WGA writer Michael Tabb has written for Universal Studios, Disney Feature Animation, comic book icon Stan Lee, and other industry players. Michael’s new book, Prewriting Your Screenplay: a Step-by-Step Guide to Generating Stories, is available now. Follow Michael on Twitter @MichaelTabb and Instagram @michaeltabbwga.
As promised, here’s my final article on the five character types. In this batch of articles about the five major character types, I am going to contradict a lot of the conventional wisdom regarding them. We last left our readers on the cliffhanger of promising to redefine the understanding of this final piece of the character-purpose puzzle, the reflection character. My twist on the reflection character will be my final break from the traditional theories on these character types before I recap them.
In order to break away from this widely accepted definition of a reflection character, we must take a giant step backward and start to reexamine character types as they have been taught in the past. The rules must constantly evolve in art to keep it fresh. Therefore, every professional writer should develop his or her own approach to the writing process, including the way a writer envisions characters. Personalize the process. Doing that is a part of mastering the craft. Individualizing how characters fulfill their purposes in a script is an important part of any writer’s evolution. All writers have the ability to custom design personal techniques for getting characters to really speak to them.
Studied writers learn the rules so well that they can eventually set them aside and finally, truly play with craft. This is done in the same way an actor can only surrender to the call of a character once he learns his lines and can put down the script. If a writer wants to evolve beyond common storytelling devices and the screenwriting books everyone has read in order to evoke the best and most creative results from their brains, start by learning the rules. Only once a writer has truly absorbed the great screenwriting gurus should a writer consider where deviation from the tried-and-true methods will work for that writer and that screenplay. The cream of the crop on the craft of technical screenwriting standard practices in execution include: Christopher Vogler (The Writer’s Journey), Michael Hague (Writing Screenplays That Sell) and David Trottier (The Screenwriter’s Bible). These books should be in every screenwriter’s library. Why? These books lay out the rules that the well-read, smarter non-writers that work in our industry understand, so knowing that language fluidly is crucial to success in the industry. That’s why great film schools teach these time-honored techniques. I still plot a concept during the development process in this formulaic way, which is exceptionally important when you have to explain your story to others. Therefore, it makes perfect sense for a film school to teach students the black and white concepts with definitive rules.
That said, if everyone writes by the exact same rules all the time. That explains why so many scripts read so predictably and formulaic. Therefore, some of my perspectives contradict previous notions in my character type definitions, but this is just how I see it. I have theories based on successful, previously-produced films and tricks that have lead to me having a career in screenwriting. So this final article on character types is for the writers who learned the rules taught by the masters, are ready to question them and see them in a slightly different light. It does not make me right or anyone else wrong. What the story gurus teach is always in my mind as I make choices to subvert them when it best suits my storytelling needs. In the end, you may disagree with me, and that’s cool. Everyone in the story industry should come up with their own perspective on how the see character and story from an out-of-the-box perspective. A studied screenwriter makes “informed decisions” to violate those rules. That’s the point of convergence where a skilled craft evolves into art. It’s how great writers learn to break the rules all the time in a way that declares their individuality in their work.
So let’s explore and consider my rebellious notions on character from that perspective. In the years since studying screenwriting in college, my personal outlook on character types is a little different from the traditional classifications I was taught in several ways. Here are a few of them. Some traditional teaching of major character types suggest:
- A protagonist is always the central character of the film – WRONG.
- Characters cannot serve more then one character type at a time – WRONG.
- The inverse of that, only one character is designed per character type – WRONG.
- Not all characters in a script need to qualify as one of these five character types – WRONG.
