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Character types

 

Disciplines > Storytelling > Characters > Character types

Sympathetic | Unsympathetic | Neutral | Ambiguous | See also

 

There are many types by which characters may be classified. Here are a few.

Sympathetic characters

Sympathetic characters are those with whom we associate, forming a bond through which we vicariously share their experiences. We also get a sense of their attributes which we would perhaps like to have more of for ourselves.

Heroic

Heroic characters have strong values, working for higher ideals and often putting others first. They are essentially good and have high personal integrity.

We admire heroic characters and wish that that we were more like them, although we may also be grateful that there are such good people who will rescue us from our ills.

Wise

Wise characters are not only knowledgeable, they have the wisdom to know what to do in difficult circumstances. In stories they often act as advisors, helpers or mentors to the heroes.

To the audience, they may represent parents, teachers or other childhood paradigms of wisdom.

Innocent

Innocent characters are often affected by the plot, typically being victims and hurt by unsympathetic characters.

The audience feels sympathy for the innocent as they are perhaps reminded of their own innocent days.

Faithful

Faithful characters are concerned with duty and are often followers of the heroic character. They may also be unwise and weak characters who are faithful to the villain.

At the very least, we admire faithful characters for their devotion and steadfastness.

Human

Some people have very human frailties and weaknesses that perhaps lead them to unwise choices. It is not that they are bad but they just do not have the great integrity of the heroic people. They may well realize this and feel shameful about their limitations.

We may well identify with these very human people as they remind us of our own shortcomings.

Unsympathetic characters

We seldom identify with unsympathetic characters as they represent those qualities that we dislike.

Villainous

Villainous characters are those who deliberately break laws, serving an often-selfish purpose in which others may well be harmed or abused in some way. They are the antithesis of the heroic character, embodying all that we find wrong.

We love to hate villainous characters as they give us an outlet for the dislike we have of others in our lives. We also like to experience the schadenfreude (pleasure at the discomfort of others) when they are punished.

Foolish

Foolish characters are the opposite of wise characters. They lack knowledge or lack the ability to use knowledge to good effect. They are not the same as the Shakespearian 'fool', who is actually a very wise character.

We throw our hands up in horror or laugh at the fool, and are perhaps secretly grateful that there are others who more foolish than us.

False

The false character pretends to be something that they are not or deliberately tells falsehoods. They thus embody the socially distasteful deception and untruthfulness that heroes abhor.

Like villainous characters, we like to see the false being exposed and receive just treatment. False characters may also remind us of our own guilty shortcomings as we navigate truth to our own ends.

Selfish

Selfish characters do things for their own purpose and may well be careless and callous about how others are affected by their choices.

Audiences are shocked at selfishness that goes beyond socially accepted self-interest and find glee in these people reaping the rewards of their lack of care for others. We may also see ourselves reflected to some extent in the selfish person's limitations and feel some balance of gratitude that there are others who are selfish and anger that they are reflecting us.

Animal

Animal characters are, to some extent, the opposite of human characters, displaying inhuman characteristics such as savageness and debauchery.

We are shocked by such lack of even basic humanity and perhaps fear the possibility of such loss of self happening to us.

Neutral characters

Neutral characters are neither sympathetic not sympathetic, although we may feel some sympathy for them, trapped as they are in the duty of their roles.

Guardians

Guardians prevent passage or access to some desired way or treasure. They allow the hero past only when some task is completed, whether it is to answer a riddle, complete a task or fight the guardian.

Guardians provide spectacle and entertainment as we empathize with the hero who must get past them.

Enforcers

Enforcers, such as police officers or soldiers, are there to ensure rules are followed and laws are kept. If these constraints are followed, then they do not act. If, however, they are broken, then they act according to specific rules, typically capturing and punishing the offenders.

When the enforcers are on the side of the hero, then we appreciate their role as helpers. When they hinder or attack the hero, we may well not blame them, though we are frustrated by their actions.

Bystanders

There are many characters in stories who are effective bystanders, not really contributing to the plot, although they do provide context, framing the story with the general activities of mundane human life, against which the actions of villains and heroes are thrown into marked contrast.

We think little about bystanders, and are seldom concerned with their fleeting appearance or even remember them more than for a moment or two.

Ambiguous characters

Ambiguous characters keep us on our toes as we guess whether they will be good or bad. Heroes can also be ambiguous as their very human internal struggles reflect the outer conflict.

Uncertain

Uncertain characters act in seemingly-random ways such that we can never tell what they will be doing next. Perhaps they are uncertain themselves and perhaps they are marching to a different drum, but their actions are difficult to predict.

Their uncertainty keeps us on out toes as we try to predict their actions and hope that they will behave in an approvable way.

Flawed

Flawed characters are good in many ways but have particular weaknesses, such as people who are never on time or men who cannot resist a pretty woman. These characteristics lead them into trouble and off the straight and narrow way that will lead them to their true goal.

We may sympathize with flawed characters as they remind us of our own limitations and may well forgive them their limitations. In this way sympathetic antagonists may be created.

Fickle

Fickle characters are petty in their choices, typically taking excessive time to select things which are of minor importance and fussing over detail. Their delays may be used to add tension or comedy to the story. Their attention to detail may also lead to important clues being discovered.

Fickle characters irritate us and may well remind us of such people in our own lives. We may also admire their sense of perfection.

See also

Personality

 

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