Easy-Breezy Guide to All the Types of Characters in Fiction
What are the different types of characters in fiction?
That’s a big question. You see, we categorize characters in several different ways. There are terms to describe a character’s significance in the story, the role they play, their personality, and even whether or not they change.
A tertiary character can be a foil and a static character but not a protagonist. A Magician can be an antagonist or protagonist, dynamic or static, but they can only be one of each.
Sounds messy, right? But don’t stress. It’s all going to make sense in a minute. And the best part is, when you know the different types of characters in fiction, you’re better equipped to write them well.
You’re about to learn:
- The most commonly discussed types of characters in fiction
- Character archetypes that resonate with readers
- Where you can learn how to write each type of character brilliantly
Let’s start with a few terms you might recognize from English class.
Types of Characters in Fiction: The Basics
If you get familiar with all these terms, you’ll know exactly what’s going on in your writer’s group discussion.
Also referred to as the main or primary character, the protagonist stands at the center of your story.
Your novel follows this character’s arc. The central conflict of the story heightens their internal conflict. It forces them to confront their greatest fears and demands they either overcome or fall victim to their own flaws.
In most novels, even subplots that don’t involve the protagonist are either influenced by the protagonist’s actions or shine a light on the protagonist’s journey.
In short, everything revolves around the protagonist.
Now, fun fact: you can have more than one protagonist.
Maybe your novel involves parallel storylines. Or perhaps you’re writing a romance from the perspective of both love interests. There are a lot of reasons you might have multiple main characters.
Just be aware that any character you consider a protagonist must be a fully realized being with a backstory, goals, fears, weaknesses, and all that fun stuff. These articles have great advice for shaping your protagonist:
- How to Write Compelling Characters From the Inside Out
- The Character Development Worksheet You’ve Been Looking For
- The Best Character Template Ever
- Taking the Wheel: What is a Character Driven Story?
- Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games)
- Wilbur (Charlotte’s Web)
- Romeo and Juliet (Romeo and Juliet)
The antagonist is anyone who gets between the protagonist and their goals.
Now, an antagonist could be a villain—an evildoer who actively seeks to do harm. But you can also have:
- Sympathetic antagonists who oppose your protagonist for understandable reasons
- Competitive antagonists who don’t have any nefarious motivations; they’re just in competition with your protagonist and want to win
- Unknowing antagonists who don’t intend to create obstacles for your protagonist but do exactly that
An overprotective parent can play the role of antagonist. So can the protagonist’s best friend. As a matter of fact, the love interest is considered the primary antagonist in most romance novels. (I mean, they are the person preventing the protagonist from staying focused on their big city career.)
And in case it doesn't go without saying, your story can have more than one antagonist.
Even if your antagonist is deliberately dastardly, it’s a good idea to give them at least some backstory and clear motivation. Here are some great articles for further guidance on writing a spellbinding antagonist:
- How to Write a Good Antagonist: Full Recipe
- How to Write a Sympathetic Antagonist Readers Will Cheer For
- Killmonger (Black Panther)
- Eleanor Young (Crazy Rich Asians)
- Iago (Othello)
- Iago (Aladdin)
Every character who isn’t a protagonist is a supporting character, including the antagonist.
I know. That leaves a lot of characters. So to classify them with a little more clarity, we’ll dig into the two subgroups of supporting characters.
These are the characters who aren’t protagonists but still feel pretty darn important.
A secondary character might be the protagonist’s friend, parent, sidekick, romantic partner, mentor, antagonist, or fill just about any other role in the main character’s life. They earn their secondary classification by showing up more than a couple times and contributing significantly to the story.
And what counts as a “significant contribution?” They might create or heighten conflict, assist the protagonist on their journey, challenge the protagonist to grow… things like that.
That said, they also need to be fully developed characters with their own desires, fears, strengths, weaknesses, and flaws. A little backstory is good, too.
Some supporting characters have their own character arcs. Others don’t change at all over the course of the story. But the important thing is that they feel real to your reader.
For more tips on developing secondary characters, check out this article.
Secondary Character Examples
- Dumbledore (Harry Potter)
- Keeley Jones (Ted Lasso)
- Scar (The Lion King)
These folks aren’t as fleshed out as your secondary characters. They don’t show up nearly as often, either. But they still matter.
Tertiary characters are those characters who make an appearance in only a scene or two or three. We don’t learn much about them—maybe a few character traits and a fun factoid from their personal lives.
So what purpose do they serve?
The most common functions for tertiary characters include:
- Comic relief
- Delivering information
- Highlighting a theme or conflict
- Creating a temporary obstacle
- Filling out the world
Here’s some advice for creating great tertiary characters.
