Your set of characters is the most important element in your story. While plot is pivotal, setting is fundamental, point of view is necessary, and theme is required, no story element ranks above character.
Characters serve as the driving force in your story. Your characters create and push your plot forward. Readers can experience the world that you’ve created through your characters, both from the way that your characters interact with their environment and the way that your characters view their environment. Finally, your characters illustrate and personify the theme of your story.
No story would be a story without characters to define it.
With this in mind, the most important question you must ask yourself when editing your story is simply:
Which characters should I include in my story?
Notice that you should ask this question during the editing stage. Why? Because oftentimes in editing, you’ll find that two characters can be combined into one. It’s easier to get everything on the page and then go back during the editing process to refine character roles. Don’t worry too much about creating these characters in your first draft. Cultivate them during your editing process.
So, without further ado, let’s dive into the most important characters that every story needs.
Who is the protagonist?
The protagonist is the main character in your story. This is his story. Even though the protagonist often referred to as the “hero,” this character isn’t necessarily good or bad. Because you will likely use the protagonist’s point of view to tell your story, it’s important that this character is relatable to the reader. The protagonist’s choices, even the bad ones, should make sense to the reader. The reader should understand him and root for him. No one relates to or roots for someone who’s perfect.
Depending on the genre of your story, you may have more than one protagonist. It’s not uncommon for romance, sci-fi, or historical novels to follow two protagonists.
Why is the protagonist important?
The protagonist is important because he’s the one who drives the plot forward. Although events and circumstances happen to characters, it’s the character’s response that defines what happens in your story. Your protagonist witnesses the murder of his parents as a child (that’s the set-up or inciting incident). His decision to avenge his parents’ death and the way that he does it is the plot.
The protagonist’s inner journey create the theme of your story.
How to develop a stronger protagonist:
Model your protagonist off of a real person. It’s easier to create more dimension when you think about the positives and negatives of people whom you already know.
Although you should include flaws in your protagonist, it’s important that your protagonist is likable, too. Choose a character whose positive traits outweigh his negative ones.
Who is the antagonist?
If the protagonist is the “good” guy, it’s easy to label the antagonist as the “bad” guy. But remember that protagonists aren’t wholly good. They’re complicated and flawed, and that’s what makes them relatable.
For much the same reason, an antagonist shouldn’t be 100% evil. Where’s the fun in that? An antagonist is not evil incarnate. What defines an antagonist is the role that he plays in the protagonist’s life. If the character moves against, and not with, the protagonist, he is the antagonist.
The antagonist may represent one person or a group of people.
Why is the antagonist important?
The antagonist opposes the protagonist. It’s important for your story that the protagonist is prevented from accomplishing his task. Otherwise, your story would be resolved within a couple of paragraphs.
How to develop a stronger antagonist:
Always remember that the antagonist is the hero of his or her own story. If he attacks your protagonist, it’s not out of a sheer, one-dimensional sense of villainy. Instead, it’s because your protagonist is preventing him from accomplishing his goal.
The antagonist and the protagonist often share the same traits. Look for ways to explore these traits in both main characters.
Give your antagonist a redeeming quality. Adding this type of dimension makes the antagonist sympathetic to the reader, which is a much more interesting read.
Who is the mentor?
The mentor is the person who wisely guides the protagonist in some way. The mentor is experienced and helpful.
Why is the mentor important?
Every protagonist must have a mentor. When he sets off on his hero’s journey (which is your plot), he needs someone to guide him to the correct path. This is because the protagonist is not perfect and all-knowing. He knows he wants to take an action, but he doesn’t know how. The mentor teaches him how.
The mentor often serves as the moral standard by which the protagonist is judged. To be trustworthy, the mentor should always support the protagonist, even if that means pushing against the protagonist when he’s taking the wrong path.
How to develop a stronger mentor:
The mentor is not a perfect paragon of virtue and shouldn’t be written in this way. Make him fallible, and know his flaws (even if you don’t share them with the reader). Sometimes, the mentor’s flaws can be exploited in the story.
Who is the sidekick?
The sidekick is the loyal companion of the protagonist. While the mentor shows the protagonist the path, it’s the sidekick who accompanies the protagonist down the path. The sidekick is different from the protagonist, and should see the hero’s journey from a different perspective.
Why is the sidekick important?
Most protagonists need a supportive friend. But beyond the needs of the protagonist, a sidekick’s main job in your story is to show the reader a different angle of the hero’s journey. The sidekick may also serve to symbolize the theme.
How to develop a stronger sidekick:
A sidekick should be loyal but not to a fault. Allow the sidekick to have doubts and process through them as he accompanies the protagonist on the journey.
Who is the skeptic?
The skeptic may also be the protagonist’s friend, but unlike the sidekick, the skeptic won’t support the protagonist’s journey. The skeptic doesn’t believe that the protagonist can or should reach their intended goal.
Why is the skeptic important?
The skeptic’s role is to add a sense of dimension to the story. The reader may have doubts about the protagonist’s goal, and the skeptic embodies this concern and apprehension. The skeptic is the voice of reason, and often reason conflicts with emotion (which may be personified as the sidekick).
How to develop a stronger skeptic:
Although the skeptic’s role is to doubt the protagonist, resist the urge to make this person “evil” or “stupid.” The skeptic should make sense, at least to the reader.
The skeptic isn’t the same as the antagonist. The skeptic may provide logical counsel for the protagonist but will not stand in his way.
Minor Character Development Tips
Should you only focus on five characters within your story?
Not necessarily. While most stories need these five types of characters, you’re not limited to just five people in your story.
The above characters represent the primary and secondary characters in your story. But don’t forget that there are tertiary characters, too.
Tertiary characters don’t need to be fleshed out, but they do need to be defined. You can start by answering these questions:
- Will the character be static in the story? In other words, will the character not change during the course of the story?
- Or, will the character be dynamic and evolve within your story?
- How much of the character will the reader see?
- Will the character be flat? (A flat character is not developed. The reader only sees a small part of this character’s personality.)
Remember that not all characters need to be explored in detail. Some characters, like a mailman or a passing stranger who only offer a few words, are used mostly to define the setting or develop the protagonist. It’s fine if the lesser, tertiary characters in your story are flat.
However, if these lesser characters continue to appear in your story and interact with your protagonist, it’s crucial that you add more dimension. Otherwise, a flat character can quickly turn into a stereotype. Writing a stereotype is lazy, and your readers will feel cheated.
A compelling plot may entertain your reader, but it’s the characters that live on long after the reader has closed the book. The reader may forget plot details (no matter how fun or surprising), but they never forget a well-written character. Use the above tips to create a set of memorable characters.
Be sure to check out these resources before you go: