In writing a “good” story, there are two major elements to consider: plot, and character.
Without one, you don’t really have the other. You can start with a strong plot that dictates what kind of characters you will need, or you can start with memorable characters that tell you what your plot is. Either way you go, one of them has to be fully developed before you can go any further, or your writing won’t have the depth it takes to get it published.
And, of course, if you start with a strong plot you’re still going to have to dig into those characters…
So, what makes a really memorable character? What makes us, as a reader (which all writers should be, first and foremost), treasure a book because its characters live and breathe for us? By the time you’re done with this guide, you’ll have a whole cast of characters that can strut through a room or dance pirouettes for you – which is what you want, because that makes writing much more fun.
We’re going to look at archetypal characters, which are the basis of all characters in fiction.
Every story has a protagonist, or there is no story. The protagonist is the main character, the person we move through the story with, and (hopefully) root for. We want to see them succeed, to get everything they’re after in the storyline.
In short, the Protagonist makes the story move. If we look at the story, The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling is the Protagonist. She is the private investigator who we meet Hannibal Lecter with, who we root for as she attempts to solve the crimes she’s been assigned, and who we tremble in fear with.
Clarice Starling is an excellent example of what makes a main character live and breathe for an audience. Not only has this character been assigned a career (which is determined by the plot), but she’s been given extremely human and immediately identifiable attributes. Clarice is strong, and can hold her own against even psychopaths, but she has a completely helpless and almost neurotic streak of weakness carried over from her childhood. We get to see how much of a loner Clarice is, and how this works both for and against her throughout the storyline. Clarice is understandable, because we have all felt some of the emotions that she is experiencing, so we can relate to what she’s going through (even though most of us, thank goodness, will never have to know the actual experience).
In a fairy-tale, the Antagonist would be a wicked witch or an evil step-mother. The Antagonist is directly opposed to the Protagonist, your main character, and their goal in the storyline is directly against the Protagonist’s goal.
Basically, the Antagonist’s job is to create conflict in your story. They make things difficult, they try to get others to stop the main character or they are the cause of what makes the main character’s success in reaching their goal so hard. Going back to The Silence of the Lambs as an example, Buffalo Bill (the psychopathic murderer) is Clarice Starling’s Antagonist. His actions set him in direct opposition to Clarice attaining her goal (after all, he doesn’t want her to stop him). Buffalo Bill creates conflict in the story because he is creating the very kidnappings and murders that Clarice is trying to stop.
Buffalo Bill makes the perfect archetypal Antagonist in this storyline. He is creepy, psychotic, and, well, a murderer. However, he is human – we recognize that he has the same basic desire that we all have: to like ourselves. Granted, because he’s mentally disturbed to an extreme, he takes this desire to a very dark and scary place. However, it’s in his quest to become beautiful to himself that we realize he’s two-dimensional. Buffalo Bill does have a heart, even if it is black and twisted.
It’s important to remember the fact that without light, there is no dark and visa versa. No one is perfect; there is simply no such thing as perfectly good, nor any such thing as perfectly evil. Even your scariest, creepiest, most terrifying characters have some light in their soul … you just might have a tougher time finding it.
As the name suggests, the Guardian is the helper and/or teacher in your story. They often provide a sense of conscience to the storyline, either directly and verbally or through their actions.
The Guardian is a direct influence on all the other characters in the book. They provide a sense of emotion to your storyline, a sense of dramatic impact. Depending on your plot and the goals of your characters, the Guardian can create an entire “theme” or feeling to the overall book. How much so? Well, let’s head back into the dark realms of The Silence of the
Lambs for a moment. In this story, Clarice Starling’s Guardian is none other than Hannibal Lecter. While he might seem the least obvious source of “conscience” in the story, it is Hannibal that teaches Clarice what she needs to know in order to find Buffalo Bill. A convicted, institutionalized murderer, it is also Hannibal that teaches Clarice to identify her own inner weaknesses; the childhood trauma which she carries with her throughout her adult life. The chemistry between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter oftentimes borders on disturbing, but without a doubt, Hannibal is the Guardian in this story.
While Buffalo Bill was a picture-perfect Antagonist, a character that we can immediately recognize as filling the archetype, Hannibal Lecter is much more complex. If we look at nothing more than the actions he has taken to become who and what he is, we would immediately think he would make a perfect Antagonist himself. Looking deeper, though, at his interactions with Clarice (which is what’s important, after all), we see a side to Hannibal that is … well, not affectionate, but definitely compelling. For whatever reason, he decides to help Clarice – and he helps her well.
By far, this can be the most difficult character to pinpoint. Often, it will seem that there is no Contagonist in a story, but I promise that if you dig a bit deeper you’ll find them.
The Contagonist is a distraction. They play into conflict, by distracting the Protagonist from achieving the story goal. Many times, this distraction will come in the form of temptation; something that should lure the Protagonist away from the story path. Basically, the Contagonist will hinder the main character in at least one major point of the storyline which could effectively destroy their chances of succeeding.
In The Silence of the Lambs, we have a very subtle Contagonist. Remember the slimy institution manager/operator? I will admit that I can’t remember his name for the life of me, he’s just “The Creep” in my book. This Contagonist tries to prevent Clarice from achieving the story goal, which required the help of Hannibal Lecter, by arranging for Lecter’s transfer. He has his own goals; mainly, to publish a book about Lecter that will earn him tons of money.
Your Contagonist can take the shape of a lover, as well. After all, nothing can be more distracting than a devilishly handsome man or sinfully attractive woman ready to do your bidding. Just keep in mind that there is always a Contagonist. This person will play into the conflicts in your story, making the main character’s life just that much more difficult.
Don’t confuse the Antagonist with the Contagonist. While the Antagonist wants to defeat the main character, the Contagonist is only concerned with misleading them in some way.
Summary of Archetypes
Archetypes are not complex characters. They can be made complex by adding depth to them; if you stick with the surface, though, you will end up writing fairy tales. And that’s fine – as long as you’re trying to write a fairy tale. What archetypes do is give you a base to build really powerful characters from.
Some types of characters are not covered in these archetypes. Depending on the genre you are writing for, you might have a Faithful Sidekick, a Love Interest, etc. The only character types I’ve covered above are the ones which are essential to a complex plot. If you don’t have these bases covered, you’re going to end up with holes in your story or, worse, a storyline that just isn’t all that interesting.
Because I find examples so useful, I’m going to wrap Archetypes up with a list of some more popular characters: The Archetypes in Star Wars.
The Character Archetypes in Star Wars
The Protagonist: Luke Skywalker
Luke is a classic Protagonist, the “hero” of the story, doing whatever it takes to achieve the overall story goal.
The Antagonist: The Empire
The Empire is the source of evil in the story, directly opposed to Luke’s goals.
The Guardian: Obi Wan Kenobi
Obi Wan Kenobi protects Luke and company, and provides “moral” guidance.
The Contagonist: Darth Vader
Darth Vader represents temptation to “join the Dark Side”, and hinders Luke’s efforts at every turn.