The characters are the people (or other beings) that execute the plot. It is their motivations that drive the action of a story, and their motivations are at least partly derived from the setting. A coherent plot will be dependent on characters whose goals and desires are believable and whose actions have an impact.
Characters fall into many archetypes (which I will cover later on), but in a story, they tend to fall into several broad functions:
A story can have more than one protagonist and more than one antagonist, or it can have no antagonist or no auxiliary characters at all.
Usually, the protagonist is thought of as the “hero” of the story or the “main character.” It is his motivations and goals which drive the conflict of the story and his actions that move the story forward. In the words of my friend and author Brian Niemeier, “He’s the one who does the protagging.”
The antagonist stands in opposition to the protagonist, driving the conflict in the opposite direction. It is the difference between the motivations of the protagonist and the antagonist that create the central conflict of the story, which is the problem that each of them hopes to resolve. Usually, the antagonist is thought of as the “villain” or “bad guy” of the story.
Of course, protagonists are not always virtuous, nor are antagonists always vicious and evil. Antiheroes have become a popular character type, and in such stories, the protagonist lacks the usual qualities of a hero, being either evil himself or simply neutral and without classic virtue. Shows such as The Sopranos (which I call a “soap opera of bad people”) have been very popular without any of the characters being particularly good, and with most of them downright wicked. Likewise, an antagonist need not be evil so long as he is acting against the protagonist.
A good example of this last dynamic is the 1993 film The Fugitive, wherein the antagonist, US Marshall Samuel Gerard (played by Tommy Lee Jones), is hunting down the protagonist, Richard Kimble. Gerard is a virtuous character, performing actions that would be virtuous in the absence of what the audience learns about Kimble. The villains of the story, including the real murderer of Kimble’s wife, are passive and in the background, relegated to auxiliary status until the final act when they react to Kimble’s actions.
I coined the term “antivillain” for antagonists such as Gerard. Virtuous, they nevertheless stand in the way of the protagonist and the goals the audience wants the protagonist to achieve. Both the “antihero” and “antivillain” I will discuss in depth later. What matters is that antagonist and protagonist are defined by their story functions, not the specific character traits they possess.
It is also quite possible to have more than one protagonist or antagonist in a story. An excellent example is George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, particularly the first volume, A Game of Thrones, where each chapter is delineated by which character is taking the prime role. Though told in third person personal (a narrative style describing actions in the third person, but only revealing the perspective of one character), there is a shift in perspectives as each character pursues his or her goals. Clear heroes emerge, such as the likable Eddard Stark and Jon Snow, and villains, too, but there is no sense that one single character’s motivations are providing the entirety of the conflict. There are many conflicts, some large and some small, that weave the characters into each other and thus produce the plot of the book.
Auxiliary characters are all those other characters who serve the story and plot but whose motivations and actions are part of the central conflict. They may be companions to the protagonist or antagonist, or they could be characters met along the way, serving a temporary purpose and then disappearing from the story. This is not to say that auxiliary characters are either unimportant or that they have no motivations relevant to the story or that they don’t grow and change; it is just that they don’t produce the main conflict.
Side characters are often the most popular, such as Han Solo, whose original motivations are purely monetary but who provides an important balance to the idealistic Luke Skywalker and religious Obi-Wan Kenobi during Star Wars. In the end, he does act virtuously, but his motivations are never bound until that moment with the central conflict of the movie, which is the destruction of the Death Star and the defeat of the Empire.
Auxiliary characters are frequently used, particularly in movies, to provide sub-plots. A romantic interest or small conflict helping to resolve the central conflict can help round out a story.
Characters are very important beyond their function, too. Characters are what makes franchises successful and can be the difference between an audience loving a story and hating it. Generally speaking, if the characters are too loathsome, all the creativity in the world in the setting and plot will not be enough to make the audience say they liked the story.
Making characters likable or detestable comes down to two things: their character traits and their actions.
Character traits include both the physical arrangement of the character (sex, height, hair, etc.) as well as the particulars of his or her personality. Is he tall or short? Is she beautiful or plain? Is he quiet or boisterous? Is she kind-hearted or vindictive? Is he studious or a slacker? Drunk or tea-totaling? Does he smile warmly or avoid eye contact? There are many traits that make up a personality and many ways to show them to the audience.
It is easy to overlook the importance of the physical description of a character when it comes to characterization, but the masters knew that physical traits affect how the audience responds to a character. The obese and physically repulsive Baron Harkonnen is more villainous because of his appearance. He’s a hedonist whose body is supported by obscene technology with indifference to any other person, the exact opposite of the young, attractive, and virtuous Paul Atreides.
The most straightforward personality characterization is done through dialogue. The audience learns about the character the same way that they get to know everyone they meet: through their words. The mannerisms and personality traits that make people likable in the real world also make fictional characters likable.
A likable character will say things the audience agrees with. He’ll express good moral opinions and complain about understandable struggles. He’ll be funny and a bit quirky, and he might say the wrong thing (but not an immoral thing) at the wrong time and get embarrassed in the same way we all have. He makes understandable and humanizing mistakes.
Likewise, the things that make real people unlikeable will also make fictional characters unlikeable. An unlikeable character will express taboo opinions and complain about decent people and their morals. He’ll laugh only at himself and his own jokes. He will insult and belittle those around him. He’ll say the wrong thing intentionally and without shame.
Characterization is also done through action. Does the character betray her friends, or does she remain loyal in the face of adversity? Does he attack the boy who teases him, or take it, or take revenge later?
Lovable, not just likable, characters do virtuous things. They stand up for the weak. They go out of their way to help others without benefit to themselves. They choose loyalty over reward. Despicable characters do the opposite. They do wicked or vicious things. They take advantage of the weak. They ignore those in need. They choose money over people.
A character, like everything else in a story, can be described directly or indirectly. The author can describe his height or have other characters react to it, thus letting the audience know something about him. The author can call him vindictive (either directly or through other characters), or he can be shown doing something vindictive. Generally speaking, having a character act to show virtue and vice is more effective than simply saying that he has such, especially if that virtue or vice will be relevant to the plot. This is where the old clichés of “save the cat” and “kick the dog” come from—you can get the audience to love or hate a character with just a few seconds of screen time by showing them being either loving or cruel to an animal.
For more discussion on characters, here is a clip from my weekly live stream, which occurs at noon eastern time:
And you should definitely check out my book on creative productivity: