Whether you’re a writer or an avid reader, learning about the different types of character you encounter in media can help you better analyze that media. Knowing about different types of characters and how they’re used will give you the vocabulary you need to discern what you like, what you don’t, and what you might want to incorporate into your own work.
These are types of characters listed by what literary role they serve in the story. These are the types of terms you’ve probably heard of in English class. We often refer to the roster of characters in a novel as a ‘cast,’ and in any cast, there are bound to be different parts—this is what they’re called.
The protagonist is the main character in a work of fiction. They’re the person whom the story is about, and they’re the person we’re undergoing the story with. Everything that happens in the story should have some impact on the protagonist, and everything the protagonist does should have some impact on the story, because it’s about them.
You may have a story with multiple protagonists—romance novels with dual POV’s are an example. These multiple protagonists are usually given equal weight in the story, which means equal amounts of time on the page or on screen.
An antagonist is the biggest opposing force for the protagonist. They’re the source of the main conflict in a piece of media. Their goals are in direct opposition to the protagonist’s, and this makes them enemies. The antagonist doesn’t have to be evil, though—to be an antagonist, a character only needs to pose the main source of conflict for the story. If you have an evil protagonist, your antagonist might actually be a good guy trying to stop him.
Love interests are the characters with whom the protagonist falls in love. There could be more than one love interest in a piece of work, especially if that work is trying to use the protagonist’s love life to make a point. Love interests can also be deuteragonists, confidants, character foils, or even antagonists (enemies to lovers, anyone?).
A character foil exists to accentuate certain qualities about our protagonist. For example, if our protagonist grew up poor and had to work for everything she’s got, her character foil might be someone born from wealth and handed everything she’s ever wanted. Character foils are often antagonists, and the foil is used to show us how good the protagonist is and how bad the antagonist is, but this is a complex relationship, and it can also make for fantastic love interests. Or, again, both.
Deuteragonists are basically B-plot characters. They get less time on the page than the protagonist, but they’re still important to the protagonist, and their subplots (which often involve their relationship to the protagonist) tie into the main plot and its themes. Deuteragonists might be best friends, sidekicks, or love interests.
The confidant is our protagonist’s sidekick, their right-hand-man, their closest ally. A confidant might also be a character foil—having this conflicting dynamic makes for powerful friendships and offers the protagonist someone unlike herself to work with. Confidants go on the journey with the protagonist, advise the protagonist, and through their time together, explore the protagonist’s personality.
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An archetype is a symbol of a type of thing—if you eat a chocolate cake that exactly meets your expectations of what a chocolate cake should taste like, you might say it’s an ‘archetypal’ chocolate cake. It’s like a classic example.
An archetypal character is an example of a type of character commonly found in fiction. This combines roles these characters play in the story with traits this character tends to have, and you may see versions of each archetype show up in different ways depending on which genre you’re working with (for example, ‘The Mentor’ in a high fantasy novel might be ‘The Wizard’).
The Warrior is a character archetype that’s motivated and determined. They set goals, overcome obstacles, and do so with a generally positive attitude—these characters make great coaches or leaders, although they aren’t always leaders. Because they’re so battle-ready and gung-ho, they sometimes see everything as a threat, and they also tend to think in black and white terms. Jocks are a riff on the Warrior archetype.
The mentor is most commonly found in science fiction or fantasy stories, but you’ll come across mentors in lots of other genres, too. They’re often older (though they don’t have to be) and they often have some sort of mystic quality which gives them transcendental knowledge. In fantasy, these are immortal wizard types. They often appear when the protagonist needs knowledge or wisdom to help guide them on their journey, and they rarely experience much of a character arc themselves.
The Professor is a genius and a scholar whose intellect and extreme focus on facts and reason can make them resistant to change. They often come off as cold or unfeeling, and conflict arises when their feelings inevitably do arise in opposition to science, reason, or logic. These characters are often deuteragonists—they’re part of the protagonist’s group, and they act as the voice of reason.
