This Business of Writing

Character Types in Fiction – Part 2

In The Craft of Writing on November 20, 2009 at 9:11 am

by C. Patrick Schulze

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In my most recent post I introduced two types of characters, The Hero, (protagonist), and the Mentor, (Wizard, Wise Old Man / Wise Old Woman). Today, we’ll continue in the same vein and introduce additional character types for your novels.

Next in line of our universal characters is the Threshold Guardian.

As we know, our protagonist must traverse many obstacles while on his quest and in many instances some of those hurdles are watched over by Threshold Guardians. Its goal is to keep the unworthy from entering. The common placement of the Guardian, as you might expect, is as a gatekeeper, most often for the Big Enchilada. It is not necessary for these people to have an evil demeanor and attitude, but most authors seem to portray them in that light. In unusual circumstances they can even be secret helpers to your hero.

These sentinels can take most any form you wish. They can be fierce creatures ready to devour your hero or something as nonthreatening as a child who withholds a secret. When your hero encounters the various kinds of guardians, they can be overcome, bypassed or even turned into allies. They represent the hero’s inner demons or serve as training for more difficult tasks he has yet to face.

How is your hero supposed to deal with these impediments? The answer lies in the guardian’s unique nature or personality. Your protagonist must find a way to get under the beast’s skin. In some instances, they do so literally, as when Sam and Frodo dressed like the Eye’s warriors to traverse the badlands. With luck, your hero may simply ignore or bypass him. In most stories, however, the Threshold Guardian must be fought, bribed, educated, turned, appeased, convinced or killed.

Despite the looks of it, a Threshold Guardian is often a positive thing to your hero. After all, doesn’t he warn everyone the Big Bad Wolf is near? They can also help your hero in another fashion for as they test the good guy, your hero grows in strength and knowledge. The good guy might even pick up a weapon or two.

Our next key character is The Herald.

In studying how to write a book, you’ll find this guy brings two things to your hero. The first is an announcement of major change your hero is about to face. The other is motivation.

In the early telling of the typical story, the hero muddles through his life by way of current knowledge or dumb luck. All of a sudden, some new problem crops up that is beyond his skills and he can no longer get by on his own. This new imbalance, called The Call to Adventure, is delivered by none other than The Herald. This guy gets your hero’s great quest moving along.

Herald’s represent coming change. In “Star Wars – A New Hope,” who is The Herald? Who is it that brings Luke Skywalker an announcement of some great change that gets the story moving forward? It’s R2D2. He is the character that shows Luke the message from the princess, thus announcing the coming transformation in Luke’s life. Remember how Luke gets excited by the message? There’s his motivation.

What form does The Herald take? Like every character in your story, it takes whatever shape you wish. It can be a person, a note, a feeling, a telegraph, an animal. It matters not. Just know as you learn how to write a story, a herald is necessary.

As with every character in your story, The Herald may be good, evil or neutral. In most stories, The Herald is brought in early to get your hero moving toward his quest, but his appearance depends on when and how you decide to have your hero’s quest started.

Now for one of my favorite characters, The Shapeshifter.

This powerful archetype is shifty, two-faced. You see him for the first time and he’s helping. Yet, the next time you cross his path he’s trying to destroy you. (Every see this type in real life?) The classic example of The Shapeshifter is found in the opposite sex, though this in not necessary.

The function of this creature is to confuse the hero and the reader. It is the bringer of doubt and the propagator of confusion. In our earlier example of “Star Wars,” a Shapeshifter is Lando Calrissian. Remember him? The boos on the cloud mining operation, he first comes out to meet Han Solo with a grimace and a complaint. He then hugs him, betrays him, then saves Solo and finally joined the Rebellion and is given the rank of general for the climactic battle scene. Boy does this guy alter his appearance – four times. He kept you guessing throughout most of the movie.

Shapeshifters may change in any way imaginable. They may alter their personality, form, allegiance, or just their clothes. Regardless, all these changes bring uncertainty and apprehension to your hero and your readers. Consider if you will, the Wicked Witch in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” She shifted from a queen, to a witch, to a dragon to a pile of ash as we progressed through that story. Wow!

Next comes The Shadow.

This guy is often your villain, though he need not be so. The Shadow represents your hero’s doubt. This character might not be a character at all, but a force, of sorts, that rises and falls within any or all characters as needed in your novel. It can shift from character to character but always plays the same role – one of slipping out of normalcy and into doubt.

Remember in the hobbit story when Frodo is about to drop the ring into the eternal fires of Mount Doom? He hesitates. He considers the power his is relinquishing and doubts if he can or even should toss the ring into oblivion. In that same series, doubt rears its ugly head in the good guys at the time when the Eye’s multitudes surround the king and his meager band of warriors just prior to the Eye’s ultimate end. If you remember, as soon as those massive gates open and the good guys see the number of bad guys they face, the good guys shy back a step, brows high and eyes wide in doubt.

Can The Shadow also be a formal character? Sure, and in fact he often is. In the movie, “Independence Day,” the president fires one of his advisors, (can’t remember his name), and the other characters as well as the viewing crowd almost cheer. Doubt has been erased and the president has risen to the role of confident hero in that instant. (Fanfare here.)

Shadows need not be of absolute evil. In fact, a secret to creating Shadows is they often make better characters if they hold some element of goodness. Think of a villain who, just as the hero is about to slay him, exhibits some level of goodness as with “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” In this case, we see evil incarnate surrounded by a very real, and good person.

The Shadow may be internal or external. External Shadows are easy to spot, the Emperor in “Star Wars,” for example. Internal Shadows may be more difficult to visualize but you need only to look to Darth Vader to view internal shadow. After all, this once good, then evil creature turns against his puppet master to save Luke and transforms into something good again. (In this case, the Shadow is also a Shapeshifter.)

Our final character is The Trickster.

The typical Trickster is the comical sidekick. They are utilized to bring your hero down to earth, often by way of comic relief. They also like to stir up trouble for no reason other than to do so. They are what’s called “catalyst characters.” They that change others, but rarely change themselves.

Without them, the conflict in your story may lead to reader exhaustion. An old saw in drama tells us to “Make ‘em cry a lot; let ‘em laugh a little.” This “laugh a little” is the job of your Trickster. Tricksters can be cohorts of the hero, as with Giordano in “Sahara”, or may even be the villain. They also might not be related to either of them.

One of my favorites is the aforementioned Giordano. The hero is given a coin minted in limited quantity by the Confederate Government. He’s all excited about the implications of his find. Giordano’s response? “My father has a coin collection.” Giordano’s meaning, of course, is that coins travel the world all by themselves and the hero needs to get his head on straight as to the significance of this single coin he’s found.

A variation of the Trickster is the Trickster Hero. In fact, our very same Giordano is such a character. Not only does her provide the comic relief, but he is also a minor hero in his own right. He is, after all, the guy who finds and dismantles the bomb, is he not?

Well, there you have it, an outline of the various and interesting characters with which you may populate your novels. If you have any questions, please leave a comment and I’ll get back to you.

In the mean time, I wish you all best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

Author of the emerging novel, “Born to be Brothers”


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