Tuesday, October 4, 2011

18 Seven Character Types That Build Your Story

Image from Puuikibeach
Before I write down one word, I have to have the character in my mind through and through. I must penetrate into the last wrinkle of his soul.
~ Henrik Ibsen

I just finished outlining a complicated WIP, and when I say outlining, I mean more like discovery drafting. The process had the side benefit of giving me an opportunity to really think about the nature of the different characters who will inhabit my story pages.

I went back to basics to think about what each character type really is, or should be, and why he or she is there. My next step is tweaking and deepening the character worksheets I started before the plot work. I'm looking forward to this. I get these characters pretty well already, but I want to bring out the unexpected in them. The things I don't know I know, or haven't thought of yet. And at the same time, I want to make sure that I have made the most out of each of them.

Have you ever gone through this exercise? I haven't, not since school. And I loved some of the insights it gave me.

The Protagonist:
The character whose goal and transformation drives the story.
  • Needs to be an unforgettable, frapturously fascinating character--so smart, smartass, brave, combative, quirky, funny or good at what she does--that we can't help caring about her. 
  • Needs to be in trouble. Deep, dark, edge-of-our seats trouble, where something she desperately wants and needs is at stake.
  • Must have a weakness that may be her downfall.
  • Wants or needs something crucial to her inner or outer survival, something so intrinsic to who she is and inseparable from her essential sense of self, that going after it will jump start the story and keep it rolling.
  • Thinks she wants or needs something at the start of the story that may not be what she finds she wants or needs by the time the story ends.
  • Chases headlong in a spiritually or physically risky pursuit of a goal she sees as larger and more important than her sense of safety and physical or emotional comfort.
  • Sacrifices something to undergo a psychological transformation.
  • Battles through obstacles that would have stopped her at the beginning of the story.
  • Shows her transformation, her character arc, through concrete changes in action, attitude, values, clothing, or habits.
The Antagonist:
The character whose goal drives the conflict and push the protag toward transformation.

  • Is not necessarily "a villain," and not even necessarily human or external to the protag.
  • Must have a redeeming quality that keeps him from being cardboard.
  • Must be at least as smart, fascinating, active, real, and determined as the protag, and probably a little stronger.
  • Wants or needs whatever he is going after at least as much as the protag wants to achieve her goal.
  • Sets off in pursuit of his goal in a way that propels the protag into the action, possibly kicking and screaming.
  • Constantly boxes the protag in through brilliant moves and countermoves to keep her on her feet and thinking.
  • Makes the protag fear him enough for us to keep turning the pages in anticipation of the protag's failure.
  • Has his own story arc, some sort of character transformation. Maybe he gets dragged into becoming a better person as the protag grows, or maybe he gets more desperate and unhinged, but he ends the story changed by the battle.
A Foil:
A human or non-human mirror used to reflect and illuminate specific aspects of another character's traits.
  • May be the antag, or someone else--a best friend, sidekick, mentor, romantic lead, parent or virtually any other character who serves as an example or contrast.
  • Begins in the same place morally, socially, or physically as another character, and then follows a divergent path to point out a transformation (or failure to transform) that helps the protag learn an essential lesson.
  • Has a character arc within the story's framework, even if that arc doesn't necessarily happen within the pages of the story.
A Threshold Guardian:
Someone who likes things the way they are and opposes the protag when she wants to change that.

  • Can be an ally of either the protag or the antag, or a completely neutral party.
  • Usually shows up before a turning point in the story.
  • Adds conflict to the story outside the main conflict with the antag by testing the protag or pushing her to solve a problem or puzzle, win a minor battle, make discoveries, or otherwise take action.
  • Creates growth and momentum to propel the story forward.
  • May become a mentor once overcome by the protag.
A Mentor:
Someone in the story who give the protag answers, gifts, training, or assistance she needs to achieve her transformation or reach her goal.
  • Can be anyone, the antag, the best-friend, the love interest, a parent, a teacher, a friend, someone in a coffee shop.
  • Can be someone who helps the protag win past a threshold guardian, or even a threshold guardian who has been overcome and is necessary to help win past the next threshold guardian.
  • Willingly or unwillingly, wittingly or unwittingly, teaches the protag something essential.
  • Provides help through action, argument, or conflict--the protag has to earn it in some way.
  • Doesn't necessarily provide helpful help. Could provide false leads, false confidence, booby trapped advice or weapons, or any number of things that will make it harder for the protag to achieve her goals.
  • May have a story arc of her own. Could be a foil who has fallen on hard times and resurrects for one last stand against the antag. Or she may be the foil who can't be brave enough when it comes to the showdown.
A Minion:
An agent of the antag or someone who wants the same thing as the antag does.
  • May oppose the protag for the same or an entirely different reason, but helps play into the antag's goals in some way.
  • May be used knowingly or unwittingly by the antag.
  • Motives may be inherently good, or inherently evil.
A Ficelle:
A character who helps you avoid infodump but may create worse problems.
  • Because he himself urgently needs to find the answer, can help the protag discover information or reveal information to another character through dialogue or action and help fill the reader in.
  • Used improperly, can lead to the introduction of characters the reader can't keep track of.
  • Works best if can be introduced in a way that will be brought back and tied in to the story resolution in some way.
Can you think of more character types? Any aspects of any of the character types I've missed?  How do you choose your character array?

