What’s Your Type: Classifying Characters

If you’re writing a novel, I’m guessing that you have a whole cast of characters. The plot probably revolves around at least one of them. Others make frequent appearances and support or antagonize your main characters. Then there will be other characters who emerge less frequently, and some who might only show up once.

I am an advocate for always trying to know as much as you can about your characters because I think it helps you develop them as individuals. However, a one-off character doesn’t need as much development as your protagonist. They may be static or a stereotype, and that’s fine. There are best selling novels out there where the protagonist is static and fairly flat. *cough*Twilight*cough* That’s not always to my taste, but it works because it allows the reader to basically insert themselves into the story. Even though it doesn’t make for challenging reading, it’s immersive if you do it right.

But wait, what am I talking about? Protagonist? Static? Stereotypes? You probably went over all this in your middle and high school English classes, but I thought today would be a good day for a refresher. You can use this information to analyze and sort your characters, and next week we’ll go over things you can do to sort of round them out if they need it. To make things even more fun, your characters can fit into more than one category.

  • Protagonist and/or main character A story can have both a protagonist and a main character, or they can have one character serve both roles. Your protagonist is the character who drives the story. Their decisions, goals, and conflicts move the plot from one point to the next. Your main character is usually a vehicle for the audience; they’re a narrator or point of view character who is impacted by turns of events and the protagonist’s decisions.  I think most books have a singular protagonist/main character, but every once in a while you’ll have a situation where the protagonist isn’t the main character in a story. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus was the protagonist while Scout was the main character. In Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock was the protagonist and Watson was the main character. If we’re looking at movies, Doc Brown was the protagonist in Back to the Future while Marty was the main character. Does that make sense?
  • Antagonist and/or villain An antagonist is the opposite of the protagonist. They have opposing goals, and tend to do whatever they can to get in the protagonist’s way, generate conflict, and push the protagonist into making hard decisions. An antagonist is often a villain, but not always. Generally a villain is evil, whereas an antagonist is simply someone who doesn’t want what the protagonist wants. Elsa from Frozen is an antagonist–her goals oppose Anna’s. Hans, with his plot to dethrone Elsa and take over Arendelle, is the villain.
  • Deuteragonist A main or major character (literally a second actor) whose story arc is not quite in line with the main plot. They can be sided with the protagonist or the antagonist. Think Sam in Lord of the Rings. He’s Frodo’s confidant and an all around bro, but his main goal is less about destroying the ring and more about getting back to the Shire in one piece. You could also argue that Watson is Sherlock Holmes’ deuteragonist.
  • Dynamic These are characters who change over the course of the story–their goals could change, they could mature in some way, or maybe good characters turn evil or vice versa. Your protagonist and (arguably) antagonist should fall into this category, and some major characters will as well.
  • Static Static characters don’t change. You can have a protagonist or a main character who is static, but it doesn’t happen often.
  • Major Characters that appear frequently, but are not the protagonist or antagonist. They may be well-developed, or they may fall into a static or stereotype category as well.
  • Minor Characters that do not appear frequently. They’re usually static characters because they just don’t appear long enough or often enough that you can demonstrate a change over the course of a novel.
  • Stereotype/Flat These are generally minor or one-off characters who fall into accepted, easy to recognize patterns of behavior. Think nerds and jocks. They’re considered flat because that’s all we see of them. There’s no deeper development and there may not need to be.
  • Rounded/Three Dimensional Characters that have been thoroughly developed. Your protagonist should fall into this category. They have personalities, flaws, and feel like real people. If a stereotypical, flat jock is someone who’s simply athletic, a three dimensional character would be an athlete who also takes care of his sick mom, studies hard to get into a good college, and I dunno–maybe secretly sells drugs to earn extra money for the family. I like a high stakes story, and giving “good” characters a dark side is always fun.
  • Foils A foil is also someone who’s opposite another character, but they’re not necessarily the antagonist. Maybe the protagonist is super strong or super smart and their foil is a sidekick or partner who is weaker or naive. A big reason for their existence is propping up the stronger character and showing just how strong, smart, or whatever their opposite is. They also set up a way for the reader to compare one character to another. Kirk and Spock are foils for each other for you Trekkies out there.
  • Innocents/dummies This is a character who asks questions for your readers. They’re sort of a blank slate that you can use to disseminate information to the reader without just info dumping. Sometimes they’re also your protagonist or narrator. If we go back to Sherlock Holmes, Watson sometimes takes on this role. Arthur in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is another example.

Are you confused enough yet? We’ll touch on this again on Friday, so come back to do an exercise and practice classifying your own characters. I know it seems pedantic, but I think it’s helpful to have an idea of what role your characters play in a story because you’ll get a better feel for the amount of work you need to put into developing them. 

Image credit: Dayne Topkin

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