Tertiary Character Examples
- The Grady Twins (The Shining)
- Nearly Headless Nick (Harry Potter)
- The Sea Turtles (Finding Nemo)
Foils are fun. A foil is a character who’s the opposite of the protagonist in at least one noticeable way. That glaring difference highlights something significant about the main character or the novel’s theme. Here’s what I mean:
Say your protagonist is fiercely competitive and will do anything to win a big promotion at work. Their assistant is the opposite—eager to help others succeed and able to find fulfillment wherever they are in life.
This difference is already enough to consider the assistant a foil character. But you can have even more fun with it as the story progresses.
What if the assistant actually wins the promotion over the protagonist? Or what if the protagonist gets the promotion but still isn’t as happy as the assistant who’s “stuck” answering phones? What would that reveal about your protagonist? How might it further their arc?
As you may have guessed, all types of characters in fiction can serve as foils for your protagonist, including love interests and villains (especially villains, actually).
Foil Character Examples
- Harry Potter and Neville Longbottom (Harry Potter) – Both qualify as the “chosen one,” according to the prophecy, but public perception sides with Harry. Even with equally traumatic backstories, Harry’s a celebrity while Neville is seen as weak and tragic.
- Gale and Peeta (The Hunger Games) – Both are potential love interests for Katniss and their differences highlight her own inner conflict. Gale represents survival-focused individualism, while Peeta represents optimism and a belief in the greater good.
We just covered several types of characters in fiction who are all defined by the role they play in the story. For these next two types, the character’s purpose doesn’t matter. We’re only talking about whether or not they change.
Dynamic characters evolve over the course of a story.
They begin with a certain philosophy, identity, skill set, desire, or fear. Then, through a series of events, they’re forced beyond their comfort zone or challenged to develop new skills.
By the end, they want something they didn’t want before. Or they see the world in a different light. Or they’re better at archery. Whatever makes sense for your story.
Protagonists are usually dynamic characters, though some have flat arcs. (That means they’re static. More on that in a minute.)
Antagonists can also be dynamic, as can all the other secondary characters. Even a tertiary character can change, like the teenage barista who’s trying on a new identity every time they show up in a scene.
When it comes to developing dynamic characters, the trick is knowing how involved their arc needs to be.
The more prominent a character is, the more room you have for depth and nuance in their arc. What you don’t want to do is spend a lot of storytelling real estate hashing out the complex inner growth of a minor character.
You also don’t want to bother with an arc that doesn’t serve the larger story in some way. What do your dynamic supporting characters do for your novel? Does their change highlight a theme? Contribute to the conflict?
Here’s a handy template for creating character arcs for all types of characters.
Dynamic Character Examples
- Eleanor Shellstrop (The Good Place)
- Starr Carter (The Hate U Give)
- The Beast (Beauty and the Beast)
Static characters—you guessed it!—don’t change. Maybe they’re stubborn by nature. Maybe your story wouldn’t benefit from their personal growth. Whatever the reason, these folks are the same from beginning to end.
As I mentioned before, your protagonist could fit into this character type. Just make sure it makes sense for your genre. If you write mysteries, you can probably get away with a static protagonist. If the hero(ine) of your romance novel doesn’t evolve, your readers will probably revolt.
Static Character Examples
- Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock Holmes)
- Ursula (The Little Mermaid)
- Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird)
Character Archetypes: Advanced Studies
Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s get into the really fun stuff: character archetypes. These are types of characters in fiction that are designed to reflect recognizable human experiences and attributes.
As you glance at the list that follows, you might be inclined to think you’re looking at a list of stock characters or stereotypes. But it’s not like that. Archetypes are essentially character templates that help you craft unique, complex characters that convey emotional authenticity.
See, archetypes focus on common fears, desires, strengths, flaws, and choices. They offer explanations for how certain types of people might perceive the world and navigate relationships.
And these explanations are universally familiar, which is what makes them such powerful tools for crafting characters. Just try to read through the list below without thinking, “Oh my gosh, that’s so Sharon.”
You can learn more about archetypes in this article. For now, here’s a quick look at 14 common archetypes.
You already know this archetype well. The Hero(ine) can take many forms, from reluctant working class heroes to the superhuman heroes of ancient epics. This archetype is honorable, persistent, courageous, and stands up for the weak. They can also be prone to arrogance.
Examples: Black Panther (Black Panther), Mulan (Mulan), Odysseus (The Odyssey)
The Magician has skills. Those skills could be literal magic, but any ability that gives them more power counts. The Magician lives for power. They’ve got it, they love it, and they want more. This character is perceptive, disciplined, and selfish.
Examples: Regina George (Mean Girls), Doctor Strange (Marvel), Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock Holmes)
Love is all that matters for this archetype. It might be romantic love, but it doesn’t have to be. This character is prone to sacrificing everything for the object of their devotion. They’re big-hearted and compassionate, but they're also at risk of losing themselves as they build their world around someone else.
