How To Take Advantage of Your 4 Most Important Characters

How to Take Advantage of Your 4 Most Important Characters

How To Take Advantage of Your 4 Most Important CharactersYour story may or may not have a cast of a thousand, but even if it does, 996 of those characters are going to be primarily background. They provide the context for the four most important characters in a story.

Who are these characters?

1. Your protagonist (of course).

2. The antagonist.

3. The reflection.

4. The love interest.

Why are these characters so important? Is it just because they’re staple archetypes which readers expect out of sheer familiarity? Or does it go deeper than that?

I’m gonna vote for the latter (’cause that was obviously a trick question, and in trick questions the latter is always the safe choice).

These four characters are important for the simple reason that, together, they provide the foundation for not just your plot, but a multi-faceted theme.

The 4 Most Important Characters in Action

The first thing we need to note is that it’s not enough to just throw a nominal protagonist, antagonist, reflection, and love interest into your story. In order for these character types to pull their full weight within your story, they must wholly fulfill their unique thematic roles.

Take a look.

1. The Protagonist Represents the Main Thematic Principle

Your protagonist is the center of your show. As such, readers understand he is the one who will ultimately prove or disprove the story’s main thematic principle. He represents either the right principles that will change the world around him (if he is a Flat-Arc character) or the wrong principles that must be changed in his own life (if he is a Change-Arc character).

For Example:

Consider Ross Poldark. He’s a complex character, full of black, white, and shades of gray. But he is decidedly the beating heart of the story’s thematic presentations. His ideas about ambition, compassion, and equality—as well as his often blunt, sometimes violent, and always disruptive ways of sharing them with his world—offer the standard (for good or bad) against which the rest of the characters are measured.

Ross Poldark Aiden Turner

2. The Antagonist Represents the Dark Side of the Protagonist’s Thematic Principle

What’s a story without a little opposition? Great themes arise out of great conflicts. Why? Because an unopposed thematic principle is an unproven principle. Great stories are those that examine theme from every possible angle, honestly exploring every question or argument readers might raise.

The antagonist plays a surprising role in this. Undoubtedly, he will offer a counter-argument to the protagonist’s position, and you might think this argument would be most effective when it is directly opposed to the protagonist’s. But not necessarily.

Instead, it is through the antagonist’s similarities to the protagonist that the most powerful thematic arguments arise. The protagonist believes in certain means to certain ends. The antagonist shares a belief in either the same means or the same end—and in so doing, he proves the dangerous aspects of the protagonist’s beliefs.

For Example:

George Warleggan is a perfect foil for Ross. In so many ways, they are similar: self-made men, vastly ambitious, aggressive, intelligent, even in love with the same woman. George starts out, not with hatred for Ross, but admiration. He recognizes their kindred spirit and wants to be friends.

He is more like Ross than anyone else in the story, and it is their similarities that bring them into competition and then eventually drive their hatred for one another. George is a symbolic representation of the darkness within Ross. George’s arguments for an alliance between them make a vast deal of sense, providing a strong opposing view to Ross’s pride, stubbornness, and lack of foresight.

George Warleggan Jack Farthing

3. The Reflection Proves the Value of the Protagonist’s Thematic Principle

Like the antagonist, the reflection character is both alike and different from the protagonist. But unlike the antagonist, it is the reflection’s differences that are most important. This is a character who starts out at least nominally on the protagonist’s side, sharing the protagonist’s own moral views.

But it is this character’s differences—his inability to share the protagonist’s adherence to or evolution into the story’s Truth—that provide a strong argument for why the protagonist must fight through and win his thematic battle.

The beauty of this system is that both the antagonist and reflection characters are complex characters of contrast. The antagonist opposes the protagonist in the plot, but shares many compelling similarities to the protagonist. The reflection allies with the protagonist in the plot, but presents many telling differences to the protagonist—traits both good and bad.

For Example:

Ross’s cousin Francis presents an interesting reflection. He and Ross are alike in many ways, sharing family loyalty and history, as well as childhood friendship and a love for the same woman. They both own copper mines. They are both husbands and fathers.

And yet it is their differences that are most telling. In almost everything that matters, Francis is Ross’s direct opposite. Where Ross is strong, Francis is weak. Where Ross is bellicose, Francis is inclined to peacemaking. Where Ross is forebearing, Francis is petty. Where Ross is compassionate, Francis is careless. Where Ross is industrious, Francis is lazy.

