When we come away breathless from a powerful, engaging novel, what we remember most usually isn’t the compelling setting or the twisting, turning plot; it’s the characters. Heroes and villains, lovers and tricksters, real people emerging into paths of self-discovery and overcoming universal struggles that we’ve all faced in our own lives. This is the raw material of story.

The best stories are populated by a range of characters that play numerous roles. We’ll take you through everything you need to know about why strong characters are so essential in writing, and all the different types of characters you’ll find across the landscape of literature.

Why does character matter in a story?

Characters are important because they’re the lens through which the reader experiences your story world. For the reader to care about what happens on a grand-scale, macro-cosmic level, they need to care about your characters: how they feel, how they relate to one another, how they learn and grow along their journeys.

Without powerful, compelling, and believable characters—ones with human flaws and needs—it won’t matter how beautifully you write your prose; you won’t be able to connect with your audience on an emotional level.

Moreover, your story’s plot happens as a result of your story’s characterization. Events happen because your protagonist, antagonist, and supporting players (more on all of these character types below!) make choices—actions and reactions that power the story forward. Without character, there’s no story.

How many characters should a story have?

A story can have as many characters as you, the writer, can reasonably keep track of. Some sprawling epics populate their story worlds with dozens of major and minor characters, all stepping in and out to play their parts as needed. Some stories, particularly short stories and stage plays, will have as few as two or three characters.

A story can have as many different types of characters as you can confidently juggle!

The minimum number of characters a story should have is two, because this allows for interaction and conflict. It’s difficult to tell an immersive story with only one character, because there’s nothing for them to play off of. Your main character needs someone to push and pull them in new directions. The more characters a story has, the more opportunities you have to develop your storylines.

Character types: heroes and villains

Now, let’s get into the different types of characters and character roles you may want to include in your work. To begin: the starring players!


The protagonist is the main character of a story. The word comes from the old Greek and means “principal actor,” or the headliner.

This is the primary character who will lead your readers through the story. Their decisions and experiences are what instigate the events of the plot. Your protagonist doesn’t have to be purely good—in fact, they’ll usually be more relatable and sympathetic if they’re flawed in some way—but they need to be someone your readers are willing to root for.

All stories have at least one protagonist, though some might have multiple protagonists. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice is the protagonist because she’s the central character who takes the readers through the adventure. Once she reaches the completion of her journey, the story is over.


The antagonist is a character who is in direct opposition with the protagonist. Almost every story will have an antagonist; some will have several. They’re someone who wants something which directly contradicts the thing the protagonist is working towards.

An antagonist might be an evil character working towards world domination, while the protagonist works to stop them. Or, they might be a well-meaning friend or family member who thinks they know what’s best for the protagonist (even if they don’t). Good or evil, what matters is that the protagonist and antagonist can’t both get what they want at the same time.

In Cinderella, for example, the wicked stepmother is the primary antagonist.

The antagonist is a major character who comes in conflict with a story’s hero


An antihero is a protagonist (or sometimes a deuteragonist, which we’ll talk about below) who doesn’t follow the conventions of a traditional “hero” figure. They might be physically impaired in some way (classical heroes were always handsome and strapping), or they might exhibit less-than-desirable traits like greed, cowardice, or self-servitude.

Antiheroes are some of the most compelling and complex characters in literature and film, because they’re made up of varying shades of grey (just like real people). Readers can see that they’re capable of both heroic and villainous choices, but we don’t know which side they’ll end up on until they end.

Edmund Pevensie from The Chronicles of Narnia series is an example of an antihero.


Conversely, an antivillain is an antagonistic character who displays heroic or sympathetic attributes. These characters almost always believe they’re doing the right thing, or doing the best they can under the circumstances, even when their actions are irredeemable.

For example, they might be committing heinous war crimes in pursuit of the greater good, or they might have been pushed into villainy through their need to protect or avenge their loved ones. Even when readers don’t agree with the character’s actions, they can understand them. They might even wonder what they would have done themselves.

