This Business of Writing

Character Types in Fiction

In The Craft of Writing on November 19, 2009 at 10:01 am

by C. Patrick Schulze

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As we travel together down the road of how to write a novel, I’ve talked about the steps your protagonist must take while on his journey through your novel. Today I’m going to introduce you to those various characters he’ll meet along the way.  In this post, we’ll meet the Hero and the Mentor. Soon, we’ll meet many more.

Before we meet these all-important and archetypal helpers, hinderers and others, let’s review who it is these many creatures represent. I like to think of them as the assorted types of people I meet in real life. When I populate my manuscripts with characters, I infuse them with human characteristics, typically from people I’ve met, know or know of. After all, the best stories are little more than metaphors for the human condition, are they not? This idea works for creatures, too. Regardless the species of your characters, they will assume human qualities.

Consider your novel’s champion, or protagonist, for example. He lives, struggles, overcomes, succumbs, grows, learns and maybe even dies. He loves, he hates, he suffers, he surpasses and so on. These are all aspects of the human condition, so it’s quite obvious your characters will exhibit the qualities of existent humans.

These guys to whom I’ll introduce you are universal. They can be employed in whatever genre you write. In a war story, is there a hero? Yep. How about a love story? It’s the same. What if you wish to write about talking birds? You’ll have the same characters in there somewhere.

Armed with that knowledge, let’s introduce the major character types in fiction.

First, and of most importance, is The Hero.

In my research for this article I learned the word, “hero” is Greek in origin and means “one who protects or one who serves.” Think of him as a shepherd of sorts, someone who will sacrifice for the good of his flock. This concept of sacrificing one’s self is at the heart of the hero’s meaning.

It is his fate to leave the comfortable confines of his world and venture into the place where he is, in effect, lost. He, like us, must learn to cope, to grow and to overcome. During his journey, he will face tests, meet teachers and guides, come across those who wish him harm and maybe even meet his love. Hum… sounds sort of like our own lives, doesn’t it? (Do you see a secret to writing a successful novel in that last sentence?)

His purpose in your story is to give your readers a window into not only the story, but life itself. You must find a way to make your protagonist relate to as many potential readers as possible. This is done by instilling in your hero those universal characteristics that your readers will appreciate. That is, qualities we find within ourselves.

Think about some of those universal aspects of the human animal and give those qualities to your hero. You can consider among others, fear, revenge, love, lust, patriotism, desperation, freedom, survival, understanding or idealism. If you can convey these qualities into your hero, the reader will have an easier time identifying with him. This is one of the many secrets to having your manuscript accepted. If you notice, I mention some unsavory qualities, too. Yes, give your hero some of those. Not too many, mind you, but an interesting flaw or two will humanize your hero. Are real life heroes perfect? Neither are your novel based ones.

Keep in mind your hero may be a willing accomplice to his fate or not. It’s unimportant as to his enthusiasm for his quest. Also remember these ideas apply regardless the form your hero takes, be it animal, alien, or even a vegetable.

Another aspect to his fate is action. This does not need be explosive in nature, but rather in the aspect the hero is in control of his personal fate.

The most terrifying scene for your hero is his coming face-to-face with Death. It can be in a metaphorical sense, but he must fact the greatest of losses in your climactic scene. In this part of your novel, your protagonist must present his truly heroic side by willingly sacrificing himself for the good of others if needs be.

Our next character is the ever-popular Mentor.

This character goes by many names and among them is the Wise Old Man or Wizard. He is usually a positive figure, though he need not be so. The archetype is of a lesser hero, if you will. In simple terms, he’s a guide for your premier character.

He represents the best person within us all. He insures the hero is made aware of right from wrong and is provided with all the necessary knowledge or skills to complete his quest. He is a gift-giver of sorts. Think of the Fairy-Godmother in “Cinderella” or Merlin in “King Arthur.”

His main purpose lies in teaching. Your hero comes into this new world of his without many, if not most, of the skills he’ll need to complete his quest. It matters not if he is to drive a silver stake into the heart of Dracula or if she is to find a new love. Regardless the journey, the hero lacks something and the Mentor is there to take care of that nasty little inconvenience.

There is typically a catch involved with these wonderful gifts the Mentor offers. And that is they should be earned by your hero. Think of Snow White in her fairy tale. Who later comes to her aid? All the creatures of the forest do. And why do they do this for her? It’s because Snow White showed them kindness earlier in the tale.

The Mentor can have other functions, too. He might act as conscience to your hero. Might your hero rebel against this conscience? Uh, do real people? The Mentor may also serve to motivate him or even introduce him to the physical pleasures of love. (Now we see why this guy is so popular!)

There are many types of Mentors. He may be what’s called a Dark Mentor, where the good qualities of the human being are turned inside out. Think Joan Wilder’s agent in “Romancing the Stone.” At some point, Joan’s agent turns against advising Joan to succeed and begins to plant doubts in Joan Wilder’s mind. This type of Mentor can be interesting as they typically change from a force of good to one of doubt. They can also be presented as first a bringer of doubt and later transform into a source of power.

There are Fallen Mentors like Tom Hanks in “A League of Their Own.” There are Continuing Mentors, those that carry over into sequels, such as “M” in the James Bond series. There can be Multiple Mentors. Think Obi Wan and Yoda in “Star Wars.” However, if you use Multiple Mentors, insure one is premier while the multiples are minor in comparison, bringing lesser gifts.

This list of Mentor types goes on and on, but they all serve the same purpose. They teach and are givers of gifts. These guys bring inspiration, guidance, training, weapons, hope and all the other tools your hero requires. Without them in your story, at least at an emotional or mental level, your story will be incomplete.

As to placement of Mentors in your manuscript, they show up when they are needed to insure your story moves forward.

In my next post about how to write a book, which may be tomorrow or Monday, I’ll introduce you to other characters such as the Shapeshifter, Threshold Guardians, Heralds, Tricksters and Shadows. Sounds exciting.

Hum… this may turn into a three part post. We’ll see.

Until we meet again, may all your books be best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

Author of the emerging novel “Born to be Brothers”


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