Character Types in Stories

by F.

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Are there a certain fixed number of character types in stories, such as “the helper,” “the trickster,” “the lover,” and so on?

Many storytelling teachers suggest there are. For instance, Michael C. Walker suggests a fixed set of types in Power Screenwriting, a book I found almost wholly useless, though your mileage may vary. After looking at a number of these taxonomies in various sources, I’ve yet to find a classic taxonomy that is useful or illuminating.

But what I have found illuminating are David Howard’s thoughts on how characters relate to the protagonist, described in How to Build a Great Screenplay (2005). This is, to me, a more productive way to think about “character types.”

Howard suggests we ask the following question about any character: Is he or she

  • a friend of,
  • an enemy of,
  • or indifferent to

the protagonist of the story? In other words, does he or she help, hinder, or fail to affect the protagonist’s attempt to get what he or she wants?

Of course, characters can seem to be one way but turn out to be another. Deception is perhaps the quintessence of humanity. Given this, there are actually nine “types” of characters, as follows:

  1. Seems like a friend and is a friend
  2. Seems like a friend and is an enemy
  3. Seems like a friend and is indifferent
  4. Seems like an enemy and is a friend
  5. Seems like an enemy and is an enemy
  6. Seems like an enemy and is indifferent
  7. Seems indifferent and is a friend
  8. Seems indifferent and is an enemy
  9. Seems indifferent and is indifferent

It is easier to think about this if you draw a 3 x 3 matrix, with one axis representing “seems like a” and the other axis representing “is a.”

So, there are nine possibilities, it seems. But in his book, Howard says there are six “types.” Why? I’m not sure. A couple of these possibilities can be eliminated as sort of dull. For instance, “seems indifferent and is indifferent.” Such a character isn’t going to play much of a role in a story. Maybe that’s why he reduces the number.

Characters, according to Howard, can shift from one type to another. An enemy could seem like an enemy, but later in the story, he could seem like a friend while still being an enemy.

What’s an example? While sort of an old movie nowadays, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest contains a wonderful “seems like a friend and is an enemy:” Nurse Ratched. She pretends to care for her patients but, of course, she doesn’t, as we see when she pushes Billy over the edge in Act III.

Howard’s schema has the virtue of being flexible and keying off the protagonist’s movement toward his or her objective. Other characteristics, like “trickster” or “lover” are consistent with this formulation, too, but—to me—tend to be too limiting and have too many traditional associations.

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