Friday, September 3, 2010

Novel Design: Character Types

In preparation for NaNoWriMo, I am (probably) beginning a series on “How to design a novel.” In this episode, I discuss Characters.

Novel Design: Character Types

Character_lineup Every novel needs characters. Most novels focus on the story of a single character, known as the Main Character. The Main Character is the Hero of the story (although not necessarily the only Hero).

But how does one figure out what other characters should exist in a novel? Here is a list of a few to consider, based on mythical archetypes.

  • Heroes – Self-sacrificing do-gooders. Care little for themselves, but want to fix the world. They have some driving issue that propels the book forward.
  • Villains – The Bad Guys. Always looking out for #1. Villains can be layered, one controlling another. They should reflect the specific weaknesses of the Main Character.
  • Allies – Sidekicks, lovers, friends, stalwarts, informants, mothers. These are the people the Hero can count on when the going gets rough. They watch the Hero’s back.
  • Mentors – Father/Mother figures, religious leaders, authority figures, angels, teachers. Anyone the Hero can learn from. Use the Force!
  • Heralds – The news. Directly or indirectly calls the Hero to action.
  • Tricksters – Comic relief. Can put the death of thousands into perspective.
  • Shape Shifters – Liars, thieves, assassins, prostitutes, basically anyone who cannot be trusted. They have two (or more) faces. Unpredictable and inscrutable.
  • Threshold Guardians – Thou shall not pass! Except for the $1.50 fare.

Your genre may include other archetypes. For instance, Romance requires a Romantic Interest, Mystery requires a Detective, etc.

So what does this mean for creating a novel? Start looking at the different types to see who would fill these roles.

  • Heroes – What qualities of Heroism does your Main Character illustrate? Why are they qualified to be Heroes? What must they learn during the course of the story to achieve true Heroism?
  • Villains – Who is the main opposition to your character? What do they want? Why are their interests diametrically opposed? Who are their henchmen? Which ones might be turned to the Hero’s side?
  • Allies – Who are your Main Character’s most reliable, most trusted friends? Why are they friends? What to they themselves want? Can they really be trusted? Are they who the Hero wants to be Allies or are they throw together by circumstances? Which ones bolt when things get rough?
  • Mentors – Your Hero is about to tread on dangerous ground. Who can help him through the perils ahead? Who has been-there-done-that? Does the Mentor have his own agenda? Does the Mentor steer your Hero wrong?
  • Heralds – Sometimes the Universe calls to your character. A mysterious note. A friend of a friend. An anonymous text. A call from the Chief. The buxom blond in the PI’s office. If you build it, he will come.
  • Tricksters – Do you have a character who just doesn’t care about all the grief your Main Character goes through? The Trickster is all about grounding your characters in reality, showing that things are never as serious as they seem. The Trickster is also thought of as a Child, innocent and uncorrupted, but sometimes it’s a jaded oldster giving your Hero a hard time.
  • Shape Shifters – By far my favorite archetype, and probably the hardest to define. Who wears a mask? Who is a double-agent? Who is having an affair? Think skeletons in closets, secret agendas, etc. The basic question is: Who is going to screw over your Main Character when they least expect it and are most vulnerable? Alternately, who is going to come to Hero’s aide when the Hero least expects it, especially from this person?
  • Threshold Guardians – Your characters must pass tests to advance in their quest. Who do you suppose administers these tests? Everything your Hero achieves comes at a price. Some Guardians are easy to pass, others nearly impossible.

I hope this gives you a good starting point when thinking about the various types of characters that populate novels. Note that one character can fulfill multiple roles, and that not all roles are well-represented. So you can have a Villain-Mentor, a Shape Shifting-Ally, or a Trickster-Herald. Every character can display different archetypes at different points of the story. Allies can be turned into Villains. A Threshold Guardian can become a Mentor once the test is passed.

Have fun with it. Will post soon with tips on developing individual characters.


  1. Very good post! I'm glad to see all these chaps on my book, well, at least most of them!

  2. Wonderful tool for breaking down the characters, Andrew. Thanks for all of that hard work.

    Edge of Your Seat Romance

  3. I have a cocky jerk in mine!
    This is great for those who feel challenged when it comes to characterization.

  4. Great idea. I look forward to the future posts. ;-)

  5. Funny, I can recognise some of my characters in these. I look forward to character development.

  6. I've always liked the way you break things down into easily understandable segments!

  7. I used archetypes in my middle school creative writing last year.
    The kids had to pick two, then write dialogue between them. The challenge was to show through their speech and actions which archetypes they had picked. They enjoyed it, but it was too easy.
    The next class was the same assignment, but each character was a blend of three archetypes.
    We did not use the traditional list -- the kids brainstormed and came up with the soccer mom, the biker, emo kid, etc... It was fun to see how the emo-cheerleading-hippie manifested herself.

  8. Useful list, especially the shape-shifters and tricksters. I'm glad to see I've got most of these too!

  9. @Clara: They are hard to avoid. Hence the "Archetype" classification.

    @Raquel: There are whole books written on this (Mostly by Joseph Campbell)

    @Alex: Sounds like a winner!

    @Dawn: Thanks!

    @Myne: These types are everywhere.

    @Laura: Thanks!

    @Spock: There are a million types. But they all play these roles. No one is one type though.

    @dirty: Good job!


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