Examples: Edward Cullen (Twilight), Princess Anna (Frozen), Samwise Gamgee (Lord of the Rings)
As you’d probably guess, the Jester is the funny one. They also tend to be pretty insightful, using their humor to spotlight everything from corruption to the protagonist’s flaws. The Jester is mischievous, impulsive, and—let’s be honest—a little obnoxious at times.
Examples: Mercutio (Romeo and Juliet), Eleanor Shellstrop (The Good Place), Peik Lin (Crazy Rich Asians)
If your character is certain there must be something more than this provincial life, you’ve got an Explorer on your hands. This archetype longs for adventure and feels confined by the life they’re living. They’re courageous, curious, and unwilling to conform. They can also be a little selfish.
Examples: Moana (Moana), Captain Kirk (Star Trek), Arya Stark (Game of Thrones)
Powerful, knowledgeable, and patient, the Sage is deeply committed to passing their wisdom onto their pupil. They’re genuinely caring and rational, though they can also be arrogant and aggravatingly passive.
Examples: Uncle Iroh (Avatar: The Last Airbender), Professor McGonagall (Harry Potter), Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs)
Also known as “the Child,” this archetype is naive, trusting, sincere, and—as a result—super vulnerable. Many Innocents either grow wiser or descend into evil when a terrible experience reveals the darker side of life. But some maintain their childlike wonder from beginning to end.
Examples: Andy Dwyer (Parks and Recreation), Buddy the Elf (Elf), Diana Barry (Anne of Green Gables)
A Creator’s gotta create. And by “gotta,” I mean they’re obsessed with their big, brilliant project. Nothing else is as important as bringing their vision to fruition—not relationships, not world peace, and definitely not family dinners.
Examples: Victor Frankenstein (Frankenstein), Tony Stark (Iron Man), Karen Eiffel (Stranger Than Fiction)
The Ruler holds all the control. They might be responsible for a nation, a gang, or their own little family—either way, there’s no question about who’s in charge. This archetype tends to have a commanding presence and be protective of their power. Whether they’re benevolent or greed-driven is up to you.
Examples: Miranda Priestly (The Devil Wears Prada), Peter Pan (Peter Pan), Darth Vader (Star Wars)
This is that character who’s constantly thinking about everybody else. If they have their own dreams, no one knows about them. The Caregiver is compassionate, selfless, and reliable. They’re often a guardian, older sibling, teacher, or partner.
Examples: Beth March (Little Women), Marlin (Finding Nemo), Lisa Carter (The Hate U Give)
The Common Person
Also known by the less gender-inclusive term “the Everyman,” this archetype is all about relatability. The Common Person is kind, hard-working, virtuous, and seemingly unremarkable. They’re also unprepared for the extraordinary challenges that are about to come their way but tend to rise to meet them.
Examples: Bilbo Baggins (The Hobbit), Babe (Babe), Alice (Alice in Wonderland)
This might be one of the most cathartic types of characters in fiction. The Outlaw has a low tolerance for injustice, and you can count on them to lead the rebellion. They’re charismatic and virtuous, though the decks are often stacked against them and they can be a little obsessive.
Examples: Starr Carter (The Hate U Give), Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games), Han Solo (Star Wars)
The Orphan is one of the most popular archetypes for both protagonists and villains. This character can be a literal orphan, or they can be someone who’s life is defined by abandonment or solitude. The Orphan is resilient and independent. Though they might also be embittered or weakened by their lack of both physical and emotional resources.
Examples: Petra Solano (Jane the Virgin), Killmonger (Black Panther), Elsa (Frozen)
This archetype is a master manipulator. While the classic example of a Seducer would be a character who uses their smokin’ hot bod to get what they want, this archetyper can use any means available to them. They’re amoral, clever, independent, and ultimately unfulfilled.
Examples: Gilderoy Lockhart (Harry Potter), Petruchio (The Taming of the Shrew), Amy Dunne (Gone Girl)
Now What Do You Do With All This Information?
Mercy, we covered a lot. Now that you know how to define all the types of characters in fiction, how do you put this information to work in your novel?
A character sketch is a great place to start. As you dream up each player in your story, note which types apply to them. Are they a primary, secondary, or tertiary character? Dynamic or static? What’s their archetype?
If you happen to be a Dabble user, you can store this information in your Story Notes. That puts it right at your fingertips when you start drafting your novel.
(Plus, Dabble’s Plot Grid can be a huge help for tracking the arc of a secondary character and making sure they don’t steal the scene with too-beefy a storyline.)
Even if you don’t use Dabble, you can find tons of resources on character development in the DabbleU library and our free ebook. And don’t forget to join the Story Craft Café to connect with other writers for more inspiration and guidance!
Curious about the Dabble writing tool? Give it a whirl for free for 14 days! Your free trial gives you access to all features, including Story Notes and the Plot Grid. Click this link to get started.
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