Antivillains are complex and human antagonists that instantly give a story greater depth. Tywin Lannister from Game of Thrones is an example of an antivillain.

Character types: supporting players

Once you have your main characters, you might want to flesh out your story with some supporting and peripheral characters to help (or hinder) the protagonist along their way.


A deuteragonist is the leading secondary character. Often this is a best friend or a sidekick, like Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter series. Deuteragonists can overlap with love interests, confidantes, and guides (which we’ll look at next).

While these characters aren’t the centre of this particular story, they’ll still be richly developed and alive. Often they’ll have their own subplots that take place in and around the primary storyline. Mercutio from Romeo and Juliet is an example of a deuteragonist.

A deuteragonist is a story’s key supporting player.

Love interest

This one’s pretty self explanatory—we all know the moment a love interest walks onto the page, and the hero starts hearing birdsong in the middle of January.

Traditionally, love interests have a tendency to be regulated to plot devices which push the protagonist into making some (usually impulsive) choice that gets the story moving. However, skilled writers know that readers will be more willing to believe in a love story where both characters are engaging and unique. An effective love interest should be just as believable and compelling as the leading player.

Victoria Forester from Stardust by Neil Gaiman is an example of a classic love interest character.


The confidante is someone close to the protagonist whom the protagonist can use as a sounding board for their internal conflict. They might say something like, “Okay, I think we should storm the castle just after dawn,” and the confidante might say, “I’ve got a better plan: let’s not die,” and the protagonist might say, “I see where you’re coming from; let’s examine some supplementary options.”

Often, these characters act as a stand-in for the reader, pointing things out and asking questions that we ourselves might be wondering. It’s not uncommon for confidantes to act as foil characters to the protagonist, too (we’ll look more at foil characters below).

Pantalaimon from the His Dark Materials series is an example of a confidante character.


The guide is the character who helps shine a light on the protagonist’s path. They usually have experience or knowledge that the protagonist is lacking. This might be something supernatural in nature, or knowledge of a particular culture or community, or they might be leading the protagonist through the intricacies of a new workplace.

Guides can manifest in all different ways, and some stories will have more than one. All of them will directly or indirectly encourage the protagonist to change and grow.

Mr.s. Weasley from the Harry Potter series is one of several guides that the protagonist encounters throughout the story.

The love interest, confidante, and guide are some of the secondary characters your reader may encounter.

Tertiary characters

Tertiary characters are the peripheral, outer-circle players that fill out your story world. “Tertiary” refers to the number three, or the third level after your primary and secondary characters.

These are the sort of people your protagonist might interact with once or twice along the way, who provide some comic relief, enhance the overall mood, or drop a pivotal piece of information that the main characters need. Some stories will have dozens of tertiary characters, while others will just have a few to show the reader that the world extends beyond just what’s on the page.

Miracle Max in The Princess Bride is an example of an effective tertiary character.

Character types: function

Next, let’s look at the way some types of characters are organized based on how they function within a story.

Foil characters

A foil character is a character in a story who is used to highlight the opposing traits in someone else. For example, the protagonist’s personality might be shy and reserved, while a supporting character is outgoing and gregarious. This would make them foils of each other. Or, one character might be a suspicious conspiracy theorist, while another is overly gullible and naïve.

In each instance, the characteristics of one illuminate and enhance the opposite characters of the other. In many cases, the protagonist and antagonist will be foils of each other.

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are great examples of character foils.

Round characters

The term “round character” refers to a well-developed, multilayered character who exhibits believable nuance and depth. These characters have empathetic motivations and relatable tragic flaws; they’re messy and imperfect and full of contradictions, just like real people.

In contemporary writing, it’s essential that your protagonist and any other central supporting characters are round characters. This is because readers need this humanity and character development in order to sympathize with them, relate to them, and follow them through the story. Otherwise, all you have is a series of interconnected plot points without any real emotional resonance.

Peter Parker from The Amazing Spiderman is a classic example of a leading round character.

