How to Write a Novel - Character Series
Welcome to Week 3 of our 52 week series…
How to Write a Novel – Character Series
Do you know which characters belong in your novel or screenplay? You probably know that you need to have a hero – the person through which we see the story unfold. But, besides your hero (or protagonist), you will also need an antagonist, a foil and some major and minor surrounding characters. This tool covers the absolute basic characters that you will need to include in your novel or screenplay.
Note: If you are writing an ANTI-HERO stay tuned! I will have a post focusing solely on those bad boys (or bad girls) of fiction soon.
A Protagonist: the main character (the story revolves around the protagonist).
- The Protagonist’s Purpose: As our hero, the protagonist is the person we want to identify with, care about and most want to follow. No matter what the story, the protagonist acts in some way as an everyman – the person that provides a cathartic experience for the reader. As our hero faces her fears and flaws, as well as bad and evil aspects of our world, we too can virtually face the aspects of life that scare or trouble us the most.
- Writing Tips: keep the focus on the protagonist. Many storytelling problems stem from this one issue. If you find that your story needs focus, meanders or wanders— take it back to the protagonist. Also, if you find your protagonist to be weak or soft, make sure you know what it is that they want. Give them a clear and SPECIFIC goal that the reader can track.
An Antagonist: the character who works against your protagonist. They often represent evil forces/are the major obstacle to your hero achieving their goals.
- The Antagonist’s Purpose: As the opposing force to our hero and his/her journey, the antagonist is the person we want to dislike, want to conquer or fight against. The antagonist exists to show how the hero deals with adversity and faces his/her fears. Acting as a mirror to the protagonist, the antagonist forces the hero to face parts of himself that are troubling and/or difficult and, ultimately, lead to the growth of the protagonist.
- Writing Tips: keep the antagonist strong and active. Use this character when you want to induce fear/conflict in your main character. Use when you need an agent to push the main character to change. Keep the antagonist present and growing in strength…a growing threat.
A Foil: a character who is the contrast to the main character. Can be a buddy, a sidekick, an enemy or an opposite. (Watson is Sherlock Holmes’ Foil.)
- The Foil’s Purpose: As the person who helps to reveal who the main character is by being the contrast of the character. For example, a strong courageous protagonist may have a fearful best friend as a foil. A foil can be a friend or an enemy and even a sidekick or a competitor.
- Writing Tips: use the foil when you need to reveal elements about the main character. For example, you can show a character’s intelligence by using a foil that is less intelligent. For a moment that shows a character’s lack of compassion you can use a foil that cares deeply.
Surrounding Major Characters: These are the characters who populate the story and that we see often.
- The Surrounding Major Characters’ Purpose: populate the world. We get to know them well and see them often. They help the protagonist along their journey by assisting or opposing them.
Here are two common Surrounding Major Characters: The Confidante and the Mentor. The confidante is a character that often serves as a sounding board, a voice of reason, a place to rest and be safe, a source of history, a support and keeper of secrets.
- The Confidante’s Purpose: Use the confidante when the hero needs support, a gentle push, a rest, a sounding board or encouragement.
- Writing Tips: The confidante can be used when you need your story to move in a new direction, or when new or old information (sometimes exposition) needs to be imparted. The confidante need not be smart or helpful. In fact, the confidante may even push the hero in the wrong direction. The Mentor is a character that serves as the voice of wisdom, the source of important information or special knowledge, the sage and the window into other worlds.
- The Mentor’s Purpose: Use the Mentor when the hero needs guidance, direction, imagination sparked, or to believe in herself.
- Writing Tips: The Mentor is used when the hero needs to move in a specific direction. The mentor will listen and act as guide. The mentor is often used right around a plot movement such as an act break. Note: The confidante and mentor may look similar. The major difference is that the confidante often listens and keeps secrets; the mentor guides and may guide throughout the story. You can use both or just choose the one that works best with your story. There are no hard and fast rules here – feel free to make these character types work for your story.
Surrounding Minor Characters: these are the characters that occasionally enter the plot for a specific purpose.
Surrounding Minor Characters also serve to populate the world. They usually serve a specific purpose. We may see them only once or on only a few occasions. They help a story feel like a full world.
Here are a few examples of character roles in stories we all know:
Protagonist – Cinderella
Antagonist – Wicked Stepmother and Step-sisters
Foils – Step Sisters
Surrounding Major Characters – The Prince, The Fairy Godmother
Surrounding Minor Characters – The Animals
THE WIZARD OF OZ
Protagonist – Dorothy
Antagonist – Wicked Witch
Foils – Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion and The Wizard
Surrounding Major Characters – Toto, The Scarecrow, Tin Man, The Lion
Surrounding Minor Characters – The Munchkins, People of Oz, The Flying Monkeys
NOTE: There may be more than one character in each role. For example: if there is more than one main character than you may have an ensemble piece, in which case, the group itself is the main character. There may be more than one antagonist, and foil as well – although, generally, there tends to be one main protagonist, antagonist and foil.
The top three places where writers most often go wrong when it comes to character work:
- The protagonist is not as interesting as the surrounding characters. Sometimes we give the most interesting character traits to everyone but the hero. Don’t be afraid to throw some fascinating flaws your hero’s way.
- The antagonist is not strong enough. You need a strong antagonist. The antagonist’s strength communicates just how far the hero must reach inside to face his/her flaws and fears to come out victorious.
- The antagonist is not believable enough. There’s a tendency to make the bad guy a little too villainous and not well rounded. When a character is too evil, the reader actually takes him less seriously – not more. Don’t be afraid to mix some lovable or humanizing aspects into your antagonist.
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