Couple of days ago I covered how big should your cast be and today I'll cover their functions within the story. This should be extremely helpful to see which characters should be gone and those that are key to your plot.
One of the best books I read on Character Development was "The Writer's Journey - Mythic Structure for Writers" by Christopher Vogler. He covers classic structuring as well but for me, the highlight in his book is how he maps his plot through his characters.
Basically he divides every single character in seven (7) Archetypes, the most common ones. Sometimes a character can "be" more than one thing but this helps figure out which characters are performing the same function within the story and how they can be combined to form a more complex and enjoyable one.
Vogler says: "The concept of archetypes is an indispensable tool for understanding the purpose or function of characters in a story. If you grasp the function of the archetype which a particular character is expressing, it can help you determine if the character is pulling his full weight in the story."
So you can see how important it is to fully determine the usage of a given character in the story, especially when you have a bloated cast where multiple character exist to fulfill one function/archetype.
So here are the more common archetypes, the ones that are indispensable for any storyteller:
A hero is someone who is willing to sacrifice himself and needs on behalf of others. Usually this role falls onto your protagonist, someone who dramatically serve to give the audience a window into the story. It is easy for us to identify with the hero because he embodies everything we would like to be, and he also possess many qualities we see in ourselves.
Heroes are propelled by universal drives we can all understand: the desire to find true love, to succeed and survive or to get revenge, perhaps even right some wrongs.
Vogler states about the Hero (but this should be applied to ALL your characters): "A real character, like a real person, is not just a single trait but a unique combination of many qualities and drives, some of them conflicting. And the more conflicting, the better. A character torn by warring allegiances to love and duty is inherently interesting to an audience."
So there you have it. The big secret to have an amazing character. Let's take Indiana Jones. Yes, he is heroic and adventurous, but he also is disrespectful to authority and laws. He fears snakes and yet fights a room full of Nazis. Indiana Jones is extremely real, he gets hurt and fails like all of us and he vows for his dad's approval and pride like all of us.
A quick word about Anti-Heroes:
Anti-Hero is not the opposite of a Hero, that's a Villain. An Anti-Hero is someone who is an outlaw or villain in the eyes of society, but with whom the audience can identify and sympathize with. We identify with these outsiders because we all have been an outsider at least once in our lives.
Mentor: Wise Old Man or Woman
This archetype is represented in all those characters who teach and protect the heroes and gives them gifts to succeed in their quest. The funny thing is we immediately tie wisdom with age, so this figure is 90% of the time older than the hero.
As the title says, this is an Archetype purposefully put in stories to give the Hero (and audience) answers about the path that lies ahead. Interestingly enough, a very good example of a Mentor, not old and stereotypical would be Jack Sparrow. That's right, he is both an Anti-Hero and a Mentor to Orlando Bloom's character, Will Turner. He "teaches" Will how not only to take action when needed but also how to get the girl.
Some Mentors perform the special function of being the Hero's conscience, like Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio.
This archetype represents the Hero's first obstacle/challenge in their quest, think of it as the test the Hero needs to overcome before joining the big leagues and finally facing off with the Villain.
In Vogler's words: "Threshold Guardians are usually not the main villains or antagonists in stories. Often they will be lieutenants of the villain, lesser thugs or mercenaries hired to guard access to the chief's headquarters. In rare cases they may be secret helpers placed in the hero's path to test their willingness and skill."
In Star Wars these are represented by the Sand People and later on the Stormtroopers, even the Death Star. Matter of the fact is Luke won't be ready to battle Darth Vader until the end of the second film after a thorough training period.
Heralds are those characters that pull your Hero into their adventure/quest. They "announce" the struggle ahead. Sometimes the Mentor also works as a Herald. They have the dramatic function of announcing a need for change, they are the Rut Busters.
The Herald in the Lost Kids is the Messenger who brings a mysterious package to JJ with a strange note that says "Seek Samarkand". Spooky, huh?
Heralds can be a fully fledged character (C3PO and R2D2, who play off each other) or they can be simply a means of delivering a message. In Harry Potter it's his owl, can you figure the Herald in Pirates of the Caribbean?
These are those character who keep the audience (and the hero) guessing which side are they on. Their mood and agenda might change without warning, sometimes even their appearance. They may mislead the hero or keep him guessing about their true intentions.
Shapeshifters make GREAT love interests, after all, when you're playing the romance game, aren't you always wondering about what might happen or how the other person might truly feel? A common type of Shapeshifter is called the femme fatale, we all know who they are
Their dramatic function is to bring doubt and suspense to the story. Jack Sparrow is the best example that pops to mind or Rachel McAdams' role in the newest Sherlock Holmes.
The Villain. It represents the dark side, the fearful and incomprehensible. The Villain directly opposes the hero, think of two trains on a head-on collision course, after the same goal. Who will get there first?
Obviously the dramatic function of a Villain is to push the hero, challenge him to achieve his goal before something bad happens. What would be Indiana Jones' quest after the Lost Ark if he was the only interested on it? He'd have all the time in the world and no incentive to beat anyone else for it.
Vogler has an interesting point to make about a Shadow character: "Shadows need not be totally evil or wicked. In fact, it's better if they are humanized by a touch of goodness, or by some admirable quality. Villains are even more deliciously sinister because of their dashing, powerful, beaufitul or elegant qualities."
It was said once that every great villain considers himself the hero of their story. One-note villains who are evil because the story demands usually fail to get the audience against us because we don't take them seriously.
The comic relief. Every good story needs one of those, to lighten the mood and entertain the audience. I had a good teacher who once said, you can never have too much laughter in your story, no matter what genre you'll be working from.
Human beings like to laugh, it brings us closer to the material.
Vogler: "Unrelieved tensions, suspense, and conflict can be emotionally exhausting, and in even the heaviest drama an audience's interest is revived by moments of laughter."
That's it, those are the most common archetypes, featured in pretty much every story ever told. Those are just the base for a character though. Like I said before, mixing and matching those archetypes make up for interesting characters and that's what you should go for.
As far as the size of your cast, I'd advise to be very careful with that, too many characters can be tiresome. It's extremely hard to keep track of several people you've just "met", that's why it's always best to start with a small cast and grow from there once your audience is used to those.
Recommended Reading: Obviously I'd tell you to pick up Christopher Vogler's book, it's an easy read and very informative, really eye opener. You might also want to check out "Creating Unforgettable Characters" by Linda Seger. Linda goes into every detail needed to create good characters, from their functions to personalities, paradoxes, points of view, etc.
Last but not least here's Terry Rossio's column about Plot Devices and the MacGuffin. This is a MUST read for any successful story. Because their website doesn't allow linking make sure to either copy-paste it to a new window or hit Refresh.
Thanks for reading!