From academia to comic book stores and movies, character is talked about and theorized to the point where it’s sorta lost its meaning. The simplest way to define character is:
Characters are the actors of your story. They are the people, places, or things that fill your story and act out what you wish to take place.
There are different types and kinds of characters that are all worthwhile and useful when it comes to crafting or designing a character. I’ll list them with their definitions and uses below, but do not take this as an exhaustive list. Search out and find new types of characters and forms of them by reading and consuming stories widely.
The main distinction between a type of character and a kind of character has to do with their function. A type of character serves a plot function while a kind of character serves a story function. Consider it like this: A hero(kind) can be a main character(type), but they can also be a background or side character(type).
Think the hero or guardian, Reggie, in the movie Lady in the Water. Some of the types of characters can serve dual functions like a main character can be a static character like Tarzan or Conan the Barbarian.
Types of Characters
- Background Character: a silent filler character roaming in the background of your story.
- Tertiary Characters: a minor role character that helps color and push the story forward.
- Main Character: the character who the story is about and who drives the forward momentum of the story.
- Deuteragonists: important secondary character whose storyline intertwines closely with the main character’s.
- Dynamic Character: a character that undergoes a great amount of internal change over the course of the story.
- Round Character: a character that has a fully developed and complex personality.
- Static Character: a character that does not change throughout the story or who returns to their original stance at the beginning of the story.
- Stock Characters: a stereotypical character that plays a known role in a specific genre.
- Symbolic Character: a character that represents a specific theme or symbol throughout the story and acts accordingly.
- Foil: character is used to contrast the protagonist or another main character.
Kinds of Characters
- Hero: a character that has a trait or “power” that makes them standout from the rest of the characters and uses it to solve the overall story problem.
- Villain: the exact same as the hero except they cause harm instead of good and usually are the cause of the story problem.
- Protagonist: like a hero minus the special trait or power; a main character that moves the plot forward or is followed through the plot.
- Antagonist: a character that works against the efforts of the protagonist; similar to a villain without the special skill or trait that makes them unique.
- Love Interest: the character that is pursued either romantically or platonically throughout the story.
- Sidekick: usually a close friend of the main character that works alongside and helps them achieve their goals.
There are also character archetypes, but we won’t get into those because they are extremely culturally linked. What archetypes might be prevalent in my culture, might not be in yours. So, if you want to learn about character archetypes, the best place to start is by reading a lot of folklore and myth in different cultures.
Like I’ve mentioned already, the above list isn’t a full or complete list. It’s a small sampling to get you started crafting basic characters and wrapping your mind around how to use characters. Your characters can be more than these roles and types and can exist outside of them as long as they are relatable.
Relatability is key when it comes to designing or creating characters. If your readers can’t relate to anyone in your story, then they won’t have a lot to grasp onto or care about. With relatable characters, writers can create unbelievable and otherworldly stories that still hold their readers because the characters help pull them through.
You can make your character(s) relatable by giving them motivations, goals, or intentions that are easily defined and seen. I don’t mean by that that you shouldn’t create literary and heavy texts, but that your readers should be able to glean from your story who the character is, so they can relate to them.
Relatability also comes down to who your readers are. What is relatable to one culture or market, might not be relatable to another. So, when crafting your characters, think about who your story is for. What are they going through? What’s important to them?
Below we’ll get into an example of a well-crafted character and techniques you can use on your own stories.
For this topic’s example I’m going to use Rickety Cricket or Matthew Mara from Always Sunny in Philadelphia to show a well-developed character. I choose this character because the creators of the show were able to craft a unique and dynamic character in one episode that reverberates throughout the whole series. Plus, I love a good terrible character on an endless spiral down.
Like Walter White and other well-crafted characters, Rickety Cricket’s introduction and showcasing of character is used to dictate and control all of his actions throughout the story. From the first episode in season 2 until the most recent episodes he’s featured in, he never strays from the character and person he was introduced as.
Let’s take apart Rickety Cricket’s character and break it down into its functioning parts. We’ll split them into three categories: motivation, style, and voice. These are the broad stroke categories that we as writers can use to design our characters and examine other characters.
