around multiple plot-lines. In Harry Potter, for example, Ron and Hermione are certainly protagonists and are often as important to the plot as Harry himself. However, the plot, structure, and pacing of each of the books is centered around Harry's actions, failures, and successes—making it so that he would still be the Primary Protagonist, even if both other characters were given an equal amount of attention by the Narrator.
Character Type 2: The Secondary Protagonist
Whether a protagonist is every bit as important as your Primary Protagonist or even if they play more of a supporting role, the key trait is that they have their own story-arch. An example of this is Peeta Mellark from the first Hunger Games movie. While he gets comparatively little screen time next to Katnis, Peeta goes through his own twelve-part plot outline, through which he grows as a character, had failures, successes, and everything else that a Primary Protagonist would have—if in a much more brief, vague, and condensed form.
Character Type 3: The Primary Antagonist
While the Antagonistic Force does not have to be a character (later, we will discuss in depth about all the different possible antagonist types, including villains, monsters, nature, society, emotions, etc...), they are among the cast of characters that you should consider using. The Primary Antagonist is the character who is trying to prevent the actions of the Primary Protagonist, but this does not necessarily make them the villain or even incorrect in what they are doing. For example, the Primary Antagonist could be a loved one, acting in what they perceive to be the Primary Protagonist's best interest, like a mother keeping her protagonist child from its goal of getting to the cookie jar and making himself or herself sick by eating all of the cookies at once. In fact, the most dynamic stories are often the ones where the Primary Antagonist's action are most justified and most easily empathized with. The important thing when creating the Primary Antagonist, however, is that his or her goals directly coincide with those of the Primary Protagonist—through whose eyes we are seeing the story.
Character Type 4: The Secondary Antagonist
In popular movies and literature, most antagonists—even the baddest of the lot—are often Secondary Antagonists. Most Secondary Antagonists take that role because the actual Primary Antagonist is something within the hero (like fear, doubt, greed, etc...) or some sort of situation (the challenges of winning somebody's love, a corrupt society, human nature, etc...). Just like with Secondary Protagonists, Secondary Antagonists can be every bit disruptive, powerful, and influential over the story as their Primary counterparts, they are simply not the main obstacle standing between the Primary Protagonists and their goals.
Character Type 5: The Supporting Character
Most of the characters in your novel will likely be Supporting Characters; these will include your side-kicks, allies, acquaintances, mentors, or any other character that has a significant role to play. The difference between these Supporting Characters and both groups of “Secondary” characters, is that the former will not have a full plot-line within the novel. However, each supporting character should be dynamic (which means changing and evolving throughout the course of the story, or with evidence of having done so in their past), face their own antagonists, strive towards their own goals, and have back-story that is potentially as interesting as any protagonist's.
Character Type 6: The Universe Filler Character
A Universe Filler Character is each and every one that makes the world seem more alive by simply living and performing their day-to-day functions. These can include a passerby, victim, restaurant server, or any of the other characters that are necessary to fill in a world and to make it possible for your protagonists to get their food, buy their weapons, and interact with the world around them instead of wandering in a barren wasteland of emptiness (unless that is the goal). The popular temptation for writers is to make their Universe Filler Characters little more than zombie-like props with no originality or depth—resulting in little or no description and an interaction that makes the world seem even more monotonous than before. Every character, even the clerk at the check-out line, should have some originality about them in order to give your story a greater level of depth and realism.
Character Type 7: The Foil
The foil is an inclusive character type that can be an antagonist, a supporting character, another protagonist, or even a universe building character. The Foil exists as a contrast to the protagonist, showing everything that the protagonist is not. In Christopher Nolan's Batman film trilogy, there were many characters who existed as Foils to the characteristics of Batman. Harvey Dent was a Foil of light to contrast Batman's darkness; the Joker was the chaos Foil that contrasted Batman's self-control; Commissioner Gordon was the Foil of belief in the law that was contrasted with Batman's belief that he needed to work outside of it. By creating Foils, you not only make both characters seem richer and their interactions more dynamic, but you also encourage yourself and your audience to view the philosophies, beliefs, attitudes, and actions of you characters through more than just the character's own biased perception.
Character Type 8: The Narrator
This is the character who is telling the story and interacting with your reader. You'll notice that most authors who write in the third-person do not have a very noticeable narrator (as opposed to those who write in first-person). These narrators are non-essential omniscient or limited omniscient forces, like a god or spirit that is unessential to the story. These are marked for being mostly honest and unbiased as they tell of the events that take place. On the opposite extreme, you have very present narrators, such as those who speak in the first-person, who are usually biased in favor of the protagonist (or who are the protagonist), and can sometimes be unreliable to tell the whole truth. Just like with choosing the lens for a camera, your choice of Narrator will determine how the audience perceives what they are reading, and so it is important to put every bit as much effort into designing him/her as any other character.
Character Type 9: The Point-of-View (POV) Character
The POV character is the character through whose eyes we see the story. Usually, this is the Primary Protagonist, but not exclusively. Moby Dick, for example, is told completely from the eyes of a member of the crew, about Captain Ahab and the whale. In some modern short-stories, I have seen the story told through the eyes of the villain. Sometimes, the POV character will change from chapter to chapter—especially when a story is told in the third-person, with a very non-present narrator, and several protagonists. And when the story is told from the Point-of-View of the Primary Protagonist, who is also the Narrator, they will also play the role of POV Character—meaning you may not always need to distinguish the POV Character from the Narrator. You simply need to decide through which character, if any, we will be watching the story unfold. Again, we'll discuss all of this more in the chapters to come.
Weekly Recommended Reading: The Infernals by John Connolly (When it comes to making a world come alive with a dynamic mixture of different character types, nobody does it like Connolly. His worlds seem more alive than any other I've encountered—to the extent that I might even find them fun without the overarching plot. Be warned that The Infernals is a sequel to The Gates, and that the first book is not as good. Fortunately, Connolly will make sure that you know what is going on, even if you haven't read the first book.)
Write-a-Novel Exercise 5.1
Go through the list of characters we started in the last tutorial, and mark down what story roles that each character fills. If you find that you need to create more characters, write down a Plot Premise for each new one.
Click here to submit your exercise.
ANN - Chapter 9 - Our Terrifying Descent
How to Develop Story Conflict
The Character Arc
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On the other hand, I have a second novel that has six characters to really speak of. That novel is closer to 300 pages in length and has a very traditional and straightforward structure. So the number will just depend on how intricate and complex you want your story to be. Note that I don't mean intricate and complex as a measurement of quality. A short simple story can be more powerful than a much larger one, it just depends on how you tell it and what it has to say.
My only real advice would be to outline your plot and your characters within reason (so maybe just with the characters you already have that you know you will need to fulfill the plot points you have planned). After that, just let new characters arise organically. You will often find that you cannot realistically have your pre-established characters do all the things you planned for them. In those cases, you will often need to create unexpected new characters to fill those roles. When that happens, embrace it and put as much creativity and effort as possible into fleshing out those new characters, especially the ones you take a liking to.