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The Complexity of Characters

Today’s writing Definition of the Week, as posted on Innovative Editing’s Facebook page, is “Character.”

Now, when most writers think of “character,” they think of a hero or heroine. Or maybe the bad guy. Possibly the main character’s best friend who supports him or her at every turn, like Robin to Batman, or Sam to Frodo.

But the truth is that characters are much more diverse than that important yet limited set of identities. They actually come in all shapes, sizes and levels of importance.

There are main characters – also known as protagonists or heroes, though those two synonyms aren’t necessarily interchangeable – secondary characters and tertiary characters, not to mention protagonists and antagonists. And what about round or flat ones? Are they sympathetic or not?

There’s a whole entire list of types to explore to whatever depth you would like.

As a hard-core pantser, I can’t say I’ve ever mapped out my characters to the degree that other creative writers do. They’ll record their personality types according to some hardcore scale like Myers-Briggs, discussing whether their protagonists are ISTJs or INFPs or ENTJs.

If you’re skeptical there, look no further than Pinterest. You’ll find plenty of examples of such intense character assessments.

There’s nothing wrong with going that deep either. If it helps you work on your story, then great! More power to you if doing a detailed analysis like that helps you figure out what your character would and wouldn’t do in the different situations you cast him in. Analyze away!

But if your head is spinning from just the thought of figuring out what ISTJs, INFPs and ENTJs are, then close your eyes, take a deep breath and repeat to yourself, “They do not exist. They do not exist. They do not exist.”

Then open your eyes and keep reading like I never even brought them up.

Really, in my opinion, you don’t actually need to know the definition of most writing tools just as long as you know how to utilize the tool itself. It’s rather like grammar: If you know how to use an antecedent, then – unless you’re a teacher – it probably doesn’t matter one bit if you’d die in a heartbeat if somebody put a gun to your head and said, “The definition of an antecedent or your life!”

Now noun, verb, pronoun and all that good stuff? Yeah, it’s probably a good thing to know those. But you’re probably not going to need to memorize the rest of the word-definition list to operate in the real world. And the same goes for literary terms.

I know there are plenty of editors who would disagree with me here. In fact, I know my mother would disagree with me here. But with all due respect to those very knowledgeable individuals, let’s move on.

Over the next couple of weeks, we're going to go further into detail about certain types of characters: the big ones, basically, just so that you can know how to work them to your story’s best advantage.

So here’s your basic list. Anything beyond this is going to be on you…

Main Character – The character who’s story is getting told: a narrative’s most important person

Secondary Character A person, persona or creature that makes repeated and important appearances in your story (this could be a villain, a best friend, a mentor, a parent or some other integral non-main-character character)

Tertiary Character – A person, persona or creature that makes an appearance, but not a major one, rather like an extra in a movie: Pirate 1, Musician 5, Runner 8

Protagonist The main character who’s trying to reach a certain goal, whether good or bad (that distinction right there is why a protagonist and a hero aren’t necessarily the same thing: because a protagonist isn’t necessarily a good guy)

Antagonist The individual in a story trying to stop the protagonist

Round Character – One that evolves over the course of the narrative, with her personality or behavior or view of the world changing in some way, shape or form

Flat Character – One that stays exactly the same from start to finish, either in a positive or negative fashion

Sympathetic Character – A character that readers want to root for because they’re compelling (normally, this is the protagonist, but you might easily find yourself rooting for a secondary character or even a villain).

Now, you probably noticed that some of those terms are linked and some of them aren't. That's because Innovative Editing directly covered some and indirectly covered others.

Bottom line though: if you stick with these blog posts for the next few weeks, you're going to learn a lot about your characters... and what they can really do.

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