Before you skip ahead and think that you already know all about character motivation, style, and voice, I’ll warn you that I take an extremely different approach to each than any other writer or instructor ever has.
Rickety Cricket’s Motivation
When motivation is normally talked about it is stated as the goal or driving force behind the character. That usually leads to a lot of the same type of stale characters who come into the story with these basic and straightforward wants, needs, and goals.
But what if we thought about motivation like personality instead? How does that deepen and broaden our use of the term so that our characters are more than their goals and story functions?
By thinking about a character’s motivation as the whole of their personality we can begin making connections outside the basic wants, needs, and goals. When it comes to Rickety Cricket, he is introduced as a character who wants to be a good Catholic and get back at the bullies in his earlier life. The creators could have used that simple motivation to have a character who comes on like a good Catholic with an ax to grind.
But we’ve seen that. We’ve seen that soooo much.
Now, let’s take that basic motivation and develop it like the creators of Always Sunny so that it touches more than just what they want in the story but makes up their whole personality. Cricket’s need to be a good Catholic has led him to be a priest. It has also put him at the crosshairs of temptation, making him a constantly troubled and nervous person.
Yes, they could have made him stereotypically evil and maniacal, but they went for the far subtler approach, one that lent itself to the story they were trying to create. Plus, choosing to have his character be a nervous and troubled wreck allowed for a genuine connection between his want: to get back at his bullies.
There would be no bullies if there wasn’t something to bully.
If you’re a fan of the show, you know that Cricket develops throughout the series and stops being a priest. His spiral down is one of the best’s in TV comedy history, in my opinion. Looking at his opening “motivation” or personality, we can see how someone who strives to be a good Catholic but wrestles with his negative wants can spiral out in this horrendous way.
Instead of simply making Rickety Cricket want and need something with his motivation, they made a character whose wants and needs were tied and intertwined with who he is as a person. That way his wants and needs aren’t as straightforward, but complex and with deep ramifications.
Rickety Cricket’s Style
Like motivation, we’re going to think about a character’s style in a different way than just the way they dress or appear to the reader. Let’s think about style as choice and actions.
A character’s style is what decides whether or not they are kicking down a door or sneaking through the bathroom window.
Rickety Cricket’s style like his character changes throughout the story. When he is first introduced, he is a clean-shaven and well-kept priest. He’s mild-mannered, though there are moments when he has uncontrollable outbursts. As the series progresses into later seasons, these outbursts become all of Cricket’s character.
His original and eventual style is closely tied to his arc and outward actions. As he becomes more outrageous and gives into his truer nature, he becomes grotesque.
Style and choice or action should be closely aligned to create depth of character.
There’s even a point later in the series when Rickety Cricket starts to clean up his act and gets a job at his family’s factory. Through a series of wild events, it is revealed that Cricket hasn’t cleaned up his act and has been living in a drug dream state for most of the episode.
Throughout his supposed change of character where he seems to be making better choices with his life and time, Cricket’s outward style and appearance change as well. Not fully, however, because remember, he hasn’t really changed. His actions and choices are all superficial and made in a drug-induced state.
Rickety Cricket’s Voice
Following the previous trends, we aren’t going to just think about a character’s voice when it comes to how they speak. A character’s voice is how they express themselves. Yes, a character’s voice is the words they choose and in how they choose to order those words.
But it’s also about how they choose not to use words. It’s also about how they show themselves to the world. Do they hide? Or are they loud and boisterous?
If you’re paying attention, you’ll realize that all of these things (motivation, style, and voice) all play into each other. Cricket’s opening motivations of being a good Catholic and getting back at his bullies dictated his style(priest outfit and shy nature). His motivation and style is going to feed his voice as well.
When he’s first introduced and is in his well-mannered phase, his words and outward expression is timid and cautious. As he falls deeper into his downward spiral, his outward expression becomes more and more unhinged. His later expressions are vulgar and totally opposite to how he was introduced.
Even if he doesn’t speak, his expression of self deteriorates as his motivations and style spiral out, too. Everything about Cricket’s character is connected.
