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Writing

Writing 101: All the Different Types of Characters in Literature

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 7 min read

At the core of all great storytelling lies a compelling array of character types. A main character should be three dimensional and compelling; they should be the kind of dynamic character that readers and viewers can spend days with and not grow bored. Equally important are supporting characters, from sidekicks to love interests to parental figures to villains and anti-heroes.

There are three ways to categorize character types. One is via archetypes—broad descriptions of the different types of characters that populate human storytelling. Another way is to group characters by the role they play over the course of the story. The third method is to group characters by quality, spelling out the way they change or stay the same within a narrative.

As you craft your own story—whether that’s a first novel, a screenplay, or a short story—consider the way that these character types function within the overall narrative.

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7 Character Roles in Stories

If we categorize character types by the role they play in a narrative, we can hone in on seven distinct varieties: the protagonist, the antagonist, the love interest, the confidant, deuteragonists, tertiary characters, and the foil.

  1. Protagonist: The main character of the story is the protagonist. They should be carefully crafted with a logical backstory, personal motivation, and a character arc over the course of the story. Often the story will be told from their point of view. From a heroine like Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games to a miserable wretch like Doestoevsky’s Underground Man, the protagonist is the character the audience is most invested in.
  2. Antagonist: The villain of the story is the antagonist. Think Lex Luthor, Lord Voldemort, or Dr. Charles Nichols in The Fugitive. Note that an antagonist is not the same as an anti-hero like the Joker or Walter White. Anti-heroes are villainous people who function in a protagonist’s role.
  3. Love interest: The love interest is the protagonist’s object of desire. A good love interest will be compelling and three-dimensional, like Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby or Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind.
  4. Confidant: This type of character is the best friend or sidekick of the protagonist, the Sancho Panza to their Don Quixote. Often the protagonist's goal flows through the confidant—although not every story needs one. A particularly famous confidant is Horatio in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, as is Hermione in Harry Potter.
  5. Deuteragonists: These characters often overlap with confidants. A deuteragonist is close to the main character, but the story’s main plot does not directly correspond with their own character arc. Horatio doubles as a deuteragonist. In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Samwise Gamgee is a deuteragonist. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Benvolio is a deuteragonist who doubles as a confidant, while Mercutio is a deuteragonist but not a confidant.
  6. Tertiary characters: Tertiary characters populate the world of the story but do not necessarily link to the main storyline. These minor characters serve any number of functions and may have varying degrees of personal dynamism. Think of Padma and Parvati Patil in the Harry Potter series or Father Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov. In Spider-Man, various tertiary characters help fill out the world of Peter Parker’s New York.
  7. Foil: A foil character primarily exists to bring the protagonist’s qualities into sharper relief. This is because the foil is effectively the opposite of the protagonist. In the Star Trek series, Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock serve as each other’s foils since their personalities are so notably different. Draco Malfoy is a foil to Harry Potter.

5 Character Types That Appear in Fiction

One way to classify characters is by examining how they change (or don’t change) over the course of a story. Grouped in this way by character development, character types include the dynamic character, the round character, the static character, the stock character, and the symbolic character.

  1. Dynamic character: A dynamic character is one who changes over the course of the story. As such, a dynamic character makes the best protagonist. In Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, both Huck and Jim are dynamic characters. Similarly, each character in the love triangle of William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice—Stingo, Sophie, and Nathan—is a dynamic character.
  2. Round character: Closely related to a dynamic character, a round character is a major character who shows fluidity and the capacity for change from the moment we meet them. By contrast, some dynamic protagonists do not change until actions in the story force that change. Round characters can be noble, like Konstantin Levin in Anna Karenina, or morally dubious, like Humbert Humbert in Lolita.
  3. Static character: A static character does not noticeably change over the course of a story. Sometimes known as a flat character, these characters often play tertiary roles in a narrative (think of various parental figures in Roald Dahl’s children's books). Many villains are also static: They were evil yesterday, they’ll be evil today, and they’ll be evil tomorrow.
  4. Stock character: A stock character is an archetypal character with a fixed set of personality traits. Shakespeare’s various fools are stock characters, as are some of his comic creations like Sir Andrew and Sir Toby in Twelfth Night.
  5. Symbolic character: A symbolic character represents a concept or theme larger than themselves. They may have dynamic qualities, but they also exist to subtly steer an audience’s mind toward broader concepts. Most are supporting characters, but some stories have symbolic protagonists, such as Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. When it comes to symbolic supporting characters, Boo Radley in To Kill A Mockingbird is an example, representing a much larger legion of outcasts.
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12 Character Archetypes

