No matter the plot or setting of a story, the characters are what really makes a story come alive. Characters and strong character development tell a story within the story, and readers find ways to relate to them and care about them if they’re well written. If done well, the reader will find themselves inside the pages of whatever book they’re reading.
Just like in the real world, there are many different types of characters. When writing, you have to develop characters that have depth. If you only write one-dimensional characters throughout the story, your audience won’t care what happens to them. Characters are the real driving force behind a great story. This article will describe the multiple types.
The Four Basic Types of Characters
Depending upon who you ask, there are many “basic” types of character. However, there are four main types of characters that we are going to focus on.
The protagonist in a book or story is the main character. He or she is the one that you are paying the most attention to and want to know what happens to. As the story progresses, the reader becomes more invested as the main character’s personality becomes more evident, and their own story is told.
A great example of a clear protagonist is Harry Potter. In the book series, there are many characters, and they all fill different roles. We may have our personal favorites outside of the protagonist, but we’re still there for Harry Potter.
We want to see what happens to him, and even though we may care about the other main characters and even the minor characters, we’re really reading to find out what happens to Potter.
Other protagonist examples are: Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, Captain Ahab from Moby Dick, Alice from Through the Looking Glass, and Tom Sawyer in Mark Twain’s classic The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
Antagonistic characters are the villains, the bad guy, the character that writers invent for the protagonist to face, defeat, or have conflict with. This person is often in direct contradiction to the main character and helps to give the protagonist a purpose.
In Harry Potter, Lord Voldemort is the clear antagonist. Throughout the entire Harry Potter series, his sole focus is the destruction of good and the control of every witch and wizard in the fictitious world that Rowling created.
These two characters develop a deep hatred of each other that grows throughout the Harry Potter series and finally comes to a head in the last book, giving the protagonist (Potter) his chance to really prove himself as a virtuous and wholesome character. The main character shines because the antagonist character exists.
Other antagonist examples include Randall Flagg in The Stand, Count Olaf in a Series of Unfortunate Events, Claudius in Hamlet, and Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs.
While not the main character, antagonists are almost always a major character and are often responsible for the story gaining momentum. Many villains and their evil actions become fan favorites in the literary world.
Jack Torrance in The Shining is one good example of this. He’s definitely a villain, but because he’s so interesting and deep in his own right, the reader relates to him on some levels, and cheers for him, even if only a little bit.
This is the character that the main character confides in. These pretty much cliche characters exist so that we as readers can understand what the protagonist thinks and feels without having to go into the main character’s diary or mind.
The confidante character is often the sidekick or best friend to the protagonist. Throughout the story, the protagonist shares things with this character, and the confidante, in most stories, offers support. In Harry Potter, both Ron and Hermione act as confidante characters for Potter, listening to his feelings, thoughts, and ideas and offering support, advice, and friendship.
Without these characters, we’d have to suffer through a lot of pages of internal dialogue or description of the inner workings of Potter. Through other characters who play the role of confidante, we can avoid that.
These characters often provide comic relief, as well. Without comic relief, a story can end up feeling depressing and dark. Ron cracks jokes and makes a lot of clumsy mistakes during spells that break up the doom and gloom issues that Potter experiences, lightening the mood for the reader.
The Love Interest
Love interests are important because they give the reader something to cheer for aside from the main plot. The love interest character also raises the stakes because a protagonist in love may make silly mistakes, allow his or her heart to lead the way when they should be using their head, or give the protagonist someone who is now at risk and must be protected.
Love interest examples include Sadie in 11/22/63, Daisy in The Great Gatsby, and Laurie in Little Women. Shakespeare’s Romeo acts as the love interest of Juliet, and the arguable stupidity that ensues in the name of love is the entire plot of the play. These characters can also bring out new traits in a protagonist that aid in character development.
Other Character Types
There are many other character types, and they often fall somewhere between the four main categories. Some of these character types can also be protagonists, antagonists, the object of affection, or the confidante.
The following are some of the other character types you see in fiction.
What is a Stock Character?
Stock characters are cliche characters that are repeated over and over again. You see them all the time in literature, and they tend to have almost no actual depth or character development.