Together, Francis and George provide a reflection for every one of Ross’s traits—the good and the bad, reflecting his own thoughts and actions back upon himself and demonstrating to us every downfall of the thematic path upon which Ross finds himself.

Francis Poldark

4. The Love Interest

Not every story will have a love interest, but when present, the love interest inevitably functions as an impact character—someone who guides the protagonist. While the other archetypal characters provide symbolic catalysts and roadblocks on the protagonist’s journey, the love interest, in turn, acts as a sort of measuring rod for the protagonist’s progress (or lack thereof).

The love interest does this by symbolically rewarding (drawing nearer to) or punishing (drawing away from) the protagonist, depending on where he is in alignment to the story’s Truth.

This does not mean the love interest is perfect or has a prefect understanding of the Truth. But he or she instinctively provides proof that the protagonist must earn worthiness by adhering to the thematic Truth.

For Example:

Ross’s wife is a beautiful character. She is wonderfully flawed, but she is always a fixed point, continually guiding Ross back to his Truth. She is not a master or an instructor. Indeed, for the most part, she feels herself inferior to her higher-born husband and worships the ground he walks on.

And yet, she is the story’s lodestone—proving the best parts of Ross’s Truth about how to live a worthy and meaningful life—acting as both an example to him and a spur when he makes mistakes and turns toward the Lie.

Demelza Poldark Eleanor Tomlinson

***

It’s possible, in a larger cast, for more than one character to fit into the above character archetypes. However, you will keep your thematic presentation at its sharpest by likewise sharply defining these four characters and their relationships to one another. When all four are present, you can be sure you’ve created a strong, compelling, and moving story form.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Are all four of these archetypes present in your work-in-progress? Why or why not? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I love the Poldark examples! thanks for the reminder to finish watching the show 😊

    But more to the point, the way these archetypes work together is definitely something I’ll have to keep in mind.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, it’s that perfect symmetry of “story form” working behind the scenes of the very specific plot iterations. It’s incredible, when you think about it!

  2. Ms. Albina says:

    I love the Poldark show. I did what it . I did not like the character who wanted Elizabeth George the other one.

    Thank you for my birthday wish my birthday is not until Friday of next week May 26th.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I was surprised by how much I liked it too.

    • Ms. Albina says:

      In my co-author book I will have 3 realms which are elves and fairies, drawfts and then also mer-folk. The humans cannot see the realms. Is your workbook done to characters arcs?

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        The workbook is on target for a release in August or September.

      • Ms. Albina says:

        Katie,

        In your fantasy books do you have realms that are the size of an island lets say?

        In mine I do so I don’t think or how that can be shown in the story about it of mine that I am writing on with my co-author.

        • Ms. Albina says:

          Katie, When I self publish my novella. Can you write a review for the book please?

          My novella has merf0lk in them mermaids and mermen.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Thanks for asking. 🙂 However, don’t currently do solicited book reviews.

          • Ms. Albina says:

            Okay, One question for showing for the hair color

            Example-Rina’s waist length hair was black as a ravens wing.

            Zola’s long hair was red like the ruby stone.

            Elfan’s short hair was blonde with a gold tent.

            Okay, or need to write more.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Definitely no more, although I wouldn’t overdo the similes.

          • Ms. Albina says:

            Okay, thank you, what about eye colors blue as the sea or green like the emerald or gray as the stormy sky I mean in showing instead of telling.

            Also is also ways you show the weather if it is a stormy day or sunny day.

            Does your characters have vision powers?

            Leilani and as well as all the females in her line have visions only hers if different because her spirit self goes to the to the place like you are having an out of body experience.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            No vision powers in my book.

            Similes are excellent for evoking imagery. You just have to be careful not to overuse them. Once or twice per chapter is enough.

          • Ms. Albina says:

            Okay, Thank you. Who did your fb author page?

  3. Really good article! I have three of the characters in human form–protagonist, love interest, reflection–but I don’t have a human antagonist. This story is a women’s fiction with a romance included, so my antagonist is more a situation than a human being. But I see where it all fits in, thanks to your explanation of the four important characters. Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The antagonist exists, on the plot level, to provide the major obstacle between the protagonist and her goal–as such, the antagonist definitely doesn’t have to be human in form, although the antagonistic force will usual manifest as a human(s) at various junctures.

