Characters Part 1 – Main, Principal, Central

Who is that person and what are they doing in your story?

This is the second installment in a series I’m doing on StoryCrafting (this series began with Revision). This time we start investigating characters. Readers tell me I do great characters and my character development and growth are outstanding (one publisher wrote me that my characters are “spot on”).

Yippee for me because I work at it. It’s nice when one’s work is recognized and appreciated.

Part of my working at character resulted in my breaking down characters into categories based on their purpose in a story; Main, Primary, Secondary, Minor and Stage Direction. Character categories are different from character types; hero, villain, love interest, sidekick, comic relief, et cetera.

Main, Principal, Central Characters
Your protagonist and antagonist are your main (sometimes called “principal” or “central”) characters. Just to be clear, the protagonist is the character you want your readers to root for, to cheer on, to be glad for when they succeed and upset when they fail. The antagonist is the opposite. You want your readers to be upset when the antagonist succeeds and glad when the antagonist fails.

Okay, not always.

Usually the purpose of the antagonist is to thwart the protagonist from achieving some goal. There will always be some kind of duality or obvious dichotomy between protagonist and antagonist. Sometimes other characters are aware of this dichotomy and the reader should always be aware of it. Sometimes the protagonist and antagonist are in direct conflict, sometimes they’re in conflict without knowing it or of each other and the conflict can be emotional, physical, spiritual and/or intellectual.

In my novel EMPTY SKY the protagonist is a young boy, Jamie McPherson, and the antagonist is an NSA SubChief, Earl Pangiosi. That kind of dichotomy has to be based on something pretty big, otherwise why would an NSA SubChief care about a little boy?


Let’s increase that dichotomy a bit. Jamie doesn’t know Earl exists until close to the end of the story, Earl knows about Jamie early on and has been manipulating events to determine if Jamie is a threat. A little boy against the NSA? That’s conflict, that’s dichotomy and that’s a story.

Ayn Rand’s ATLAS SHRUGGED is an excellent example of protagonist and antagonist in a situation different from that in EMPTY SKY. Dagny Taggart, the protagonist, knows someone is changing her world but unsure who it is, if it’s just one person or a group, or even if that person or group really exists. John Galt, the antagonist, isn’t really antagonistic to Dagny but to the world she lives in. Add to this that Dagny admires John but not his methods. John knows Dagny exists but her existence as a person is trivial to him, her existence as what she represents is greatly important to him.

Diane Setterfield’s THE THIRTEENTH TALE is an example of protagonist and antagonist in another kind of conflict. They are in conflict in the sense that each helps the other grow. Vida Winter’s character is able to reveal THE THIRTEENTH TALE because she learns to trust her biographer, Margaret Lea. Margaret Lea is able to grow and have more mature relationships because Vida Winter’s revelations cause Margaret to understand more about herself and her choices in life. Neither wants the other to fail, their interactions are more like mutual sandpapering sessions; they help each other towards perfection.

My novel THE AUGMENTED MAN is an example of another kind of protagonist-antagonist conflict. THE AUGMENTED MAN has a protagonist, Nicholas Trailer. The antagonist varies as Nick changes throughout the story. There is no obvious antagonist in the beginning and there’s definite conflict. The antagonist exists and is revealed further on in the story. Shortly into the novel, another, different kind of antagonist is revealed and, like Diane Settlefield’s THE THIRTEENTH TALE, the conflict is one of mutual growth rather than direct combat. Nick grows from that experience to face another, different and differently threatening antagonist. The first antagonist can only destroy Nick, the second can change Nick, the last can destroy everything that Nick loves. But without those first and second pairings the third couldn’t exist. Viewed this way, THE AUGMENTED MAN is a Hero’s Journey.

Meanwhile, EMPTY SKY, ATLAS SHRUGGED, THE THIRTEENTH TALE and THE AUGMENTED MAN are full of other characters, many of whom become protagonists and antagonists at different points in the story and not always to the main protagonist and antagonist. These other characters are not the main characters but they are what I call primary characters.

And that’s for the next post in this series, Characters Part 2 – Primary Characters. See you then.

(thanks to Editress Jennifer Day for making suggestions to this post)