The nerdy kid who gets picked on in gym class that the protagonist defends, and then we never hear about again. The evil stepmother who will stop at nothing to ruin the life of her husband’s child. The dumb jock who picks on the nerd. The pretty and popular girl who is Prom Queen. Every one of the above examples qualifies as a stock character.
Stock characters have as much depth as stock photos, and they’re no big deal in terms of how the story plays out. The story would suffer no permanent change without them. A stock character is the type of character that almost no one remembers at the end of the story.
What is a Foil Character?
The purpose of a foil character is to solidify the virtues of the main character because this character has the opposite traits of the main character. For example, Draco Malfoy is the foil character to Harry Potter. Potter is all about inclusion and taking care of his friends. He comes from a rocky background and doesn’t want the celebrity that has been thrust upon him.
Malfoy, on the other hand, bullies people, including his own friends. He wants the world to know that his father is a man of high status and rides his father’s coattails in an attempt to gain notoriety and special treatment. He has traits opposite to Potter to showcase the virtue of Potter’s character.
Other foil examples include: Eddie in The Dark Tower series, Galinda in Wicked, and Percy in The Green Mile.
A symbolic character is a character who stands for something and encompasses that virtue or symbol. There is no need for the character development of a symbolic character because they are being used in a capacity to showcase a concept rather than actual human traits.
Mother Abagail in The Stand is one example of such a character. A 108-year-old black woman living in the middle of a cornfield, she acts as the voice of goodness and righteousness at the end of the world when all hope seems to be lost.
The Anti Hero
This character has a goal that is usually selfish in nature. This type of character is motivated by self-serving needs and wants and will break the rules, hurt, and sometimes even kill. Han Solo in Star Wars is an anti-hero. He’s a smuggler who doesn’t have much in the way of morals and isn’t particularly brave.
Tertiary characters help to round out a story to give it more depth and give us more context into the world that is being created or the setting. Many stories use these characters to give us side stories to entertain us. One character who is a nearly perfect tertiary character is Neville Longbottom in Harry Potter.
Levels of Change in Character
Another way that types of characters are classified in the literary world is by how much they are able to change or evolve. The following are the classifications recognized in literature.
A dynamic character is one who changes over the course of the story. Dynamic characters are often complex and take the reader on a roller coaster ride of emotions and reactions based upon the type of change they encounter or experience.
Elphaba in Wicked is a dynamic character. She starts out positive and hopeful, and by the end of the story, she has changed and has become the hateful, spiteful, vengeful wicked witch. Along the way, we hope that she can rise above her struggles and stay positive, but she doesn’t. She is a dynamic character that falls into a downward spiral and has an extreme change.
Round characters are similar to dynamic characters because there is typically a lot of change. This is a character that we aren’t surprised by the change, however. A round character adjusts as the situation changes.
All of the old men in Ghost Story by Peter Straub qualify as round characters. Each of the old men accepts that supernatural forces are at work and trying to pick them off one by one. Therefore, each is a round character because they must change their habits, behavior, and way of thinking as the danger grows.
Static Character, or Flat Character
A static character, also known as a flat character, is one who doesn’t change. Superman is one such example. He always makes the right decisions, he’s always good, and he’s always going to stand up for what’s right.
Flat characters aren’t the most interesting to read, but they’re dependable to do exactly what the reader thinks they’re going to do. You won’t see Superman decide he’s not going to save someone simply because that person is involved or wrapped up in a scandal.
Superman knows that everyone deserves saving. This type of character, while not fascinating, is easy to write, and the audience enjoys it because sometimes it’s nice to have some predictability. Not every character needs to grow or change.
Flat characters are often portrayed as bad guys in literature. Evil stepmothers are a prime example. They are always going to be cruel and heartless, no matter what the situation. There is no room for growth or for change because the character exists to be hateful.
Combinations of Character
In fiction, an author can create any sort of character you can imagine. You can combine any of the aforementioned types and get an interesting, complex, perfectly believable character. They are believable when combined because, in real life, we are combinations of these different types.
Sometimes a situation or event occurs that changes the way we feel, think, behave, or react, and as humans, we become more complex and evolve. Other times, that same sort of situation or event may evoke no change in us as humans because we are stubborn or ignorant.
Relatable fiction needs to have some sort of complexity. This is how we find ourselves within the pages of a book, and this is how we become invested in the story and the people we meet within its pages.