This is what is meant by a well-crafted character. Are they foolproof? Coherent? Multifaceted?
You can think of this motivation, style, and voice method as a triangle or pyramid or whatever you want. As long as you go into creating your own characters with more than the cardboard cut-out wants, needs, and goals. Develop those character bricks and bolts into something deeper that creates a dynamic and well-developed character.
Tips, Tricks, and Techniques
The above method that I used to dissect characters can also be used to create one. I’ll go over that and more below so that you can move from a point of knowledge to a point of practicing, and eventually mastering. Like with everything, experiment with different methods to see which produces the best results for you.
Motivation, Style, and Voice
Used above, this trick of designing a character begins where most writers stop with creating a character. It begins by figuring out your character’s role within the story. What do they want? What do you plan to have them accomplish within your story?
Using their basic wants, needs, and arc, begin developing character traits related to their style(dress, actions, choices) and voice (how they express themselves). While doing that, keep your story’s and character’s overall arc and storyline in mind so that you are choosing traits that add more to the story, not distract.
Starting off with a general idea of who your character is or even a vague image, you can use job and relationship interview or intimacy questions to better get to know them. Spend some time imagining a scenario where you would be able to interview your character.
How do they answer your questions? What answers do they give? Use your imagination to explore what type of person your character is. This is also useful if you have a fully developed character and want to further flesh them out.
Spend the Day With Them
My other favorite way of designing and creating a character is to spend a day within my world and find which person or people start popping up. For example, when I know who my main character is, but I’m not sure who they really are beneath that, I spend a whole day with them inside my mind.
Spend part of your day imagining that you and your main character are together in your world. They’re right beside you, witnessing and going through your day-to-day. How do they act and respond to your world? Spend the rest of the day in their world. Have them show you their world and how they approach life where they are from. Take note of all of this. Their mannerisms and the things they say, the places they take you, etc.
Dungeons and Dragons Character Sheets
Even if you’re not writing fantasy fiction or playing D’n’D, using a worksheet from the classic tabletop role-playing game is a great way to get your creativity flowing. On a basic D’n’D character sheet, you have space to think about the character’s backstory, allies, or organizations they may belong to. This could mean schools or businesses, perhaps volunteer organizations or sports teams.
You can also get more detailed and use the list of stats to broad-stroke your character’s intelligence, charisma, and more. These are pretty similar to other character-building worksheets except they are helpful for people who think better with game rules.
This technique is better used when you already have a general idea of who your cast of characters is. Start with 2–3 characters and create other characters that are the opposite or contrast with the original character.
Many writers and instructors say that this is the best way to write a story with a lot of conflict and tension. The main reason is that all of the characters will be butting heads or in constant conflict with their opposites.
Like with the D’n’D character sheets above, standard character sheets for fiction help writers create characters fast and hassle-free. There are so many to choose from out there that it kinda becomes overwhelming, so I don’t usually use this method.
If you want to use this method, I advise finding one character template sheet that you like. Use that one to create all the characters in your story. This will keep things clear and consistent with your characters. This method is becoming more frowned upon due to its cookie-cutter style.
Use Your Real Life
I caution writers about using this method because some have actually stolen people from their life and simply transplanted them onto the page of their stories. This is not the best way to do this, but the quickest way to become too close to your work.
Whenever I pull a person from my real life to use as a character, I use the real person as a starting point. I take their top qualities and their worse qualities and use that to create a character that is different, yet the same as their real-life inspiration. Or I’ll use a real person’s physical appearance to help design what my characters will look like.
Begin With an Archetype
Above I mentioned that there are character archetypes found in many cultures that can be used in your own fiction. To go about doing this, research into the culture you want to use an archetype or figure from and learn about that person and their ties to the culture.
Like with borrowing from your real life, don’t do a complete copy and paste — unless that is your intention — but use the archetype as a jumping-off point. Like a trickster that also happens to be a virgin maiden love interest with similarities to your enemy from work.
Go Forth and Create
With the tools above, you can begin creating characters or start developing your existing ones further. When writing, however, keep in mind that creation is hard and messy. What works for some might not work for you and your story. Play around with these techniques and tricks and see which works for you.