About the Author

Martina Boone is the author of Compulsion and Persuasion, out now in the romantic Southern Gothic Heirs of Watson Island trilogy from Simon & Schuster, Simon Pulse. Illusion, the final book, will be out in October of 2016. Martina is also the founder of AdventuresInYAPublishing.com, a three-time Writer's Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers Site, and YASeriesInsiders.com, a site dedicated to encouraging literacy and reader engagement through a celebration of series literature. She's on the Board of the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia and runs the CompulsionForReading.com program to distribute books to underfunded schools and libraries.


  1. Yah on finish your outline. I need to get mine done too. You've inspired me to dig in.

    This is a fantastic post regarding all the characters you need, especially in a fantasy story. I'm going to refer back to it as I develop my story. Thanks.

  2. Congrats on finishing your outline. I'm still working on mine and feeling like I'm going nowhere! Awesome post - thanks!

  3. I'm just excited to see someone quoting Ibsen. He was such an incredible playwright.

  4. Thanks, Natalie and Laura! Good luck with your outlines. Not a ton of fun, maybe, but I actually found that I liked this version a lot better because I gave myself permission to draft a little bit. It didn't feel so bloodless, I guess.

    Matthew, I love the way Ibsen phrases things. Wrinkles on the soul? *shivers*

  5. Congrats on finishing your synopsis-book! :-)

    What a wonderful listing of characters and archetypes and their purpose. This is a great check-list resource.

    Three more I can think of would be the Shadow, the Trickster, and the Anti-Hero (cough Snape!).

  6. Congrats! And I'm totally bookmarking this post. LOVE. Now I'll be going back through my character list to match them up to these archetypes :)

  7. OOOH! Susan, LOVED your post on the trickster the other day. Can you link that up and do you have anything on the the other two in your HUGE archives? :D

    Charissa, thanks! Have fun. I found some missed opportunitites when I did that, so I hope you find it helpful. :)

  8. Good list. I like the Ficelle character.

    As for other character types, I recommend some used in Dramatica, such as...

    Reason - a character who is rational, focused, and controlled.
    Emotion - a character who constantly has emotional reactions and is pulled in many directions

  9. So many questions that must be answered as I try to think which of my characters would fit each roll. I may need to go back and do an info sheet on each character, like you suggest. *groan* More work. Why does it have to be this hard? Why can't I be the person whose mind simply disgorges perfect prose onto pristine pages to dazzle and delight my wonderful readers? WHY CAN'T I? *throws a little snit* *gifts to soothe the creative soul welcome*

  10. Glen, I've heard great things about Dramatica but haven't tried it. I'll have to do some more reasearch! Thanks for the tip.


    Sending chocolate STAT! Seriously? There is NO SUCH WRITER. And I have a post just for you tomorrow. I promise. :D Hang in there.

  11. Congratulations on finishing your outline!

    This post has definitely been bookmarked - thank you for sharing! Now I just have to go through my WIP and match these types with my characters ;o)

  12. I love your definition of the antagonist. It's so easy to forget his purpose goes beyond mere conflict.

    Great post!

  13. Martina,
    Any post that starts with an Ibsen quote is tops in my book. Congrats on finishing the first leg of your new MS. Your character bios are GOLD. We'll have to figure out a way to meet more than once a year.

  14. Nice, very very nice! I bookmarked this too. Love your description of a "frapturously fascinating character." ;o) I was labeling my characters as I read thru this post, figuring out who was who. Fun!

    And woo! Congrats to you for finishing your very thorough outline. :)

  15. This is so great, and thorough! I will definitely keep this in mind when I outline my next book. :)

  16. I definately had to favourite this post. I have been working on my story for a year now and these character types will be very helpful.

    I now know which character I need to get rid of and which ones I need to give a more prominent role.


  17. Oh my Glob, this is sexist.
    Why the junk have you used 'she' for all of the characters, but used 'he' for the bad ones? Men aren't the only 'antagonists' of society'.


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