common character types in literature

Rachel Richey Letters From The Editor

A story is nothing without the characters (even common character types) that populate it. Each of the types of characters used in fiction have ways to make us care about the events that unfold on a page. They are the ones that give breath to the written word-who take us along with them on a journey in which we can feel their highest highs and their lowest lows. We need all the character types. We need heroes and villains and average Joes to come along and give us a view of another life in another world. And the most effective characters do just that. They’ll stay with us long after the story has ended, whispering in our ears and living on in our imaginations.

One of the biggest challenges that writers face is being able to create these types of effective characters. How do you get a reader to care about someone who has never existed? Our next series of posts hopes to address this question by looking into several factors, including, the types of characters that are commonly used in literature, character development planning, the character arc, character motivation, and dialogue. Today’s post will focus on character types and what they mean to a story.

A List of Character Types In Fiction That Writers Should Become Familiar With

Protagonist

The protagonist is your main character. This is the person who is going to come face to face with the main conflict of your plot and either succeed or fail. You want to make sure that your readers can identify and empathize with your protagonist on an emotional level.

Antagonist

Your antagonist is the character that stands in opposition to you protagonist. This is their obstacle, their adversary, their white whale. It can be one person, a group of people, or even some type of internal conflict that your protagonist must face.

Anti-Hero- 

An anti-hero is the guy (or girl) that everyone loves to hate. They are nearly always a central characters who lacks the traditional attributes of an ideal hero. Common character traits of an anti-hero include that they are often amoral, a loner, or a social misfit. Think Walter White from the hit series Breaking Bad.

Stock Character

You can usually recognize a stock character immediately, no matter the story. These guys and gals adhere to certain stereotypes and conventions that have been used over and over again in literature and movies. You have the dumb jock, the eccentric scientist or professor, the wise martial arts master, the geek, and the girl next door. The list could go on and on, but you get the idea.

Foil

A foil character is used to enhance the qualities of the protagonist by acting in contrast to them. Their personality, values, and beliefs are usually very different, highlighting the personality, values, and beliefs of the main character. Think Draco Malfoy compared to Harry Pottter in the Harry Potter series.

Confidant

Every good hero seems to have a confidant. Someone or something that they can share their inner-most thoughts and feelings with. This is a tool often used by writers to give their audiences a glimpse into the internal dialogue of their protagonist.

When To Use Flat Characters & Round Characters In A Story

You may have already heard the terms flat and round characters, or dynamic and static characters, but do you know what they mean and when you would use them?

A flat character is two-dimensional, with only one or two distinct character traits. Think, the henchmen you typically see in movies. Common character traits of henchmen are that they’re usually large men who are a little on the slow side and who always follow the boss’s orders. They’re not complicated. They’re not conflicted. And they rarely get their own back story.

Now a round character is a three-dimensional, fully formed individual who has complex motives. These guys and gals have fully imagined lives and usually pop up as one of your central characters. Common character traits of round characters must make them human. They are often flawed and maybe even a little unpredictable, just like people in real life. If you were to take one of your henchmen from the first example, give him a back story detailing how he got into the muscle business to pay for his sick wife’s medical care, and then throw in some internal moral conflicts about his job duties, then you would have the makings of a round character.

Dynamic Characters Aren’t Always Round Characters

Dynamic Characters

Dynamic characters are not to be confused with round characters. Dynamic simply means that they change over the course of the story. Usually, these are central characters who encounter some sort of conflict in their life that acts as a catalyst for this change. Think Charles Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge, who’s cold and miserly heart was irreversibly changed by encountering the spirits of Christmas past, present, and future.

Static Characters

A static character on the other hand, never changes. Static characters remain unmoved by the conflicts that they face in their stories. This doesn’t mean that they’re regulated to playing bit parts, however. In fact, there are a number of famous examples of central static characters, including Sherlock Holmes and Indiana Jones. Being static does not make them any less engaging to audiences than their more dynamic counterparts.

It’s important to remember that not all static characters are flat and not all dynamic characters are round. You can have flat dynamic and round static. It all depends on what your story calls for, so don’t get stuck thinking that you have to write your central characters a certain way.

That’s the basic character types. Once you know and understand these definitions, you can begin to see how other writers use these types of characters in their stories, and you can begin to apply some of these basic principals to your own work. Do you need to a way to tell your audience what your protagonist is thinking? Maybe you could give your hero a confidant. Do you need to have a few flat characters in order to move your story forward? That’s okay, not every character has to have their complete life story unfold on the page. Even stock characters can be an important part of a narrative. Don’t limit yourself and don’t be afraid to play around with character in order to find the ones who will grab hold of your readers’ imaginations.

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About the Author

Rachel Richey

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As an avid reader and a lover of story crafting, Rachel started Literative.com as a way to motivate and connect authors to tell their stories (and the literary community at large). Her favorite part of Literative is discovering the talent that shows up in our creative writing contests.