Having a well-rounded protagonist is of little value unless you surround her with other characters to react or relate to. Indeed, your choice of characters may be one of the most crucial decisions you take in writing a story. Here, it is helpful to remember that each character performs a certain function in your tale. Knowing your story premise–the problem to be solved by the protagonist, allows you to design a cast of characters who test, resist, and assist the protagonist to achieve this goal.
Four Primary Characters
In the book Screenwriting, Raymond G. Frensham suggests that there are four primary character types to choose from:
The job of this character is to propel the story forward. This character’s desire to achieve the goal is a crucial aspect of the story. His decisions motivate his actions and explain why the pursuit of this goal is necessary–given the character’s background, beliefs, desires, and commitments.
The antagonist or nemesis is the character who most opposes the protagonist as the former attempts to pursue his goal. This character is a visible and persistent generator of conflict in the story. Without him it is difficult to muster enough energy to drive events forward.
A mirror character, also known as a reflection or support character is one who is most aligned with the protagonist. This character type supports the protagonist and adds colour and resonance by helping to make her more credible through dialogue and action. Without this character as foil, it is difficult to create a protagonist who can examine herself without resorting to stilted monologues or static inwardly-reflective scenes.
This character is the object of your protagonist’s sexual or romantic desires–the reward delivered at the end of the journey. The romance character may also, however, support or bedevil the protagonist’s pursuit of the goal–at least initially. This is because without conflict, the relationship degrades into stasis and boredom. Ultimately, however, the protagonist and his love interest end up together to live happily (or unhappily) ever after.
Rules of Thumb
In designing your cast remember the following:
Character types should be introduced by the end of act I; certainly no later than the start of act II.
Each character should stay within his or her character type for the duration of the story. Changing types midway through the story causes confusion and weakens impact.
The antagonist/protagonist conflict is the chief driver of your story.
Exploring your protagonist’s inner motivation and conflict is requisite.
Character types are a way of interrogating your story premise by exploring it from several angles–through the eyes of each character. Although opinions differ about the ideal number of such types, the four types discussed above typically define the lower limit.
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