What are the types of characters in a story? Some of us have heard terms like protagonist and antagonist before – but what are they? And what do they mean? We’re going to break down all the essential types of characters so you can see how writers utilize character types in their stories. By the end, you’ll know what makes character types unique, and how to implement them in your own works.
Character Types in a Story
Character types vs. archetypes
Character types and character archetypes are not the same thing.
Here’s a good rule of thumb:
- Character types serve roles, such as a protagonist
- Character archetypes are ~commonly-used~ subtypes of roles; for example, if the protagonist is the character type, the hero would be a character archetype
Writers use character types (or roles) to give their stories structure. For example, most stories use a protagonist (or dual protagonist) to guide the audience; supporting characters to assist their protagonists, and antagonists to present challenges to their antagonists. Characters serve one purpose and one purpose only: plot.
So, let’s break down character types in further detail!
Types of Story Characters
Breaking down the protagonist
Protagonist – derived from the Greek words prōtos and agōnistēs – translates to first actor. The purpose of the protagonist is to move the plot forward.
Subtypes of protagonist:
- The hero – the hero is a character who displays an utmost commitment to their morals no matter the consequence: Naruto in the Naruto series
- The anti-hero – the anti-hero is a character who is outcasted from society and overcome by self-interest: Walter White in Breaking Bad
- The tag-team – the tag-team is a two-man combo that serves the role of one leading role: Lee and Carter in Rush Hour
The protagonist – no matter whether they’re a hero or a villain – is the central focus of most stories. However, there are stories that use ensembles instead of protagonists; for example, Paul Thomas Anderson’s feature-film Magnolia, and the HBO television series Succession.
This next video from StoryLogue shows Robert McKee’s answer to writing multiple protagonists.
If you’re learning about characters in a story for the first time, try to focus on single protagonists. Multiple protagonists change every part of a story, from beginning to end.
Literature Types of Characters
Building around antagonists
Antagonist – derived from the Greek word agonizesthai – translates as “to contend with.” And that’s a pretty apt translation. Antagonists serve to contend with protagonists. The purpose of antagonists is to slow the progress of the protagonist.
Here are a few antagonist examples:
- Characters – antagonistic characters can be heroes or villains; they simply must juxtapose the protagonist in a conflicting way, such as Darth Vader in the original Star Wars
- The world – the world can antagonize the protagonist naturally (comet in Don’t Look Up) and unnaturally (the system in 1984)
- Aspects of self – antagonization can also take the form of depression, paranoia, or other aspects of self: Macbeth’s obsession with prophecy in Macbeth
If a protagonist is a car, then antagonists are roadblocks that slow it from reaching its destination.
This next video from Film Courage and Professor Eric Edson at California State University Northridge takes a look at how to write a good antagonist.
It’s important to remember that antagonistic characters can be genuinely good; they are only defined by their contention to the protagonist.
Supporting Character Types
Addressing supporting characters
Supporting characters are characters who help the protagonist on their journey. In the previous section, we said that antagonists were like roadblocks. Well, let’s suppose one of those roadblocks is a pothole. If that’s the case, then a supporting character should be an asphalt mix. Well, not literally – let’s extend that metaphor.
Let’s say an antagonist is a fire demon and a supporting character is a water-wizard. In such a scenario, the supporting character is uniquely equipped to either a) stop the antagonist or b) slow the antagonist.
Remember, most stories have multiple antagonists and multiple supporting characters.
Here are some supporting character types:
- The supporting friend – the supporting friend is a character who does whatever they can to help the protagonist; even if they’re ill-equipped to do so, such as Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings script
- The de facto third – the de facto third is the third person in a triumvirate. The de facto third is usually a girl, and overtly tertiary to the protagonist and the main supporting character, such as Hermione in the Harry Potter script
- The specialist – the specialist is a character who is proficient in one or more tasks. Furthermore, they are a character who uses their proficiency to aid the protagonist, such as Q in James Bond
In our next video, we’ll show you how to write a supporting friend.
A supporting friend is just one type of supporting character – there are dozens more.
When in doubt, ask yourself this question: does the character move the plot forward? Or do they slow the plot down? If the answer is “move the plot forward,” then they’re either a protagonist or supporting character; the former differentiated from the latter simply by narrative focus. And remember: characters can change from an antagonist to a supporting character or vice versa depending on the context of the story.
Character Archetype Examples
We briefly touched on character archetypes in this post – but there’s a lot more to the term than what we went over here. Want to learn more about character archetypes? Check out our post on character archetype in literature and movies, with examples from Star Trek, The Avengers, and more. By the end, you’ll know a variety of different character archetypes; and why they’re important.