A Cast of Roles
Through the course of a novel, the author will create and introduce a wide array of different characters to the reader. Often they might do it on automatic, smoothly introducing a new character that fits the scene without any conscious decision or over-thinking, letting the writing flow. Other times an author will muddle over background profiles and ponder fashion choices before letting their creation loose on the story. But either way you work, it can be invaluable to have an understanding of the roles characters play and the commonly used ones in fiction.
Most writers will be familiar with the standard/academic terms, either from English classes or through experience. Roles like protagonist, antagonist, main and secondary characters will help to define your cast in broad terms but going deeper and looking at sub-categories and their purposes will improve an author’s grasp of character functions in their work and allow them to create a better story. Knowledge of common formats can stop the author falling into traps, allowing them to put a twist in their work to make a character fresh, or make sure they use the right tool for the job. These roles are not simply archetypes that help you categorise a type of character, but ones that fulfil a narrative need in the story. Here are some of the common roles that you might come across.
A hero doesn’t get far without his bag of tricks, or mode of transport for that matter. An enabler is a character who facilitates the hero’s quest, providing everything they need to slay the dragon or rescue the princess. They are the ones who appear to supply the hero with a handy bit of kit that turns out to be just what they need in order to complete their task.
Enablers can also help to provide a sense of anticipation for the reader. Think of the moments when Q details his list of inventions for James Bond, after that we can’t wait to see them used. These characters rarely leave the confines of their lab/tower/forge but most often have one scene and then vanish, perhaps reappearing at the end.
A classic in numerous genres, the confidante provides a sounding board for another character to confide in and bounce ideas off. They are used to reveal narrative information to the reader or to get a main character to express their inner thoughts without talking to themselves like a crazy person.
The confidante is Watson listening to Sherlock make his deductions and figure things out, they are the henchmen the arch-villain gloats to, the sidekick to the caped hero. Confidantes don’t have to be purpose built, it is a role many secondary characters can take on when opportunity presents itself, lending an ear when the author needs them to.
This one’s pretty self-explanatory, a character that serves as a romantic opportunity for a main character. Again this is a role that can be picked up by other side characters as the story progresses. It’s often a mistake to design a character for the sole purpose of a love interest and risk having them seem flat, better to focus on creating a good character with their own goals and then throw them into the hero’s path.
A character always in need of rescuing, they might be a bungler, have a smart mouth, or just really bad luck. Whatever the reason, they invariably get into trouble and require rescue by the main characters. This role serves to add excitement, provide impetuous to the main characters and allow them to show off their skills in a daring rescue.
While traditionally this role was stereotyped to a helpless woman, the damsel can be any gender, in fact they don’t even have to be human. How many times have Scooby and Shaggy blundered into danger and been in need of rescue. Zoinks!
These characters are part of the background, instantly recognisable types that suit the situation and have little impact on the wider story. They are the grouchy old man sitting in front of the retirement home, the miserly banker in his office and the disapproving librarian with her finger to her lips. Stock characters are there to fill out the world, and while part of their appeal is in how they conform to expectations, it can be a good idea for the author to add a twist to the character to keep them fresh.
Stock characters are designed to fill a role in a scene, they might have a line or two of dialogue for atmosphere and then they’re gone forever. If the author is lucky they provide a memorable note of humour before receding back into the woodwork.
Similar to the damsel but without the happy ending. These poor souls don’t have much to look forward to. A redshirt is a character who is there to be killed off in some gruesome manner in order to underline the peril our heroes face. It allows the author to explore the horror of what could happen, without killing off anyone important and ruining the storyline.
The term originates from the original Star Trek series where an away team would consist of three main characters and a doomed extra in a red shirt that would be killed by the middle of the episode. These throwaway characters don’t often have much personality or development and are usually only there for a few scenes.
One half of a pair including a main character, they often serve as a counter to them with a very different personality type that encourages conflict and banter. The purpose of a foil is to enhance another character through contrast, highlighting their traits by showing a different persona. A foil can be an adversary to the protagonist, even their nemesis, or they can be a sidekick, as long as their situation offers opportunity to show the difference between them.
The foil serves to bring the reader’s attention to a particular aspect of the character, this can be a thematic difference in cases where the foil is also the nemesis such as with Harry and Voldemort, or it could simply be a method for adding humour to the writing as in Dissolution with Pharauan and Ryld. The flamboyant and arrogant mage Pharauan is a humorous contrast to the dour and cynical Ryld as he drags him into ever more deadly situations.
Read carefully through any work of fiction and you’ll probably find more roles to add to this list, if the writing’s good it shouldn’t be obvious but I bet you can tag a few characters with their narrative role. In fact, recognising the role a character plays in a novel can enhance your experience of the work, especially if you get to see how the author subverts the expectation.
Some of these roles may border dangerously close to tropes, but that only means the writer should pay more attention, so as not to be too obvious with their character choices. Awareness of character roles can help an author in crafting their work as long as the function doesn’t overwhelm the individual. The story and the desire to write good characters should always come first but a little understanding can only help your writing.
If you can think of any other prominent roles in fiction, add them in the comments below. But first a moment of silence for all the redshirts who gave their lives to make our stories exciting. They probably won’t be missed…