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Types of Characters

Summary:

These resources discuss character creation and development in fiction writing. They provide an overview of character archetypes and tools to aid in character building. 

Contributors:McKinley P. Murphy
Last Edited: 2015-01-29 04:35:22

You may recall from your literature classes that characters can be “flat” or “round,” and likewise, “minor” or “major.”  A character also may be a protagonist or antagonist.  Let’s look at F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby for examples of character types.  Note that the characters in the novel are more complex than what I simply state here, and that Gatsby faces other antagonists—such as class, bourgeois snobbery, and the progression of time itself.

 

While Gatsby is our protagonist, the one who we want to succeed, his success would mean ousting his beloved Daisy’s husband, Tom Buchanan.  An idea can also function as an antagonist: Gatsby is also fighting against the bourgeois prejudice of elite 1920s New York City, where “old money”—such as the Buchanans—is worth more than new money, as exemplified by the divide between East Egg and West Egg.

 

Usually, the protagonist is also a Round character, “a developing three-dimensional character” (Knorr and Schell 165).  In other words, the protagonist must be a character that grows and changes during the story; it is the progress of this change that keeps the reader interested and cheering for the character.

Archetypes

Part of why The Great Gatsby has endured in American literature is because the characters are  complex, rather than being simple archetypes.  You are already aware of many archetypes; you can recognize them in the movies you watch, such as the Reluctant Hero (Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games series).  

Using an archetype is a kind of shorthand; if you put in a character like The Lonely Old Lady With A Dog, the reader recognizes the character and knows what to expect from them.  This may be helpful when populating your world with minor/flat characters, because it is reassuring and comforting to your reader; your reader knows these archetypal characters already.

Unfortunately, that also means that archetypal characters are clichéd.  You should never have your protagonist be an archetype; that would make your story predictable. 

Once you put your character down into their world, they can react in various ways to the setting and reality of their lives.  In Mooring Against the Tide: Writing Fiction and Poetry, Knorr and Schell write:

…your characters may react to the world in one of four ways.  They may see this society and its values and assimilate by adopting those values as their own; they may accommodate in that they do not like those values but will adopt them anyway if only to get along; they may rebel against those values in any number of ways; or, they may take flight from that society and, as did Huck Finn, head out to the new territories.

 

In other words, just as our choices in life determine where we go, the plot of your story is determined by the nature of your characters.  These four choices might not seem to offer many different plot options, but in reality, they can play out in an infinite number of ways.  Think about your favorite novel or short story—it’s likely that the main character is faced with a choice and has to pick one of the four routes described above.  Otherwise, there may not be much conflict in your story.

For instance, let’s say you have a protagonist whose childhood was rough; his parents often left him alone while they went out and drank.  As an adult, your character may have abandonment issues.  In his relationship with his girlfriend, he may be excessively clingy, texting her every ten minutes.  This excessive attention will drive her mad, so she’ll start ignoring his messages.  This will make him panic and show up at her place of work to make sure she’s okay.  In return, she might see this as stalking and end the relationship.  And so on…you can imagine what happens next.

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