I’ll review these out-of-the-box points below. Somewhere between the above mentioned points three and four, the expansion of the definition for reflection characters occurs because one realization leads to another. That leads to the culmination opinion (or wide-shot perspective) on how this WGA writer always imagines character types like a wide master shot for this nine article series. Let’s go through it, starting with the common character rules I’d like to dispel…
Protagonists are Always the Central Character of a Film
There’s a common misconception that the protagonist must always be the central character of a screenplay, and it’s a lie. Protagonist is not synonymous with “central character” as much as most teachers and industry professionals preach it is. The central character is the script’s dominant character that a film follows. He or she is the eyes through which the audience sees the story. Meanwhile, the protagonist is the character that is designed to arc (change) over the course of the movie, whether successful in achieving that arc or not. Those are two, very different things. Now, the protagonist is the central character most of the time, and that is the most commonly accepted way to tell a story in Hollywood. That said, there are plenty of successful examples of films that do otherwise. Keeping this simple, mentors have often been a central characters in films. For example: Mary Poppins, Dead Poets Society, Back to the Future, Armageddon, Braveheart, Stand and Deliver, etc. They all have central characters who inspire others to arc instead.
Each Character Serves One Specific Character Type at a Time
Many screenwriting gurus declare each character in a script can serve only one purpose. They insist there is only one protagonist, one antagonist, one love interest and one mentor or reflection character. They delineate these characters into small, specific microcosms. When learning the craft of screenwriting at first, it’s very important to make sure that each character type’s purpose is being fulfilled by some role in the script. This is crucial for telling a fleshed out story. Young writers need to learn to crawl before they walk, then walk before they run. Therefore, it’s taught to color inside the lines, teaching form and function. Sometimes they draw those lines in the sand way too thick for me. Some state that each is a different character with no overlap. It’s the no-overlapping that I disagree with first.
Even character purists contradict their own edict of one type per character in a script when confronted with characters that fulfill more than one category. They call the character that serves more than one type, shapeshifters. They caveat the rules they set by insisting a character only serves one purpose at a time. For example, in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic thriller, Psycho, Norman Bates is a love interest that reveals himself a peeping lust interest, which spirals into becoming the protagonist with an antagonist lurking inside of him. Throughout these changes, it’s true this character is never more than one type at a time. The theory holds true in many cases.
That said, just because a character serves one type and changes in the middle of the story, it does not mean a character never serves more than one purpose at a time. We will begin our little rebellious declassification regarding the singularity of one character type at a time with some examples.
Look at the character of Audrey Reede in Liar Liar. Fletcher’s ex-wife constantly pushes him to be a better man, won’t take him back until he arcs (which holds his feet to the fire), and is the model of a dependable, honest parent, which is Fletcher’s character arc. If you look at all that she does, she clearly serves the purposes of both reflection character and love interest throughout the film. She’s not even shapeshifting; she’s constantly both of those things. Characters can serve more than a single purpose. Go watch the slow-burning, classic 1982 thriller Deathtrap and see those characters overlap and “shapeshift” to serve multiple purposes between protagonist, antagonist and love interest.
St. Elmo’s Fire features an ensemble cast of characters that are coming-of-age protagonists and love interests simultaneously. The characters all share an arc of learning to take action after a lifetime of sitting in school, talking about things, and following others’ lead. They also inspire one another’s character arcs like any good love interest. Simultaneously, each one is a reflection character of each others’ outer journey to take life by the horns and grow up. This is why ensemble films are so rarely written well, because characters simultaneously pull double and triple duty.
Some writers have a hard enough time sculpting one protagonist’s character arc in two hours, while this film juggles seven of them. Kirby and Kevin both have to grow the courage and bite the bullet to get the attention of the women they love. Billy and Jules both have to stop hiding from responsibility in their vices, reflecting one another. Wendy needs to stop holding on so tight and cast herself away from everything that keeps her from being free. Leslie needs to pull her head out her ass and see Alec for who he is, while Alec needs to realize you can’t be a selfish prick and expect those you love to sit around and take it. It will cost you. Each addresses the core premise and all seven of them face reality and, at the very least, have a clear character arc. This is one example for my next argument.
