You might have heard the words “character-driven” used by various reviewers, agents, and editors. It’s a buzzword a lot of them like, but which most readers have never been exposed to. It’s part of a triad (a trilogy) of descriptors that indicate where the author’s focus was while writing the book.
- Plot-driven books focus on the story above all else. Most genre fiction/mass market fiction tends to be plot driven.
- Language-driven books focus on the words on the page. They tend to be lyrical, with the story secondary to how the story is being told. Literary fiction tends to be language-driven.
- Character-driven books focus on the characters in the story. The plot happens as a result of their motivations and growth, and the language sometimes changes to reflect who’s “on screen”. Upmarket books tend to be character-driven.
Of course, no book is just one of those three things. They tend to be a mixture, say 20% plot-driven, 40% character-driven, and 40% language-driven. The key isn’t really deciding which one your book is, but in developing a basic mastery of all three styles so you can mix them together in the way that’s best for what you’re writing.
Today, we’re focusing on characters, by taking a quick tour through the most common types of characters. Next week, we'll highlight the kinds of journeys that those characters can go on. Once you’re done, you’ll have a good understanding of how to make them work together on the page.
The 8 Types of Character
This is the only absolutely necessary character in any book (though books without at least one other person from this list tend to be pretty boring.) It’s the main character; the person who experiences the events in the story. In the most compelling fiction, the protagonist undergoes some kind of fundamental change, without which they would not have been able to complete the tasks they needed to complete to succeed in the challenges of the story.
The purpose of a protagonist matches the purpose of the story. They are the person the story happens to. By taking action, and having action happen to them, they deliver the plot. Whether the plot exists to reveal the character, or the character exists to act out the plot, is up to you. Most authors do a little of both.
- Conan the Barbarian in the various Conan books, movies, and comics
- Harry in Harry Potter
- Captain Malcolm Reynolds in Firefly
Remember how I mentioned that in the most compelling stories, the protagonist undergoes a fundamental change, one that enables them to succeed in the challenges of the story? The guide helps them make that change. They might be a formal teacher or instructor, a parent, a mentor, or a friend. In romantic comedies, it’s often the love interest. It doesn’t even have to be a person: the books in a library, introspection on memories, or the unforgiving realities of wilderness survival can all serve the function of a guide.
The purpose of the guide is to help the protagonist become the person they must be to meet and overcome the challenges and change demanded by the plot. How they help varies as wildly as the personalities who can be the guide. Some teach formally, some by inspiration. Others teach only when the protagonist asks directly.
- Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars
- Red in The Shawshank Redemption
- Shepherd Book in Firefly
Throughout the story, your protagonist is trying to do something. The antagonist is trying to stop the protagonist from getting it done. They might do it directly, such as a bully preventing a teen from impressing his crush. They might do it indirectly, like a supervillain sending minions to attack the hero. They might even do it unintentionally. Like guides, antagonists don’t have to be human. It could be the inherent difficulty of life in the big city, and Man vs. Nature is a classic conflict.
At its simplest level, the antagonist exists to make the story an actual story. Without them, the protagonist would move from point A to point B without anything interesting in between. They create the conflict, and conflict is interesting. If you want to dive deeper, an antagonist is in some ways another kind of guide. Without their opposition, the protagonist would never be motivated to grow and change.
- The planet Mars in The Martian
- Blofeld in various James Bond stories
- Niska in Firefly
Sidekicks support or help the protagonist in some way, or maybe they’re just along for the ride. They might be a good friend, or a pet, or a classmate, or some random person who just starts following along. Sometimes sidekicks go through the same kinds of changes as protagonists, but sometimes they remain unchanged. If you want to get fancy, you can create interesting tension between an unchanging sidekick and their changing protagonist (or vice versa.)
A sidekick’s purpose is to highlight aspects of the protagonist. If the sidekick is competent and capable, their ability with (for example) martial arts highlights that the protagonist is smaller and weaker. If they’re more helpless, they highlight the competence of the protagonist.
- Ron and Hermione in Harry Potter
- Samwise Gamgee in Lord of the Rings
- Zoe in Firefly
It’s tempting to imagine that henchmen are to antagonists as sidekicks are to protagonists, but that’s not entirely true. Henchmen are better viewed as obstacles in the protagonist’s path. Sometimes they’re complex and nuanced, truly realized characters of their own. Other times they’re faceless and anonymous.
The purpose of henchmen is to make the protagonist’s life more difficult. If you’re writing a story where situations, rather than people, create most of the conflict, it can be useful to think of each situation as though it were a henchman character.
- The Stormtroopers in Star Wars
- The various mysteries in The Hangover
- Alliance troops and Reavers in Firefly
6. Love Interest
A love interest is just what it sounds like: somebody for the protagonist to fall in love with as either the main plot, or a side plot of the major story. This is usually romantic love, but could also be parental love or other strong feelings of attachment. It can make a story more interesting if your love interest is also a sidekick, guide, or even the antagonist.
Love interests serve two main purposes in most stories. First, there’s the love subplot itself. “Getting the girl (or boy, or whatever)” is part of the definition of successful heroes in many tales, and the quest for love is part of the story. Second, they provide another means of and motivation for growth, as the protagonist changes in ways that make them more attractive to their love interest, whether that love is romantic or something else.
- Edward (and later Jacob) in Twilight
- Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors
- Inara in Firefly
7. Devil’s Advocate
Sometimes the trials and hardships of a protagonist’s journey are enough to offer a real risk of failure, or motivation to surrender. Other times, a character has to stand by and tempt the protagonist off the true path toward something easier, more immediate, or safer. In a romance novel, this might be the sexy seducer who wants the protagonist to cheat. In an action tale, it could be a friend telling the protagonist to back off and go home before somebody gets killed. In many stories, addiction is a devil’s advocate character.
A devil’s advocate exists either to push the protagonist through change, or to reveal aspects of the protagonist’s character. If the former, the protagonist’s reaction to the devil’s advocate — their revulsion, refusal, or dismay at the strength of the temptation — fuels the engine driving them toward success. If the latter, their interactions with the devil’s advocate teaches the reader something about their motivations, struggles, or personal strengths.
- The One Ring in The Lord of the Rings
- The temptation of alcohol to Scudder in Eight Million Ways to Die
- Wash in Firefly
A foil exists in opposition to the protagonist, but isn’t the antagonist. In this case the opposition isn’t in the way of progress, instead it means they stand as an opposite example. They’re there in the story, being different from the protagonist. This might be annoying to the protagonist, or largely just in the background. Some foils might become henchmen, or even antagonists as the story develops, but their growth and change aren’t any more important than that of a sidekick.
Like the sidekick, a foil exists to highlight aspects of the protagonist’s character. By putting how they are different front and center in scenes involving the foil, it illustrates certain traits definitively and dynamically. In some cases, the protagonist’s memory of themselves earlier in the story provides a kind of foil for the motivated, changed protagonist of later chapters.
- Draco Malfoy in Harry Potter
- Cassius in Julius Caesar
- Also Inara, in Firefly
Spend a little time identifying what types of characters appear in your stories, and how well they fit into their roles. Next week, we'll discuss the types of journeys that these characters may find themselves on.