Characters and their function in the story
Cinema, literature, theatre and any other fictional genre have one thing in common: they present stories that are protagonized by characters.
These characters (no matter if they are human beings, aliens, animals or living objects) play a specific role in the story.
Next, you’ll find a list with the most common character roles, together with their main features:
He is the mean —or the lead— character, the one who carries the weight of the story. All stories have at least one protagonist and he/she normally pursues a specific goal.
The protagonist can be the hero with whom the readers identify, but can also be an antihero or villain. There are no limits but your imagination (in the future, I’ll publish a post on how to keep your readers engaged to your characters): the only rule is that the main events must be connected to your main character(s).
This type of character appears in stories of many different genres. He is the one who accompanies the protagonist on his quest or journey, helps him whenever possible and offers him moral support. The sidekick would go to the moon and back for him.
Sancho Panza (Don Quixote), Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger (Harry Potter series) or Doctor Watson (Sherlock Holmes series) are famous faithful sidekicks.
This type of character is similar to the sidekick. His function is to help the protagonist reach his goals, only that he doesn’t accompany him on every adventure in order to offer him constant protection and fidelity. Besides, his help can be deliberate or involuntary, altruistic or selfish.
This character’s goals are opposed to those of the protagonist. This doesn’t mean that the antagonist must be evil: the problem is that his objectives collide with those of the main character, and that both are willing to fight in order to reach them. This is what creates the main conflict.
As the antagonist has a main role, there must be one in every story (as a character or as a more abstract force). I recommend you that your antagonist should be more powerful that your main character, at least at first sight. This makes the conflict more interesting and adds merit to the hero’s fight.
Whenever possible, make the antagonist be represented by a single individual. If you want to refer to a group (a congregation, for example), try to find a leader or someone who represents it so that your readers can identify that specific person with the antagonistic role.
The same applies if your protagonist is fighting against something intangible, like bureaucracy or the system. For example, if the protagonist is a woman who’s trying to prove her innocence and the state is the opposing force, the role of the antagonist could be played by the lawyer who fights against her.
As well as in the case of the protagonist, there are characters who can help the antagonist reach his goal. They are not indispensable, but they can be very useful.
These characters stand in the way of the protagonist but are not related to the antagonist. Their participation in the story is coincidental and incidental.
Take the case of the protagonist who has to present some papers in the court so that the antagonist doesn’t get it his way. Unluckily, the civil servant working there doesn’t help her at all. She has nothing to do with the antagonist, but stops the protagonist from reaching her goal.
This secondary character’s role is very important. He appears briefly in the story, but his intervention is decisive, because he is the one who either gives the protagonist the little push he needs in order to carry on or offers him the key to solve a problem, find the courage he lacks, etc.
This type of character appears in many literary works. He is the one in charge of protecting something (generally, a thing related with the protagonist’s goal), and behaves like an obstacle that must be overcome.
This secondary role can strengthen your story. He is represented by Yoda in “Star Wars”, or by Abate Faria in “The Count of Monte Cristo”. He is the one who guides the hero in order to prepare him for the final battle in which he will have to fight for what he wants. Sometimes, the mentor can also be an impact character whom the protagonist asks for advice.
This type of character doesn’t believe in the protagonist’s objectives and is convinced of his defeat. Skeptics are opposed to sidekicks: they do not stand in the protagonist’s way, but they try to demoralize him.
Sometimes, the goal can be represented by a character. For example, it could be someone who has been kidnapped and who must be rescued by the protagonist.
Other secondary characters
Of course, this list isn’t exhaustive. There can be some other type of characters because you are the one who sets the limits when it comes to creating a story. But, at least, this is a good list for a start. I’m sure it will enable you to create a good cast!