Essential Characters in Stories

Travis, in Taxi Driver, combines characters is of two essential characters - hero and villain simultaneously.
Travis Bickle, in Taxi Driver, combines the characteristics of two essential characters – protagonist and villain, simultaneously.

Casting essential characters, such as a protagonist and antagonist is of little value unless you surround them 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 you need to include:

Protagonist

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. 

Antagonist

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.

Occasionally, ambivalent antagonists, or, anti-heroes are the protagonists of the tale, such as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver or Jake La Motta in Raging Bull (Robert de Niro).

Essential characters are the tools through which the writer puts the story premise to the test.

Mirror Character

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 him more credible through dialogue and action. Without this character as foil, it is difficult to create a protagonist who can examine himself without resorting to stilted monologues or static inwardly-reflective scenes.

Romance Character

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.

The antagonist/protagonist conflict is the chief driver of your story.

Exploring your protagonist’s inner motivation and conflict is requisite. 

Summary

Essential characters interrogate your story premise by exploring it from several angles—through the eyes of each character. Opinions differ about the ideal number of types, but the four discussed above set the lower limit.

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2 thoughts on “Essential Characters in Stories

  1. Gerhard Pistorius

    Another Martin Scorsese film that gets people talking is The Wolf of Wall street. What makes this film so memorable is that your ‘Protagonist’ is also the ‘antagonist’. But he is a likable character in the sense that loyalty is perhaps the one thing he values most. What keeps us glued to the screen is how Jordan reacts to minor characters in the manner in which he rewards there loyalty and how he reacts when other minor characters betray him. We have every reason to hate Jordan Belfort. He cheats on his wife, he steals peoples money, he belittles people he believes to be unimportant and he so driven by greed that even when he becomes a success we are determined to witness his downfall. In the film Belfort is described as a twisted Robin hood who robs from the rich and gives to his merry little band of stock brokers. If there is one good quality to Jordan’s character it is his believe and loyalty towards his partners in crime. Whether he writes a check to a single mom or throws a yacht party to his friend, Jordan loves his fellow stock brokers like family. It is ironic that his own family ends up in disaster when his second wife leaves him after the FBI puts Jordan under house arrest. And despite knowing that the FBI are watching him Jordan risks his freedom to save the skin of his fellow stock brokers. Jordan’s loyalty towards his people is ultimately what leads to his down fall.

    In short: Whether we love or hate the lead character give him something that he values above anything else (including himself and his own goals) to truly make him a compelling character.

    for a future one, please write about characters who can play more then one role. A lover can become an enemy , a side kick can become the mentor – that kind of thing.

    Reply

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