Flat characters

The opposite of a round character is a flat character. “Flat character” refers to simplistic characters with limited personality traits and motives. They fulfill limited roles to move the story along.

Most characters in classic fables and fairy tales are flat, because they exist more as symbols and metaphors than as real, recognizable human beings. However, some secondary and tertiary characters can be flat if their inner workings don’t contribute much to the story.

George Wickham from Pride and Prejudice is an example of a flat character.

Flat characters can sometimes be a sign of lazy writing.

Dynamic characters

A dynamic character is one who undergoes a significant change between the beginning and the end of their story. They follow a broad character arc that takes them from one state of being or belief system to another. Most protagonists will be dynamic characters, particularly in character-driven fiction with a lot of internal conflict.

Most dynamic characters will also be round characters, as we looked at above, because their potential for change comes from their depth of characterization. Dynamic characters make for engaging heroes because readers love seeing the way these characters slowly emerge into their ultimate potential.

Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit is a perfect example of a dynamic character.

Static characters

The opposite of a dynamic character is a static character: one who remains the same across the entire story. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re poorly developed or “flat”; it might mean that they’re already set in their ways and unable to change, or that they may have undergone an internal shift prior to the start of the story and have arrived at a state of completion.

Static characters are popular in serialized novels and TV series, such as soap operas. This is because long-term audiences enjoy coming back to familiar ground over and over again.

Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby is an example of a leading static character.

Stock characters

A stock character is a character that fills a predetermined role in an archetypal story. These are often used as a framework upon which to build new characters, or to convey a thematic social message.

Many characters from classic stage plays and fairy tales are stock characters. This includes things like the mad scientist, the femme fatale, the wise old wizard, the wicked stepmother, or the ditzy prom queen.

Character types: archetypes

Finally, let’s look at the timeless character archetypes you can use as a basis for your own cast of players. All of these archetypal characters have existed in some form throughout storytelling history, and reflect inherent facets of the human condition.

Character archetypes are recurring figures that represent a universal human experience.

The hero

We often refer to a main character as the “hero” of their story, but when looking at character and story archetypes, a hero is a specific type of headliner. The hero archetype is a noble figure who stands up for those weaker than themself, often sacrificing their own well-being in pursuit of the greater good. These characters are courageous, compassionate, and inspiring to those around them.

Wonder Woman is a great example of a classic heroic character archetype.

The shadow

The shadow archetype comes from Jungian philosophy and represents a dark inversion of the protagonist. Sometimes this is a literal inversion, like Jekyll and Hyde or Banner and the Hulk. Other times, it might be an external symbolic character who embodies the protagonist’s weaknesses and fears. These act as character foils and can be useful for conveying a story’s deeper themes.

Gollum from the Lord of the Rings trilogy is an example of an external shadow archetype.

The sidekick

The sidekick archetype is a classic mainstay of superhero comics and films, but it can appear in stories of any genre. These characters play the role of supporting and cheering on the leading heroes. They’ll often be used to provide levity to a narrative, though they can also have their own subplots as they explore their own relationships and goals.

Robin from the Batman comics is the most famous example of this character archetype.

The villain

Villain archetypes are always the bad guy of a story. Unlike other types of antagonists, these characters are intrinsically bad and intentionally stand in the hero’s way. They’re solely driven by negative traits like greed, prejudice, or vengeance. Not all antagonists are villains, but all villains are antagonists.

The White Witch in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is an good example of the villain archetype.

Some of literature’s most memorable characters are wicked, nefarious villains.

The lover

The lover archetype is a character who values human connection, aesthetic beauty, compassion, and sensuality. If the lover archetype had a motto, it would be “make love, not war.” While these characters sometimes act in pursuit of romantic love, they can also be driven by love of their families, friends, or beliefs. These characters tend to be more conflict-averse than other character archetypes.

Jane Bennet from Pride and Prejudice is an example of the lover archetype.

