Each of the key character types plays a specific role in a story, and there are five which you need to carefully craft into the fabric of your narrative, when designing your story.
The first and most obvious of these can be the most confusing, and it is worth taking some time to ensure that you understand what the purpose of this character is and who they are. The confusion comes from various screenwriting theorists incorrectly using three terms interchangeably; protagonist, hero and the central character. It’s important to note that these three do not necessarily need to be the same person, they can be… but they’re not automatically one.
The most important character in your story is the protagonist because they are the champion of your story’s premise, and their reason for being is to prove your argument.
Every protagonist should undergo two journeys in your story; the outer journey, (a quest for a tangible goal,) and an inner journey, (an emotional path the character takes which teaches them something about their true nature).
The best definition I have heard for a protagonist is that they are the character that experiences true inner growth as a result of the journey that they undertake in the story. In short; they learn something about themselves, become wiser and change.
The protagonist may also be a hero, but only if they do something heroic. By definition a heroic deed is done in the face of danger and adversity – with no regard for one’s own safety – for the benefit of someone else. All sorts of characters can do heroic deeds, but doing so does not make them the protagonist.
Similarly, the central character is the individual around which the story revolves, (and this is usually the character that demands the most screen-time,) but they are not necessarily a hero or the protagonist. It is most often the central character’s outer goal that creates the spine of the story, and it is common for the story to be told from their point of view.
“Great protagonists are defined by great antagonists.”
The second major character type is sometimes also caught in the trap of interchangeable terminology and referred to as both the antagonist and the villain. Again it is important to note that these two are not necessarily the same person. Your protagonist is only a villain if they have evil intent, but someone with evil intent is not automatically the antagonist.
The antagonist in your story should be the most powerful character, and they are always defined by the manner in which they work in opposition to the protagonist. They are your argument against your premise, and they should personify the antithesis of the script’s premise by challenging the protagonist’s outer journey at every opportunity. This makes them the nemesis, the opponent, the archenemy, the adversary, and the rival of the protagonist.
Generally the two characters compete for the same goal, but they have different objectives in mind. Strong antagonists never see themselves as the bad guy, and believe in their cause waveringly. They can always strongly motivate and justify their point of view. The antagonist must force the protagonist to make difficult choices that reveal who and what they care about, thereby revealing the premise and it’s winning argument.
“For both the protagonist and the antagonist the stakes must be personal.”
Great antagonists are instrumental in shaping the story, and are usually one step ahead of the protagonist right up until the climatic confrontation near the end, when the protagonist finally defeats them.
Few protagonists ever rise to the challenge without some form of counselling. The mentor character is there to provide this. They advise, transfer knowledge, teach skills, and more importantly when the time comes… thrust the protagonist out of their comfort zone.
Each mentor should be specifically designed to prepare the protagonist for their outer or inner goal, or both. The three C’s of mentorship are; consultant, counsellor and cheerleader, and typically they are a tutor providing guidance, motivation, emotional support, and role modelling along the way.
The protagonist must finish their journey alone, using their own strength and resources, without any help so that they can prove that they have changed and learnt something. This usually means that the mentor cannot be there to help when the protagonist faces the final showdown, often necessitating that they must by some means be side-lined (or killed) before the protagonist reaches their goal.
The ally’s primary role is to aid the protagonist as they work to achieve their goal, overcome the antagonist, and undergo their necessary internal development.
All protagonists need a friend to lean on, and the character who helps the protagonist achieve their outer goal is the ally. However the ally has a more important job, they are the character that is also most intimately connected with the protagonist’s emotional growth (and therefore their inner goal). They not only look up to the protagonist, but they also pick them up when they are down and encourage them to carry on pushing the protagonist towards inner change and fulfilment.
THE LOVE INTEREST
The love interest is the character that sees the potential of the protagonist. On the outer journey level, the protagonist’s tangible goal has to at some time include winning the love of this character, but on the inner level, the true love of the love interest is the reward for the protagonist having achieved his inner goal.
Often they serve as an indication of the protagonist’s progress or lack thereof. As they draw nearer or away from the protagonist, they point out how well the protagonist is doing at achieving their inner goal.