The 4 Main Characters As Literary Devices


Beginner fiction writers often can’t tell the difference between writing about a series of events that happen and writing a story that will make the reader care.

If we don’t learn how to turn our ideas into a plot using storytelling techniques, readers are likely to abandon our books.

Is It A Plot Or A Story Idea?

Have you ever read a book where things happen and an unidentifiable someone is there and you’re supposed to guess what’s going on? Withholding information from your readers is not an option. Readers should never wonder what’s happening. It is annoying and amateurish.

If your story does not start with a problem, you’re in trouble – unless you’re an immensely talented writer who is able to mesmerise readers with your wordplay. If you do not have a character with whom the reader can identify or empathise, as he or she faces the problem, you’re making your life even more difficult.

So let’s begin again.

Something happens in your story that has a negative impact on an identifiable somebody’s life. Unlike your reader, your character can wonder what’s going on here. This results in a problem that he or she has to resolve. The problem should be significant enough to have meaningful consequences. [Read The Importance Of Inciting Moments]

Because of this, our readers want the character to act. The problem should be defined and the character should be interesting, so that readers want and need to find out what happens next. Leaving the story would make them feel uneasy.

This character has to appeal to the majority of your readers. It does not mean you must create a perfect character, but it is a good idea to make him or her likeable.

If you can’t do this, make them charming or amusing or give us an excellent reason to empathise with them. [Read 9 Ways To Make Readers Care For An Amoral Protagonist] We don’t want readers to dislike the protagonist so much they stop reading.

We also need to do this because our story is about this character – the protagonist – and we usually see the story through his or her eyes. We need to care. He or she drives the story.

One of the easiest ways to do this is by using other characters to show who they are.

The Four Main Characters

  1. The Protagonist. A good protagonist is one who wants something (story goal), and sets out to get it. We need a proactive character in this role. A passive character will kill your story. A great protagonist makes decisions and chooses to act. These decisions and actions influence your story. John Gardner says, ‘Failure to recognise that the central character must act, not simply be acted upon, is the single most common mistake in the fiction of beginners.’
  2. The Antagonist. On this journey, he or she meets resistance. This is usually a result of the antagonist’s actions. This causes the conflict that creates a plot. Remember that conflict must have consequences, so your antagonist has to be as strong as, or stronger than, your hero. This character should be believable. Their motivation should be reasonable from their perspective. This character is the hero of his or her story, and your protagonist is their villain. [Read this post about Very Important Characters]
  3. The Confidant. Along the way, the protagonist needs some help. Provide a confidant or a sidekick to support him or her in this quest. You need this character so that your hero does not spend too much time alone thinking about things. The friend is a sounding board for the main character. As Chuck Palahniuk says: ‘One of the most-common mistakes that beginning writers make is leaving their characters alone. Writing, you may be alone. Reading, your audience may be alone. But your character should spend very, very little time alone. Because a solitary character starts thinking or worrying or wondering.’
  4. The Love Interest. To make your protagonist three-dimensional and to complicate his or her life, you should add a love interest to the mix. This character reveals the protagonist’s strengths and more importantly, their weaknesses. Please remember that the character we use for this device does not have to be a romantic love interest. It just has to be somebody who is able to make your hero act irrationally and unreliably. Love makes fools of all of us. [Read The Romantic Sub-Plot]

Why Are These Four Characters Important?

As literary devices, they force us to show and not tell. The nature of the relationship between the protagonist and the other three leads to tangible interactions.

We have to talk to these characters and interact with them. We cannot avoid our worst enemies if they are determined to find us. We cannot ignore our best friends, unless we are prepared to risk losing those friendships. We cannot abandon the people we love most if we are human. [Read Torture Your Character]

There will be other characters in your book, but they will be easier for your protagonist to deal with in a perfunctory manner. Too much of this type of interaction makes the character unsympathetic and boring.

So you have a plot when:

  1. An action (inciting moment)
  2. Taken by somebody (your antagonist)
  3. Has a negative impact on somebody else (your protagonist).
  4. This creates a problem
  5. That your protagonist must solve (story goal) by acting,
  6. Which leads to confrontations with the antagonist (conflict).
  7. Your protagonist is supported by somebody (confidant),
  8. And made aware of his or her weaknesses by somebody else (love interest)
  9. Until he or she achieves, or fails to achieve, the story goal.

In the next four instalments, I will discuss each of these four characters, and how you build a story around them, in more detail.

Read next week’s post here: Yes, You Can Create An Unforgettable Protagonist

If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg or sign up for our online course.

by Amanda Patterson