  4. This may be a dumb question, but do you think there’s a risk of throwing a story off-balance if one character occupies two of the roles? I’m thinking of the classic love-interest-as-reflection dynamic. Or, if you are going to have the love interest also act as a reflection of some aspects of the main character, should there be another reflection character to reveal even more depth and intricacy? Or is that getting too complicated?

    This post reminds me of a section of C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves, where he points out that when one of a group of friends dies, the rest of them lose not only that friend, but also those qualities of the others that the departed friend brought out. I thought that was such an interesting point. We need other people to bring out our full selves, and that is why death is a real wound.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Ooh, that Lewis quote is shiveringly insightful in light of this subject.

      As for your question… I’m sure there’s some brilliant exception somewhere that I’m not thinking of, but in general, I think we get the most powerful effect when the archetypal roles are clearly distinguished.

      • Yes, this makes sense. Perhaps this is why “romance” stories can so easily become sentimental — they aren’t using all the archetypal forces to bring out an entire character, and the fullness of reality is missing. And this need not be the case.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Nope, definitely not. The Love Story is one of the juiciest archetypal stories. It has the potential to have it all: thematically meaningful relationship characters, motivation and impetus for positive change, conflicting Wants/Needs, and more. But only if we make sure the story-form foundation is solid all the way through.

  5. Great info. It think it could be a really helpful activity to go take a WIP and identify each of these. The protagonist and antagonist are easy to identify, of course, but I hadn’t ever considered (or even known about) the other two.

    Thanks once again for making me think 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Michael Hauge and Dramatica both have excellent further info on all of these archetypes.

  6. Love Poldark. I have all the novels too and am reading them slowly. I see these same character traits you describe in another show: Home Fires on PBS. Your post today is wonderful!

  7. This post was very helpful for me. I write a lot (Even have a book being released July 15th) but I have never had a creative writing course. I’ve learned a bunch about creative writing off the internet over the past two years. Anyway thanks for your clear explation.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Congrats on your upcoming book! The truth is writers almost universally have good story instincts. In learning about writing all we’re really doing is harmonizing our subconscious instincts with a conscious understanding of what we’re doing and how story works.

  8. Hear hear. Great stuff. I like this; it reminds me how much broader a theme can be if you don’t show only one side of an issue. 😀

  9. Ooh–touchy subject for me right now. Part of my main characters’ arc is that the two young adult women are still struggling with their own “shadows”–which they see in each other and which they must learn not to externalize to be full adults. Together they’re the protagonist in the plot.

    No actual person is the antagonist, though those on the protagonists’ side stumble and think someone is (a serendipitous setback).

    Their “boss” and mentor is a mirror, now that I think of it. They start out doing things “his way”, then learn from another younger character additional ways of accomplishing their goal and in so doing surpass their mentor’s expectations for them.

    It’s this younger character that’s the problem: perhaps he’s the mirror, sharing their goal but so polar opposite in manner.

    What then of my beloved architect figure, the mentor?

    And don’t even get into love interest. The two MCs–though not romantically involved (at least not until the sequel when they’re “whole” and ready for it)–each anchor and balance the other.

    • J.M Barlow says:

      It sounds to me that this younger character is the antagonist, if his ends are the same, but his means are undesirable. That’s just what I get from your description… something to explore?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The Mentor archetype is useful (and, IMO, recommended), but not absolutely necessary to the story form. You can get by with just those listed in this post, although the other major archetypal figures will always bring more to the table in fleshing out the theme.

  10. Garrett says:

    A lovely post K.M.. There are some big things here to chew on (you threw a few steaks on the grill)!
    I think I agree with you on most points but a few. I believe the discrepancy mainly lies in our differing understanding of a few of the character descriptions in “the reflection” and “love interest” characters.

    Based on my understanding of the Impact (or Influence) Character — as the being or force that pushes the main character to face their personal problem — it seems that that description more aligns with the “Reflection Character” that you have described (…”it is the reflection’s differences that are most important”) and not as the “Love Interest” as you stated later on. It is definitely possible that the Impact Character *can* and *is* often the Love Interest, especially in tales of romance, it is not always the case.
    The Impact Character is diametrically opposed to the Main Character and in one way or another, represents the force for change for the Main Character or to be changed by the Main Character. The Love Interest can provide that needed perspective if the story calls for it, or could simply fall under a “Guardian,” “Contagonist” or other archetype.