Scripts are Designed with Only One Character Per Character Type
If you look back at the previous article on reflection characters, movies like Legally Blonde prove the inverse as well. Multiple characters can serve a single purpose. Elle has a fleet of reflection characters, including law students, gal pals and professors. In fact, this tool works exceptionally well in crime thrillers or super team movies such as The Usual Suspects or The Avengers. Everyone on the proverbial team is a reflection character, holding one another’s feet to the proverbial fire. Harry Potter has an army of reflection characters in Harry and the Order of the Phoenix. So as we face the facts that multiple characters can service a single purpose and vise versa, the fabric of previously constructed rules and delineations unfurl further.
This brings us back to each of the major character types and the fact that there really can often be more than one of each. As I have explained, there are two types of mentors (a true and false one), two kinds of love interests (the other being a lust interest), hero and antihero, antagonists with and without a consciousness (disaster films for example), and I will now contend there are two types of reflection characters. As everyone traditionally sees it, a reflection character is aligned with the protagonist’s outer journey as some type of ally. I argue that this is not (and should not be) the only kind of reflection character. This is the big new angle I have been working toward that will lead to the final, all-important visual of these articles. There are the protagonist’s reflection characters and… Here we go…
Reflection Characters of Premise
Let’s not forget that when we look in the mirror at a reflection, what we see is not the only the same, but it is also the reverse. What’s right is left, and what’s left is right. The image is inverted.
Let’s start with a couple classic, science-fiction, cinematic examples. Reflections can shapeshift into antagonistic characters or the reverse. Francis in the sci-fi classic Logan’s Run becomes the antagonist. Meanwhile, Darth Vader starts the original Star Wars trilogy as an antagonist and shapeshifts into a reflection character of Luke’s potential fate in Return of the Jedi. In the end, Luke proves to be this most legendary baddie’s inspiration for conversion, mentoring the former jedi back into a good guy. So reflections can start off or end up being good or evil (aligned on either side of the premise the writer is trying to prove, for or against the protagonist).
If you have ever made a photocopy of a photocopy, the image loses a degree of clarity. It can be like passing a game of grapevine or telephone. Differences and dissonance develops in the details. In a script, this happens because the protagonist is already a reflection character… He or she is a reflection of the script’s premise through a character arc. Then the antagonist, love interest and mentor each reflect a different side of the protagonist’s inner and outer journeys to force clarity on what is being learned by the protagonist. Then, like when a mirror faces another mirror, there are reflections upon these reflections, such as false mentor to a true mentor and a lust interest to love interest. Well, antagonists have them, too.
I am now circling back to the antagonist article (as promised), where I will define the secondary antagonistic forces I mentioned that I would classify later. For example, Dr. Jonas Miller in Twister or any enforcer antithetical to the protagonist’s mission or arc, like Ash in Alien, Carter Burke in Aliens, Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, Ogre in Revenge of the Nerds, Crispin Glover’s character Thin Man in the film adaptation of Charlie’s Angels, Draco Malfoy in Harry Potter reflect and oppose the protagonists in their perspective films… These are not antagonists, but, instead, “reflections” of the antagonist’s point of view. These characters all support the antithetical side of the premise from the protagonist. Yes, they are also mirrors reflecting the statement behind the story.
This brings us to a grand visual and climax of these nine articles on character types. So, if you can write a film where multiple characters can fall into each of the character types, why would you write a character that doesn’t support the premise? The character types are about assigning characters a purpose, and every character should serve a purpose. Do you see where I’m going with this? Let me jump to the end so you can reverse reason this out with me. In a truly great script, every single character can and should reflect the premise in some tiny way. Therefore…
All the Characters Together Create a Giant Hall of Mirrors
Everyone reflects everyone, and every character, in some way or another, reflects the premise, whether they share the belief system the premise is trying to prove or the opposite. After all, it stands to reason that each character must serve a purpose in the story, otherwise that character has no business being in the script.
