Authors: a warning about classifying and categorizing your characters

When all is said and done: A hero is a hero is a hero. A character--and hopefully a fun and fully developed one. Nothing more.

When all is said and done: A hero is a hero is a hero. A character–and hopefully a fun and fully developed one. Nothing more.

After a series of posts exploring the various “types” the hero can take in literature, I wanted to clarify something made clear in a number of comments over the last couple of days:

In the end, what “type” your characters do or do not belong to doesn’t really matter. All that matters is that they read as dynamic, genuine, and interesting people.

This past week has been largely devoted to the fantasy hero and his various manifestations (though the hero can appear in almost any genre; he’s not limited to fantasy/sci-fi.)

  • We discussed the reluctant hero.
  • Then we moved on to the willing hero.
  • The antihero came next.
  • Then we talked about heroes or antiheroes who aren’t judged according to their true intent by the public in the world they inhabit

Basically, there’s been a LOT of classifying and categorizing going on. Some characters exist in a gray area between two types, combining aspects of each. Some have just a dash of a second class, though they might be 90% another.

DON’T WORRY ABOUT CLASS

It can useful and fun, and even a bit philosophical, to debate where a character belongs. Do you classify Severus Snape as an antihero or a villain? Exactly how “reluctant” can you consider a hero who chooses to act rather than to die, when death is the only other option but is technically a choice?

These debates can be fun as well as healthy when a character is fully formed and already vibrant and memorable. Already written and published. I wouldn’t worry too much about these things when you’re in the process of writing a character, though.

You should certainly question your characters as you write them. But these kinds of questions aren’t necessary or really all that helpful:

  • Is my character fully a reluctant hero?
  • Are my hero’s selfish tendencies selfish enough to make him an antihero?
  • How can I make the in-story public misinterpret my hero’s intent? I want that to happen…. It’ll open a lot of doors for me.

In the end, CATEGORIES don’t matter. Categorizing people in the real world is never a positive or healthy thing, and it’s problematic even in fiction.

Remember, your reader won’t associate the terms “reluctant hero” or “antihero” with your character. Your reader is going to remember the person he or she read about.

It’s the person who should take focus. The person you should be asking questions about. Instead of the questions above, which can lead to wooden, caricaturish characters, ask yourself:

  • The way this plot is going, my character has no real choice but to do such and such now. How would he or she feel about that? Would those emotions impact his or her chances of success?
  • My character’s motives feel a bit selfish here. What kind of selfish? Is he or she greedy? Out for self-preservation? Considering his or her family more important than other people, and so working on their behalf at the expense of everyone else? Where is this selfishness coming from? What happened in this character’s life to make him or her act and think this way?
  • What information about my character is available to the public? How would the public interpret that information? What cultural standards and assumptions might influence that interpretation?

Remember that no matter how helpful it can be to study fiction in a scientific matter, in the end, art is art.

There is something in all art that defies any attempt to categorize it or to break it down. Sometimes in breaking art down, you achieve nothing more than breaking it. You destroy the spark of life that comes from all the pieces of the novel being in place and doing their part.

So, those are my two cents. I say don’t worry about categories. Just let your characters do their thing. What do you think?

Feel free to comment if you’d like to share your thoughts on this. And if you liked this post, you can find the entire series of hero posts and other posts on characterization at this link.

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17 responses to “Authors: a warning about classifying and categorizing your characters

  1. By ‘hero’ do you mean protagonist?

    • I would so that. I’ve been using “hero” just because I write sword and sorcery fantasy and the protagonists there are usually heroes of some form or fashion.

      In one of the early posts in my hero series, I mentioned how the attributes I was discussing could apply to protagonists in any genre. Appreciate you asking this question because not every who comes to this post will have read the whole series or remember that.

      • Thought that was what you meant but wanted to be clear!
        I read a lot of fantasy and get the ‘hero’ concept… including the unwilling heroes. The Thomas Covenant series by Stephen Donaldson springs to mind!
        However, I write more mainstream fiction – sometimes with more than one protagonist – and I’d hesitate to call them heroes.
        (Coming from a journalistic background, it’s also a word I avoid as it’s so over-used it has become extremely devalued… but that’s a whole different issue.)

        • You’re very, very right. the word has definitely lost pretty much all meaning in all concepts. Whenever it’s used you almost have to define what your usage of it is.

  2. I like what you wrote, “There is something in all art that defies any attempt to categorize it or to break it down. Sometimes in breaking art down, you achieve nothing more than breaking it.” It’s rather astute and I was reminded of a TED talk I watched recently – Andrew Stanton’s The clues to a great story because he talks about every character having that “something”, that “drive” even if it is to go get a glass of water. What does your character want more than anything? I think that is where the fun begins 🙂

    • It so is!!! I can’t remember which famous author it is who talked about, “What do your characters want? Every character wants everything. Even your most minor character wants something.”

      Very important to keep in mind. Easy to overlook, but it’s how you make characters human. We are FULL dreams, desires, and goals all the time. Some are more long-term, some are short-term (like that glass of water) but they’re always there.

  3. Fully agree. Maybe the categorization of characters should be left to fans, who seem to love doing that type of thing. You can have the basic idea, but a reader will make the final call on what kind of hero you have. After all, an antihero in the author’s mind can really be a jerk that has no heroic qualities at all. The readers will say as much.

    • That’s a great way of looking at it: categorization is all about how you interpret your character, and there’s no controlling how your readers will interpret such things. You can write clearly to try to guide them, but everyone is coming from different backgrounds and different life experiences. A hero for one person might not be so heroic in another person’s eyes.

  4. A wise clarification 🙂

  5. Like story structure models, I find these character classifications helpful in planning my writing. They’re a support structure that lets me use the learning of other writers as a short cut, saving me from re-inventing the story wheel. And they can help to identify similar existing characters to take inspiration from. I usually take your warning as a base assumption, but it’s good to be reminded of it once in a while.

    • I like what you say here, for sure. It can he helpful, for sure, to think of “types” for inspiration and guidance, as long as an author isn’t afraid to get away from the type when necessary and add a splash here or there of something different. I like how you call it a base assumption. That’s exactly how writers should think of it.

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