    The one movie I can think of for an example (that I know you’ve seen) is Braveheart.
    Wallace’s first and second loves (Murron and the Princess) are archetypal characters and work as catalysts to propel Wallace from decision to action and vice versa. But it is Robert the Bruce that steps into the boots as the Influence Character, providing us with the opposing viewpoint to Wallace’s and changes himself while Wallace proves his flat-arc (or steadfast nature). This is just one example that came to mind where the love interest wasn’t necessarily the Impact Character.

    Another example, in favor of what you are saying, but seen objectively, is from Captain America: Winter Soldier (wooohoooo!).
    Steve and Bucky can easily be seen as the Main and Impact Characters. However, the two can also be seen as the story’s relationship perspective, or as you’ve stated, the “Love Interest.” A bro-mance for sure; definitely fulfilling what would typically be seen as a romance while also fulfilling that needed perspective in the story’s thematic argument.

    For me, it always makes it easier to view these various characters as ‘points of view’ rather than characters themselves, especially when discussing thematics. The added benefit I’ve come to appreciate of seeing them from an objective perspective allows for more clarity in their functional purpose in a story.

    • J.M Barlow says:

      Yeah, I see what you’re saying here. Read my post below for some similar insight. I think it’s the fact that Love Interest is the wrong title here. But also, Influence Character is off-base. Every character is an influence character – one would hope.

      I really like that you mentioned the Guardian and Contagonist archetypes.

      Here’s how I would summarize these relationships:

      Protagonist – Antagonist
      Whatever their differences may be that cause them to be opposing forces, it’s their similarities that invoke critical thinking and thematic conflict.

      Protagonist – Reflection
      Whatever their similarities may be that cause them to be either allied or opposed (*), it’s their differences that invoke critical thinking and thematic conflict.

      (*) I happen to think they may want different ends in some cases. Maybe they align because they have the same means, but their ends differ – but not so much that they oppose one another. This is the case of the contagonist.

      In a similar light, a reflection character can be a guardian/mentor. Don’t make the mistakes I made. Do as I say, not as I do. And so on.

      Protagonist – Love Interest / Catalyst Character
      I don’t know… in this post, it’s the Guardian. The Moral Compass. But any character can be the base for any other character’s moral compass… Just the same, any character can be a love interest. Any character can be the Impact/Catalyst/Influence character. It’s almost arbitrary.
      Antagonist the Love Interest? Sure. Antagonist the Catalyst? Any day of the week.

      It’s too hard to pigeonhole good characters. Good characters do -something- with a pinch of that and a drop of the other. They’re gray. Hell, the protagonist can be his OWN antagonist! Look at the tale of Narcissus: He saw his own reflection in a pool, fell in love with it, fell ON it (literally) and died. He’s all four characters! What a narcissist.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      My take on the Impact Character is that it isn’t a fixed archetype in the same way as those I’ve mentioned in this post. The Impact Character can be any (or all) of the supporting archetypal characters in a story. Simply, it’s a character who is a catalyst for change in the protagonist’s life, forcing him nearer to either the Truth or the Lie (depending on the arc and the moral alignment of the Impact Character). (This may be slightly different from Dramatica’s presentation of the influence character; I can’t remember for sure.)

      Excellent point, though, about how the “Love Interest” archetype doesn’t actually have to be a romantic character. It’s simply the chief worthwhile relationship in the story, which provides a barometer for the protagonist’s progress toward or away from the Truth.

  11. J.M Barlow says:

    Great post. This takes me back to your posts about the 8 (and a half archetypes), and I can see what you did here. The sidekick and the skeptic are arch-typical, but not really necessary. The mentor kind of got amalgamated with the Love Interest a little bit, which is portrayed here as optional – as it should be.

    The funny thing here is that these are all aspects – except for the protagonist. The antagonist can be a non-sentient force. The reflection can be an inner conflict. The Love Interest can be ANY catalytic force. I realized this when I was outlining a story that saw a man journey alone through the woods – kind of.

    I also know that these characters all share these aspects with one-another sometimes. In my graphic novel, this is certainly the case. Things change from volume to volume (of which there are 8). Even as I read the post, I was trying to wrap my head around my characters and saw all these intertwining relationships. The overall story, I can see where these archetypes fall, for the most part. But there are other characters trying to butt their way in as well.

    I wonder how much attention I actually need to bring to these aspects of these characters. So far, it’s come to me mostly instinctively in that sense.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great point about the satellite archetypes being, essentially, “aspects.” That’s exactly what they are: dramatized, usually humanized, aspects of the protagonist’s own personal evolution. Iron Man 2 is a very nice example of this, which I talked about here.

