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No matter what kind of story you’re reading, it’s the characters that grip your attention and make you want to know what happens next.
In this tutorial, we’ll talk about character definitions and what these mean in the context of literature. We’ll also show you some of the different types of characters that authors have used throughout history to create some of the world’s most beloved books.
Taking the dictionary character definition, the word means “a person, animal, or being within a story,” whether that be a novel, play, movie, or other art form. There can be multiple characters within a story or even just one.
Characters can be completely fictional or based on real-life people. Writers like Jane Austen were known for their true-to-life characters who were often based on people she knew and observations of the society she lived in. Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, based her book characters on her own family, with many people speculating that Jo March was a literary interpretation of herself.
Different types of characters can have various traits that draw in the audience and capture their attention. They can serve a specific purpose, like educating or entertaining the reader, or they can be there to help guide the main character on their journey.
Characters In Stories
Without characters, there really is no story. While scenery itself can be used in stories without any specific people or creatures, writers will often personify the setting and turn that into a character of its own. It’s almost impossible to write well without a character of some kind to carry the story forward.
Typically, especially with book characters, these individuals or beings experience some form of conflict that must be resolved as the story draws to its conclusion. This could be an internal conflict that the main character must resolve themselves, or it could be an external conflict with one or more of the supporting individuals who are introduced throughout the plot.
When you’re trying to think of character ideas for your own stories, think about ways that you can connect them with your audience. Remember, that doesn’t always need to be positive. Some of the most beloved literary characters of all time are often the villain or anti-hero of the story—Moriarty from Sherlock Holmes and Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter are characters that we love to hate as readers, and the story wouldn’t be complete without them.
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Every story has a protagonist, even if there’s only one character throughout the entire book. They’re the main character in a story, and it’s their journey that we, the readers, follow as the plot develops. Writers typically focus on the backstory and motivations of this character over all others as everything that happens ties back to them in some way.
Some works of literature feature more than one protagonist, where the main character position is held by two or more characters. Romeo and Juliet is a good example of this, as we care about the fate of both characters in equal measure.
Where there’s a protagonist, an antagonist must follow. These character types are usually the villain of the story, but this isn’t always clear straight away. The best way to think of the protagonist-antagonist relationship is: How does the antagonist cause conflict or chaos on the protagonist’s journey throughout the story?
Some of the clearest protagonist and antagonist combinations are often found in superhero stories, but anti-heroes can be found everywhere. Regina George in Mean Girls and Aaron Burr in Hamilton are two recent antagonists in popular culture who have just as many fans as the protagonists of their stories.
Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley in Harry Potter are probably the best examples of deuteragonists in modern literature. They aren’t quite the main protagonist, but they’re close. You can think of the deuteragonist as the sidekick. The plot doesn’t center on them, but they play important roles throughout the narrative, and the journey of the main character in the story wouldn’t progress without them
4. Tertiary Characters
As we go down the character hierarchy, you’ll find tertiary characters. They’re the supporting players in the story who will weave in and out of the narrative, interacting with the main characters at various points, but not necessarily contributing much to the plot.
When it comes to character roles, they’re not especially crucial, but they help to bring a realistic element to the story and fill in any gaps as the protagonist deals with their conflict. The wider collection of toys in the Toy Story franchise are a good example of tertiary characters used in storytelling.
5. Romantic Interest
Not every story will have a love interest, but it’s one of the more common character types used in literature. This one is fairly self-explanatory—these characters are the object of desire for another character, usually the protagonist (although some interesting love triangles can happen between a romantic interest, protagonist, and antagonist too).
Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice are instances where the love interest forms a central part of the plot, as the protagonist deals with their internal conflict around their feelings for this character.
We all need someone we can rely on and trust, and that’s where the confidant comes in. These types of characters are often the deuteragonist as well, usually in the form of a best friend or trusted companion for the protagonist like a mentor or, in some cases, their love interest.
Horatio from Hamlet, Mrs. Lovett in The String of Pearls and Sweeney Todd, and Missandei in A Game of Thrones all take on the role of confidant for their main characters. They provide wisdom and advice where they can, as well as being a comforting presence that the protagonist can go to during the height of their conflict.
The foil is one of the most interesting literary characters. Their primary purpose is to highlight certain qualities of the protagonist’s personality or character, but in the opposite way. They may not be the main antagonist of the story, but the foil’s traits will often clash with the main character in a way that helps us to see the protagonist more clearly and understand who they are.
Foils have been used in literature for hundreds of years and Shakespeare was a particular fan of this character technique. Brutus in Julius Caesar and Emilia in Othello are good examples of Shakespearean foils who help us see certain traits in the main characters.
Archetypes in a story are characters that represent a fixed set of behaviors and can be found throughout history in all works of fiction. When these behaviors become repetitive, they become stock characters. Looking at this stock character definition, we can see that these types of characters are known to most readers and can help bring a sense of familiarity to your story.
1. The Hero
These literary characters are usually the protagonist of the story, who face a conflict and rise above it to bring about the happy ending. Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games is a clear hero in her story, using her physical and mental strength to save the day.
2. The Magician
The magician is one of the most mysterious character types in literature, spanning both protagonists and antagonists in different stories—Darth Vader, Sherlock Holmes, and Snape, for example. Their traits are centered on knowledge and power, using their abilities to impose their desires on the wider world around them.
3. The Innocent
The most morally pure of character roles, the innocent or child-like character sees the world as a good place until a conflict arises. These characters are usually naive and rely on other characters to help them navigate chaos and disorder in the story. Buddy the Elf in Elf is a great example of this archetype.
4. The Caregiver
In a similar way to the innocent character, the caregiver is generally selfless and nurturing, but can be vulnerable to exploitation by different types of characters. These characters are often self-sacrificing in order to save or protect others—think Mary Poppins or Dr. Watson in Sherlock Holmes.
5. The Joker
When it comes to character roles, the joker is there to lighten the mood and make the audience laugh. For example, Merry and Pippin in The Lord of the Rings. Particularly when you’re working on an otherwise serious story, introducing the joker as one of your character ideas can help to provide some light relief, and they can even double as a mentor in disguise, like the Genie in Aladdin.