To explain this in a visual (as us screenwriters are prone to do), imagine standing in a bathroom facing a large mirror over the sink, looking at yourself. Now, on the wall to your left is a medicine cabinet with a mirrored door. When you open it, the cabinet mirror faces the large mirror over the sink. What happens when you look at the mirrors in this position is an endless hall of reflections in both reflective surfaces. The large mirror in front of the sink is the premise of your story at the center of everything. The medicine cabinet mirror is the protagonist that directly reflects the premise. All the subsequent reflections back and forth between them, big or small, reflect off those two key, fundamental surfaces… Those are the other characters within the script.
So, if the medicine cabinet mirror is the protagonist; the reflections inside that mirror going back into infinity include the love interest, mentor, and protagonist’s allied reflections. When you look on the big premise-mirror reverse side of things (clearly on the opposite side of the premise, the opposite side of the protagonist) is the antagonist. Behind the antagonist are the further reflections of that belief system (i.e. lust interest, false mentors, henchmen, bounty hunters, an army of undead monsters, etc.). Every character in the script reflects off those two major surfaces, and each parallel image represents a perspective on the premise being explored.
Therefore, this specific character purpose has far broader terms than other story theorists and analysts have ever stated. The second type of reflection character is expansive and all-inclusive. If every scene is about your premise (as it should be), every character has a place in telling and experiencing that core of your story. This means every character does serve a purpose, and every character given a name in a script should be some form of thematic reflection character.
Therefore, in my eyes, not only is every red-shirt-wearing member of the away team in Star Trek a reflection character (a protagonist ally illustrating the importance and high stakes of every mission), but, also, so are the characters they fight against (whether the main antagonist or their henchmen). Let us not forget that those characters that work for whatever antagonistic force that exists in any script reflect the villain’s belief system, which is the antithetical reflection of the script’s premsie, which also reflects the protagonist’s journey. Hence, this exemplifies my hall of mirrors analogy.
In Unbreakable, the antithetical concept of fragility versus indestructibility in the form of David versus Elijah illustrates perfectly how protagonist and antagonist are a form of reflection, which is the inverse of the other. Look at Syndrome and Mr. Incredible with the same reflective dynamic. Tai Lung was originally trained to be the Dragon Warrior by Shifu in Kung Fu Panda. The same but in reverse. It’s a trip to Bazaaro World in your a DC Comics fan. The Shining‘s REDRUM and MURDER keep flashing in my head.
All characters reflect in some way: the premise, the hero’s journey, their goals, and the opposing belief system on which you base your story. There is a reason that this fifth character is the very last character of the five classifications of character types. This purpose actually covers every character in any script. Design even the smallest roles with premsie in mind; think about how they comment on that hypothesis. Create truly, deeply, well thought-out roles for actors, regardless of your script’s cast size. Think about how the polished, affected, art gallery employee Serge in Beverly Hills Cop is the epitome of opposites to Axel Foley, the a gritty, broke, screw-the-rules, Detroit cop come to a flashy town. It’s the total inversion or reverse perspective of lifestyles of these characters that make that interaction so incredibly memorable and amusing.
So, to make a long story short, every character from the tiniest of roles in Get Shorty, Bones’ Buddy #2 on IMDb (which I believe is billed as Escobar’s Bodyguard #2 in the film’s actual credits… If you know the film, the metaphor of this reflection will surprise you if you look in the credits), building right up to the protagonist of any screenplay always reflects the premise. If they do not, the character should be:
- given a purpose
- combined with another character that actually has a purpose
Now, I understand that it’s smart to “plot” a script with a specific character for each purpose, covering the bases. This allows the writer to explore every aspect of effective storytelling and presentation during the process of generating the script. That said, once the first draft of any script is complete, a great writer should make every character count. Be sure every part serves an aspect of the five major character purposes. I hope this philosophy helps you create meatier characters and elevate the quality of the roles you sculpt as it does for me.