The mentor

The mentor archetype is one of the most recognizable figures in sci-fi and fantasy, although they can appear in any genre. Their role is to provide the protagonist with tools, knowledge, or advice that helps them on their journey. This character overlaps with the guide role that we looked at above.

Merlin from the legends of King Arthur is one of the most famous examples of this archetype.

The mother

The mother archetype is a character who plays a caring, maternal role in a story. They symbolize compassion, safety, and comfort in the midst of the story’s conflict, and usually act selflessly towards others. Although this role is often associated with women, mother archetypes can take many forms.

Aunt May from The Amazing Spiderman is a classic mother archetype.

The everyman

The everyman archetype is a mundane, ordinary character designed to represent the average reader. They don’t have any extraordinary abilities or birthright; instead, they illustrate how even the most unremarkable person can step into a heroic role. These characters often go through a complex character arc in which they discover their own inner strength.

Arthur Dent from A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a great example of an everyman archetype.

“Everyman” archetypes are effective for showing your reader what they’re capable of.

The damsel

The damsel archetype is a vulnerable person—often, though not always, a beautiful young woman—who needs rescuing from the hero. This might be a literal rescue from a ferocious monster, or, in a more contemporary setting, it might be “rescuing” from a difficult financial situation or relationship. The damsel is an innocent character who is inexperienced and tends to see good in the world around them.

Damsels in distress are also one of the classic stock character types.

Andromeda from the myth of Perseus and Andromeda, and Tiny Tim from A Christmas Carol, are examples of this archetype.

The trickster

Trickster archetypes are some of the most popular and enduring characters in storytelling. They’re characterized by their cunning and their fluidity (it’s not uncommon for tricksters to be shape changers). They’ll often swap sides as the story progresses, sometimes more than once. Tricksters tend to get by on their street smarts, rather than physical strength.

Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean is an example of a contemporary trickster.

The guardian

The guardian archetype is a character who, willfully or inadvertently, stands between the main character and their goal. In order to progress on their journey, the hero has to defeat, appease, or outwit the guardian. For example, the guardian might be a hiring manager, a security guard, or (ahem) a literary agent.

Sir Didymus from the film Labyrinth is an example of this character archetype.

The herald

The herald archetype is a character who directly or indirectly carries new information to your main character. This might be through a message, an object, or news of an impending event. The herald’s role is to instigate the events of the plot and create a need for your protagonist to take action.

Effie Trinket in The Hunger Games is an example of a herald character role.

The scapegoat

The scapegoat archetype is a character who takes the suspicion or blame for events happening in the story. They’re innocent of any (or most) wrongdoing, but they make a convenient target for a group or community. Often this is used to communicate a social or political message. This archetype can fill the roles of other characters, too.

Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, is an example of a scapegoat character who is used to communicate a social theme.

The outlaw

The outlaw archetype is a character who exists on the edge of society or social norms. They may have chosen the outlaw life by rejecting some element of society, or they may have been forced into outlawhood because of certain qualities or beliefs. These characters live away from the world and don’t follow conventional rules or ideals.

Robin Hood is a famous example of this archetypal figure.

Outlaws and rebels are a cornerstone of popular culture and film.

The rebel

The rebel archetype is similar to an outlaw archetype in that they exist on the fringe of society, though in this case it’s almost always by choice. The rebel sees something deeply problematic in the world around them and is determined to change it. Their journey is all about trying to get the world to see things from their point of view, with the goal of creating a positive change.

Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games is an example of an effective rebel archetype.

The ruler

The ruler archetype is a character who occupies a privileged seat of power. This might be social, political, or professional. The ruler flourishes in the status quo and, in contrast to the rebel archetype, does whatever they can to maintain it. They might be a positive or negative character, but they’re characterized by their aversion to change.

Regina George in Mean Girls is a contemporary example of this archetypal figure.

Literature is populated by limitless different characters

Great storytelling comes from great characters—primary roles and supporting ones, forces for good and evil and everything in between. The best page-turning novels are always the ones that engage us with their character arcs and relationships. With these timeless character roles in mind, you can begin building your compelling story world from the ground up.