      • J.M Barlow says:

        An update: I wrapped my head around my 4 characters a bit better in my 8-Volume Graphic Novel WIP. The Overall story, anyway. Your post here actually helped me clarify the goal of my Antagonist.

        Antagonist wants a certain thing so that he can achieve his goal of not dying at the end of the world.

        Protagonist wants a small thing that evolves into that same certain thing as the Antagonist for a different version of the same goal – to save a group from the end of the world, but not himself or antag.

        The Contagonist wants the Protagonist the protagonist to get what he wants and needs, because their end goal is the same. Except the contagonist is a radical nutbar (but also so incredibly awesome and probably my favorite character). Also, the contagonist is of the group who would be saved, so he’s being selfish – kind of.

        The love interest is a companion set to protect the protagonist – a promise to protag’s father. The co-relationship comes in that the protagonist (and contagonist’s) end goal is to save a group of people that includes the companion and the contagonist, but not himself or the antagonist, from the end of the world.

        Kind of. Trying not to spoil things. It’s impossible to describe what is going on in this story without spoiling its mystery.

        Antagonist and Protagonist have a lot of similarities.

        Contagonist and Protagonist want the same things for different reasons.

        Love Interest wants to protect Protagonist, but Protagonist’s goal leads him right into trouble against the Antagonist, and nearer to the nutbar Contgonist who is also already a rival of the Love Interest in the sense that… well they hate each other. But the Contagonist is actually right, making him the Mentor in a sense, even if he is being selfish. But he’s kind of a “how not to act” reflection character.

        All three of these characters are catalysts at different times, though. They all offer points of reflection, and of mentorship. They all get in the way of the protagonist and of each other at times. But overall, if these characters get pigeonholed, that’s where they go.

        Spread this out over 8 volumes, add a dozen more characters and subplots, switch some roles around here and there (you know, Flase Ally, False Enemy, that sort of thing), and it gets out of hand fast. But that’s the fun of it. And if it sounds great now, wait ’til you actually get to know them!

  12. Huh. Looking over it, I realized that is the roles the 4 play in the story. I wasn’t aware I was writing it that way but that’s how it played out when I was done.

  13. Love the article! It is nice how clearly you have put this. I have found that in my initial writings when all 4 of these characters are not there ‘someone’ tries to slip into the story to fill the role. It is a great way in which to show many point of views in a story. Even better it is sometimes a lot of fun to write from the ‘bad-guys’ point of view.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Isn’t it amazing how our subconscious instinctively knows what is required to fully round out a story?

  14. Interesting, and great examples. Most of them were familiar to me, but the Reflection was a new idea and your description helpful. Thanks again!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Check out Michael Hauge for more on the Reflection. He has some great resources on this.

  15. Joe Long says:

    The antagonist was the hardest for me to conceive when my story was a romance. Who would reject to that? (It is possible! Because of their ages and kinship, they hide their relationship from their families ) Then I saw it as coming of age. My protagonist is a late teen college student who wants the normal things – start his own life, fall in love, etc – but he’s socially retarded and awkward. Much of that is a consequence of his relationship with his father, who becomes the antagonist. Parents want the same thing – for their kids to be well trained to start their lives as adults and ultimately succeed more than the parents. However, it’s the methods employed by dad that eventually lead to prolonged verbal and emotional abuse of his son who develops a fear of rejection.

    I hadn’t heard ‘reflection’ used in this context before, but I had been using that principal. The sidekick (the love interest’s brother) wants the same things but has different attitudes about life and chasing girls. There’s also a mentor (the childhood friend from the neighborhood) who can be brutally honest in his observations of the protagonist.

    Then, as you describe, the love interest can also mentor as she helps guide and advise the protagonist, rewarding or disapproving in ways only a lover can do.
    As it ended up, I had the four main characters with a handful of supporting who are often around but don’t contribute as much.

    In the middle I had the sidekick get a steady girlfriend, creating two couples, which also provides reflection. She becomes important but doesn’t have as fixed of a role, as at various times she can tempt, mentor and reflect.

  16. Ryan T. says:

    Very good post! I’m happy I have already been doing this unknowingly. It seems so deep when explained, yet I found that it just kind of happens naturally. Its almost like a “duh! Of course!” type thing, but I can’t say that it is obvious because I have never thought of this…

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