Characters in a work of fiction can usually be grouped into archetypes. These archetypes have been categorized by Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, the American literary theorist Joseph Campbell, and generations of authors, screenwriters, and storytellers. Here are the 12 commonly discussed character archetypes:

  1. The Lover: the romantic lead who’s guided by the heart. Their strengths include humanism, passion, and conviction. Their weaknesses include naivete and irrationality. Some famous lovers are Romeo, Juliet, and Scarlett O’Hara.
  2. The Hero: the protagonist who rises to meet a challenge and saves the day. Their strengths are courage, perseverance, and honor. Their weaknesses include overconfidence and hubris. Some famous heros are Achilles, Luke Skywalker, and Wonder Woman
  3. The Magician: a powerful figure who has harnessed the ways of the universe to achieve their goals. Their strengths may include omniscience, omnipotence, and discipline, while their weaknesses center on corruptibility and arrogance. Prospero, Gandalf, Morpheus, and Dumbledore are famous magician characters.
  4. The Outlaw: the rebel who won’t abide by society’s demands. The outlaw can be a bad guy, but not always. The outlaw’s strengths include independent thinking and skepticism. Their weaknesses may include self-involvement and criminality. Among the famous outlaws are Han Solo, Dean Moriarty, and Humbert Humbert.
  5. The Explorer: a character naturally driven to push boundaries and find what’s next. Their strengths: They are curious, driven, and motivated by self-improvement. They are weak in that they are restless, unreliable, and never satisfied. Famous explorers include Odysseus, Sal Paradise, and Huckleberry Finn.
  6. The Sage: a wise figure with knowledge for those who inquire. Strengths of the sage include wisdom, experience, and insight. In terms of weakness, the sage may be overly cautious and hesitant to actually join the action. A few famous sages: Athena, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Hannibal Lecter (an evil sage).
  7. The Innocent: a morally pure character, often a child, whose only intentions are good. Their strengths range from morality to kindness to sincerity. Their weaknesses start with being vulnerable, naive, and minimally skilled. Famous innocents are Tiny Tim, Lennie Small, Cio-Cio-San.
  8. The Creator: a motivated visionary who creates art or structures during the narrative. Their strengths include creativity, willpower, and conviction. Their weaknesses include self-involvement, single-mindedness, and lack of practical skills. Famous creators include Zeus, Dr. Emmett Brown, and Dr. Moreau.
  9. The Ruler: a character with legal or emotional power over others. The ruler’s strengths include omnipotence, status, and resources. Their weaknesses include aloofness, being disliked by others, and always seeming out of touch. Famous rulers include Creon, King Lear, and Huck Finn’s Aunt Sally.
  10. The Caregiver: a character who continually supports others and makes sacrifices on their behalf. Among their strengths, caregivers are honorable, selfless, and loyal. Among their weaknesses, they lack personal ambition or leadership. Sometimes they even lack self worth. Famous caregivers include Dolly Oblonsky, Calpurnia, and Samwell Tarly.
  11. The Everyman: a relatable character who feel recognizable from daily life. When it comes to strengths, they are grounded, salt-of-the-earth, and relatable. In terms of weaknesses, they typically lack special powers and are often unprepared for what’s to come. Famous everymen: Bilbo Baggins, Leopold Bloom, Leslie Knope.
  12. The Jester: an intentionally funny character who provides comic relief but may also speak important truths. Strengths include the ability to be funny, disarming, and insightful. Weaknesses include the capacity to be obnoxious and superficial. Famous jesters range from Sir John Falstaff to King Lear’s Fool to George’s parents in Seinfeld.

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