Sadly, some screenwriters write whatever comes to mind, filling necessary gaps vapid, willy-nilly with purposeless characters to move the story along instead of taking the time to give their characters real meaning. Some stick to the rules they read about, and they don’t find the cracks in the walls that give it texture. Writers should heed the advice given to actors that there are no small parts, only small actors. The same can be said for writing small roles. Just as great actors can breathe life into small roles, you too can make something out of a small part. That doesn’t mean give small characters more script space; it just means do more with the little amount of space the character needs. Let them reflect the message of the script in some small way.
Every character in the script reflects some aspect of the hero’s journey, which is why mirrors are used to such powerful effect in so many films. In Enter the Dragon, the protagonist slowly makes gestures and takes actions that insinuate he cannot be a mindless fighting contestant to the pleasure of a madman, even if he was born and built to play that game. He eventually becomes the revolutionary inside this ultimate fighting competition prison camp for the title of best in the world. He’s surrounded by reflections… Brutal combatants from around the world. In the climactic fight sequence, it leads to a final showdown in a hall of mirrors. It can be said that Bruce Lee is literally in a fight with many images of himself all around. The challenge is to be the champion and liberator he’s known he should have been during the entire film. Every protagonist in a well written climax is in a battle with the self against his or her inverse, reverse, opposite self (use whatever term you wish that is symbolically a mirror) in the climax of any film in order to achieve his character arc and earn the label hero by achieving his or her character arc. Every character in a movie is one of those reflections, surrounding and inhabiting the premise and protagonist.
The Five Major Character Types – The Wrap Up
The protagonist is the character with the big character arc (a transformative inner journey); his or her chief obstacle to success is the antagonist, a romantic interest for the central character (only love has the power to change someone), and the mentor serves as a teacher… Leaving the character that in some other way “reflects” the possibilities of the protagonist.
The “purpose” of these articles is to help inspire writers to think long and hard about the tasks of each role they create, remembering to consider what each type of character is designed to do in a well-constructed screenplay. Each purpose satisfies certain requirements in the telling of any given story, providing deeper meaning. As we wrap up this final article on the major character purposes that all writers should understand and know how to formulate, let’s recap it with a breakdown:
- The protagonist is designed as a statement in direct correlation to the writer’s premise for the story with a character arc that proves the writer’s point, be his or her fate happy or tragic.
- The antagonist personifies the strongest possible argument against the protagonist and premise (often representing a popular belief that the writer wishes to argue against).
- The love interest comments on and challenges the protagonist’s inner journey and character arc. After all, love has the truly transformative power to change a person.
- The mentor is a personification of the protagonist’s outer journey (the external mission).
- Reflection characters mirror the protagonist or premise as a constant reminder of the value and stakes in the story.
I have contradicted some amazing screenwriting teachers. Maybe you will start to see characters in a new light without such rigid lines others have presented in the past. Sometimes one character can serve a single purpose or multiple purposes, and at other times, multiple characters can serve a single purpose. If it were cookie-cutter every time, stories would lack individuality, and the final result would be far too formulaic and predictable to engage an audience. I think it’s that “in-the-box” thinking that is a significant problem with many movies being made today in Hollywood.
It’s important for writers to understand these character types, the purpose each serves in telling the story, how to design them and how they function. These things are crucial to designing an effective cast of characters in which to make your point (premise) and story fully realized.
In conclusion, whenever I write a script, I go through a very diligent outlining process, and a key component of sculpting any plot is the classification and assigning of what roles each character will play in the unfolding and execution of the story. The five major purposes provide perspective, flavor, and shape to the story I intend to tell. They each have a job to do. All five roles are integral to telling a story well, and I hope this breakdown helps you better define the qualities and purpose of those characters in your stories.
All the very best,
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- More articles by Michael Tabb
- Column D: Writing the Buddy Picture
- Specs & The City: Unreliable Narrator and ‘Fight Club’
The Power of the Transformational Arc:
Making Stories More Emotional, Meaningful and Marketable
Develop a More Dynamic and Emotional Internal Storyline
Infuse Your Characters With Richness, Subtlety and Surprise