The Hero, not to be confused with the Warrior, seeks to save the world. They do this by performing very cool acts of superhuman bravery, strength, or general prowess. In a fantasy novel, they may have to master some sort of magical ability or train to fight. They’re selfless, courageous, and very aligned with moral good. The Hero is usually the protagonist, since they’re the ones doing the world-saving, but this isn’t a hard and fast rule.
This character is an optimist to their core. They unflinchingly choose the glass-half-full side of things, see the good in others, keep their promises, and do the virtuous thing. This character is often a child who has yet to ‘grow up’ and be faced with the ‘real world.’ They might have a character arc where they become more wisened, or they might serve as a source of inspiration for the Hero.
The Lover is all about emotion and creating meaningful relationships with others. They’re often interested in physical and spiritual beauty and they’re often idealists and dreamers at heart. They fear being alone, and might engage with risky people or behaviors to make connections—a character who thinks they can change a grisly love interest would be an example. They have optimism in common with the Innocent, but The Lover is more often an adult, and most often the love interest meant to develop the protagonist’s emotional side.
The Jester is often a sidekick who tags along with the protagonist with the seemingly sole intention of making wisecracks. They do well with brooding protagonists, because they offer both a welcome balance to the protagonist’s sulkiness for the reader and a challenge for the protagonist. They’re funny, and they’re also often an everyday person in contrast with the larger-than-life hero.
The Herald is not always a character—sometimes the Herald is an event or an item. The Herald shows up to tell the protagonist and the audience that something is about to change—the plot is about to start. They signal a move from the protagonist’s everyday status quo to the grand adventure that’s about to take place. When you think Herald, think ‘call to adventure.’
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Characters by Change
Characters can also be classified by what sort of change, if any, they undergo throughout the novel. This doesn’t necessarily have to correspond to a certain archetype or role, although characters with prominent roles often have to undergo change for a story to be interesting, making many main characters dynamic.
A dynamic character undergoes enormous internal change by the end of the story as a result of the plot. They might start the story weak, afraid, and cowardly, but they end strong and courageous. Their personality and outlook change—they end the story from a different emotional vantage point. These are often protagonists or deuteragonists, since having a character undergo a ton of plot without it having any effect on them often makes a story feel flat and uninteresting.
Static characters do not change as a result of the plot, or at least not in any major way—they might get a new outfit or gadget, but their internal world stays the same. This is common in tertiary characters who need to serve a consistent role to the protagonist throughout the story, like mentors. They don’t have a different outlook or personality by the end of the story, and if there are multiple installments, they often stay this way until the very end.
A round character is three-dimensional, complicated, and nuanced. They have a complex personality full of contradictory traits, just as real people do, and these contradictory traits create internal conflict which motivates them to interact with the plot how they see fit. Readers often feel attached to round characters as they get to know their strengths, weaknesses, desires, faults, and ambitions—round characters are usually dynamic characters, and part of the joy of reading them is watching them grow and develop.
A flat character has one role in the story, and their personality traits all seem to exist to fill that role. An evil stepmother, for example, might seem to have nothing to her except this bizarre fixation on making the protagonist’s life a living hell. Jester sidekicks might be flat if the only purpose they serve is to follow the protagonist around and make jokes for the sake of the reader. They might also be flat if the story isn’t really about the protagonist so much as it’s about the story—in a mystery, for example, the detective herself might not be a complex character, but it doesn’t matter as much because the story is more about the complicated, interesting mystery at hand.
A stock character is a character meant to fill an understood role in a given genre which requires little to no development on the part of the writers. In a climate disaster movie, for example, stock characters might be nameless people whom the protagonist must rescue—they rarely come up again, and we know almost nothing about them as people. These characters also often represent stereotypes, like ‘mean boss’ or ‘loyal servant.’ The audience understands what these characters are and what their purpose is, and unless the plot intends to explore those stock character types, that’s probably all there is to them.