During the past few weeks we have discussed the four characters that strengthen your plot. We have discussed mirrors and foils, as well as static and dynamic characters. We have discussed the awesome foursome in detail, and this week I want to talk about The Others.
When you read the first post and read that I suggested only having four characters you probably shook your head in disbelief and then raised your pen in defiance and clicked away, right? That’s ok. Because you immediately thought of characters like mentors and heralds and you wanted to use them all.
Remember the four main characters are integral to the plot. The story will not work without them. The others, as a rule, perform a function in the story and can then disappear.
Here are a few kinds of characters I consider flexible and interchangeable. If you are going to use them, think of why you have added them to the story. What function do they perform?
- Mentor: He is also called the protector. He can be a guide or a teacher. He often gives the protagonist gifts. He does not always have a good or polite relationship with the protagonist, think of Haymitch and Yoda. In a female form she is often called the Mother, and can be a fairy godmother or a surrogate mother, like Mrs Weasley, giving Harry maternal love or emotional support.
- Healer: This can be a real medical professional or someone who fixes your protagonist when they’ve gotten into trouble. Be it the sealing of a sword wound near the fire or a session on the therapist’s couch. This character allows/strengthens the protagonist to go out there and try again.
- Herald: This character calls the protagonist to action and starts them on their journey. Like Cousin Vinny or Connie in the Stephanie Plum series or M in James Bond. They give the hero his instructions in the beginning, it is not uncommon for the hero to disobey or ignore the initial call to action.
- Wise One: This character is similar to the Mentor, but not as hands-on. They aren’t involved in the hero’s training as directly, but offer advice and safety to the hero. They are knowledgeable, often knowing more about the hero’s past than he does. The Wise one chooses to divulge this knowledge as he sees fit and this causes conflict between them. Think Dumbledore and Gandalf.
- The Shape Shifter: Ok, this can be a literal or figurative shape shifter. In fantasy we have potions and spells that alter the appearance of characters or we have characters like werewolves who morph or physically change into something or someone else. Think of psychopaths, they present one image to the world, but are something else. Snape in Harry Potter is a good example. We never really know where we stand with Snape, right until the end. The purpose of this character is to do exactly that, create mistrust for the character and the reader.
- The Bully: This character does exactly what the name implies. They are bullies and add to the conflict. They are not the main antagonist, but make the protagonist’s life miserable. Bullies rarely travel alone. They need a pack.
- The Gatekeeper: Just when your hero’s goal is within reach he’ll encounter this character. They are literally the last obstacle before the protagonist can confront the antagonist. They add to the dark night of the soul when all is seemingly lost for your character.
If you do research into archetypes you’ll find more. Some are similar and some definitions vary. You can call them influence characters or obstacle characters, there are even doppelgangers (two people who look alike – think Hitchcock, Poe and Vampire Diaries), and Tempters and Sceptics.
Some say there are 16 archetypes. DISC breaks it down into four personality types; the hero’s journey includes several of the characters listed above. I want you to notice how these characters are interchangeable. Their functions can be shared to keep the character count down.
I want to remind you that additional characters will make your job as a writer harder, because those characters have to be as well-rounded as your main characters. If they are not, they will weaken your plot and come across as flat. If your talent however, is creating characters, let rip. Just remember, before you add a character make sure what their function in the story is and if there is not a way that you can use an existing character to do that job.