The people in your story, both the good and bad ones and any others. They do not have to be human.
The characters are one of the most important parts of a story since they are the ones the story happens to. When we read a story or watch a movie or TV show, we see their good and bad times and live it with them, in a way. In most stories, the characters are human but they do not have to be. They could be animals, machines, or other things, depending on what kind of a story you are writing.
Kinds of Characters
There are three main kinds of characters. They have technical names I will put in parentheses, but let’s just call them the good guys, the bad guys, and helpers.
The good guys (protagonists)
These are the main characters, the ones that we are cheering for. They do not have to be very good (and should not be totally good).
Examples of good guys:
Lord of the Rings: Frodo, Sam, Gandalf, etc.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: Snow White
The Giver: Jonas, the Giver
I call them “good guys” since they usually are, but it is important that your good guys are not too good. If they are perfect, they can be boring, so it is good to make them like real people: some good parts and some bad parts. On the other hand, we should like them a little or we won’t want to read the story.
The bad guys (antagonists)
These are the people trying to stop your character. Some stories don’t have bad guys. For example, if it is a story about a girl who is lost in the woods, the conflict is how she can get home, not a fight against another person.
Examples of bad guys:
Lord of the Rings: Sauron, Saruman, the orcs, etc.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: the evil queen
The Giver: the town leaders
Just like we don’t want the good guys to be too good, it sometimes more interesting to make the bad guys not too bad. In these examples, Sauron and the evil queen are almost totally bad. They are pretty simple characters because Sauron wants power and the evil queen is jealous of Snow White. But in The Giver, the town leaders are doing what they think is best for everyone, but they are also trying to stop Jonas. We don’t want them to win, but we can understand them a little. This makes for a very interesting story. Again, it depends on the kind of story you are writing.
Helpers (minor characters)
These are the rest of the people in your story. They might help the good guys (or the bad guys) or they might just help the story move along.
Lord of the Rings: Galadriel, Théoden, Bill the pony, etc.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: the seven dwarfs
The Giver: Jonas’s friends and family
The main thing about helper characters is that they are important but only for a small part of the story. If you write a very short story, there will probably not be any helper characters but there will be some in a longer one.
How many characters do I need in my story?
This obviously depends on your story and how long it is, but the best rule is: the smallest number possible. If you have two people in the story that do the same thing, it is better to put them together into one person.
Here is my rough estimation of how many characters a story might need, based on its length. Again, this will depend on the story. There are always exceptions.
|Word count||Good guys||Bad guys||Helpers|
|< 500 words||1-2||0-1||0-1|
|> 10,000 words||1-5||0-3||0 to many|
You notice that the number of good guys and bad guys does not get much bigger. That is because these are the ones we get to know well. You do not want to have many of them or we do not get to know them very well. However, are the story gets bigger, there will probably be many more helper characters.
On one side you have a story like War and Peace. It is a very long story and has hundreds of characters. On the other side is a story like the movie Castaway. For most of that movie, there is one good guy on an island and no bad guys. The conflict comes from trying to stay alive and get off the island. But there is also one helper character on the island. This is the volleyball Wilson. Usually a volleyball is not a character but here it is because the man on the island makes it a character, even though it never talks (of course) and isn’t alive. The man talks to it and it becomes his friend. He cries when Wilson gets lost and probably many people watching the movie cried too.
Now it’s your turn
- When you read a story or watch a TV show or movie, ask yourself who are the good guys, the bad guys, and the helpers. It is not always easy since sometimes a person could be half of one and half another.
- Look at the characters in the stories that you have written. What kind of characters are they? How many characters do you have?
If you have any questions about writing or other topics you want me to talk about in Writing Corner, just send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
21 Comments Add yours
Unless you’re GRR Martin, then you just have more characters in one book than I do in four books combined, lol. Great post. Thanks for sharing!
Thank, Stuart. I realized writing this that it would probably get a lot of disagreement since there aren’t really any hard and fast rules, but since this is for young writers, I thought it was okay to generalize. And yes, GRR Martin is definitely an exception. I think if you’re writing an epic series you need a ton of main characters, especially if you kill them off all the time. 🙂