If we can grasp the rather strange idea that characters in fiction are not ‘people’ at all, but constructs, almost mechanical in nature, then we can see a kind of genealogy of character, or a relationship between them as constructs.
The protagonist is the starting point: he or she is often born into the beginning of a story, commonly lacking a support structure, a parent or standard family environment as part of being a manufactured entity composed mainly of missing elements. Protagonists lack things -and then they lack more and more things, and greater and greater things, until the climax of a story is defined by a threatened ultimate loss, usually their lives. In the majority of stories, the crux of the matter is the ‘turn’ in the tale whereby the hero or heroine is rescued at the very last moment; in a minority of fiction, such as occurs in Tragedies or Ironies, this motion is frustrated and Macbeth, Othello, Lear and Hamlet, for example, all die.
Now imagine a protagonist later in his or her constructed existence and we have the classic warrior figure, in the shadows and with unclear motives, who emerges to become a leader, usually a king or general. As a fabrication, our interest in this figure lies in his (as he is usually male) ambiguity: is he to be trusted? The ‘turn’ in this construct’s development is when he is shown to be reliable: Aragorn is the heir to the throne, Hans Solo rescues Luke Skywalker, and so on. He emerges into the light. In Tragedies and Ironies, though, this ‘turn’ fails to occur and we are left with death again - in fact, the story of the warrior figure in Tragedies is the story of the protagonist: Macbeth, Othello, Lear, all fail to emerge into the light and instead perish. Hamlet is an Ironic protagonist rather than a tragic one, but he still dies.
Running parallel to these are the constructs we can call the ‘comic’ figure and the female figure. These are not real people, nor should they be put together as real people, even though the writer is on one hand attempting to fool the reader into thinking that they are. The comic figure is a companion to the protagonist whose own vacuums are largely filled and who therefore can be of real assistance at key moments in the plot, reducing the tension; the female figure is a companion to the protagonist who is virtually a walking vacuum and who exists to magnify the emptiness, loss and threat in the fictive world, increasing the tension. The comic figure is fulfilled once the protagonist departs, the ‘turn’ in his tale being becoming the centre of attention, if only briefly; the female figure is fulfilled through marriage to, or some other union with the warrior figure, usually becoming a queen or consort to his king as her ‘turn’. In Tragedies, comic figures also die a lot - the Fool in King Lear, for example - or take minor roles, like the Porter in Macbeth; in Ironies, comic figures are often a little more serious, like Horatio in Hamlet. Tragedies and Ironies almost universally kill their female figures, often horribly or through suicide.
But if we then imagine the protagonist ‘growing up’ into the warrior figure, who then becomes a king or leader, there is another, final step: he (or less often, she) becomes the senior figure of the old man with the stick, who is wise within the context of the tale and who determines the core goals and the direction of the plot of the thing. Commonly, this character then dies, especially in Tragedies and Ironies, where his wisdom is shown to be flawed. In Epics, even Winter ones, the ‘turn’ in his tale is that he returns from death in some way or another, either supernaturally (think Gandalf or Obi-Wan Kenobi) or reappearing after a prolonged absence (think Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird).
If we have a version of the protagonist faltering, we have a shadow protagonist; if we have a version of the old man with a stick faltering, we have an antagonist.
Think of engines and component parts, rather than of verisimilitude and realism; think of diagrams and mathematical functions rather than ‘living, breathing people’.
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-Grant P. Hudson is the founder of Clarendon House Publications. Download a free catalogue here.