The world of fiction is filled with way more characters than anyone can count. Some are more memorable than others. When reading or writing, you’ll come across characters you like, and characters you like to hate. There are good guys and bad guys. There are characters who act as the voice of reason, and characters who are simply bystanders.
There are seven types of literary characters: the protagonist, the antagonist, the love interest, the confidant, deuteragonists, tertiary characters and the foil. Each of them has a role to play in the story. This role may be great or small. They may have several lines or dialogue and appear in most of the scenes, or they may have only a few lines and appear once or twice.
This is the main characters. The events of the story revolve around him or her. This is who the reader is following. If the story is being told in first person, the protagonist is usually the narrator.
The villain of the story. This is the person acting against the protagonist. Whatever the protagonist’s goal is, the antagonist is there to do everything they can to prevent them from achieving it.
Think of the confidant as the best friend. If your protagonist is a superhero, then the confidant is their sidekick. They’re trying to help the protagonist achieve their goal.
Not quite a confidant, but they do share the same goals as the confidant and the protagonist.
These are minor characters who are basically bystanders. They aren’t in favor of the protagonist or the antagonist; they’re just around to help fill out the story. If your protagonist is a musician playing at a concert, tertiary characters are the concert goers.
This characters helps bring the protagonist’s qualities forward, because they tend to be opposites. If the protagonist is a bit of a loud mouth, your foil can be the quiet type, helping the protagonist discover the importance being “quiet” sometimes.
There is another character I’d like to mention: the anti-hero. This character is somewhere in between protagonist and antagonist. They’re not a villain, but they’re not helping the protagonist out of a sense of want. It’s more of a “I guess I’ll do the right thing since I have nothing better to do” as opposed to “I’ll do the right thing because I should”.
Consider which characters fill which role in your writing. Also, try to identify them, the next time you read your favorite book or even watch a movie.
Things to keep in mind
When I write a story, I mainly focus on the protagonist and the antagonist. The trick to making them work, is to make them likable. Even the antagonist. Your reader needs to like the protagonist enough to want to care about their struggle. They need a goal, a strong desire to reach that goal, and it needs to be interesting. They need something to lose and something to gain, and they need to grow or change in some way while trying to reach their goal. It helps if the protagonist has some qualities the reader can identify with: they sometimes fail but always try hard, they’re strong but they have moments where they want to give up, etc. They’re parents trying to raise the rebellious teenager. They’re nerds fighting to be popular in school. They’re fire fighters working desperately to get to the child trapped in the burning building. They’re the musician struggling to get their music recorded and played on the radio. If your readers can see themselves in your protagonist’s struggle, they’ll like them enough to want to find out the outcome of their story.
But don’t forget about the antagonist. They may be evil and hate-filled, but your reader still needs to find them interesting enough to continue to follow the story. They shouldn’t act against the protagonist for no apparent reason; there needs to be a method to their madness. Don’t have the guy flatten the girl’s tires just for fun—have him do it because she dumped him, in the most horrific way possible. Don’t have the popular girl pick on the nerd just because she’s a nerd—have her do it because she’s actually jealous of how smart the nerd is. Your antagonist needs to have flaws, just like you protagonist. They need a reason for their behavior, even if it is bad behavior.