As both a writer and a hungry consumer of fiction, I’m always conscious about the kinds of characters I encounter. I don’t just mean well-known characters like Batman, Darth Vader, and Ellen Ripley, but their archetypes. The Anti-Hero. The Evil Overlord. The Action Girl. Characters defined by one or two major qualities that gives you an idea of what they do and what kind of story they’re in.
So here is a list of my favorite types of characters, with the qualities I love and the best names I associate with each one.
Type I: The Secret Agent
What I Love About Them: If I say “secret agent,” most people think about the stereotype of James Bond in a tuxedo, drinking a martini, seducing women, and using impossible gadgets to save the day. This, however, isn’t a genuine secret agent. A real secret agent is a human combination of stealth, guile, and deadly force. They strike from the shadows, blend perfectly into the crowd, and can use charm when they can’t sneak or shoot their way out of a crisis. They both gather intelligence on the enemy and use their own intelligence against the enemy.
Best Examples: Jason Bourne (The Bourne Trilogy), Major Motoko Kusanagi (Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex), Number Six (The Prisoner), James Bond (Casino Royale).
Type II: The Heroic Scientist
What I Love About Them: Most heroes are known either by their superpowers or a very distinct weapon, like a sword or a firearm. But there’s a select few whose mind is the greatest weapon in their arsenal. They save the day with a combination of technical expertise, quick thinking, and imagination. Whether it’s solving a mystery with forensic analysis, cracking a mathematical code, or trying to elude a power-mad AI, they’re not the ones who charge in guns blazing. They look at a problem and work out the solution, whatever it takes.
Best Examples: The Doctor (Doctor Who), Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Eppes (NUMB3RS), Doug Rattmann (Portal), Spock (Star Trek), Twilight Sparkle (My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic).
Type III: The Cold Professional
What I Love About Them: Most villains in media have some destructive motive in mind, whether it’s conquering by force, slaughtering the innocent, or instigating the end of the world. But those are the larger-than-life villains. The ones that really interest me are the professionals. Those individuals who possess a keen intellect and an iron will, often (but not always) avoiding the mistakes that come from letting their passions get the better of them. They look ahead to what they want to achieve and they let nothing stand in their way. What’s also nice about some of these villains is that they sometimes have a standard of decency, even while they’re killing for money or planning the downfall of a government. As ruthless as they are, you can’t help but have a little respect for how well they do their job.
Best Examples: Boba Fett (Star Wars), The Professor (The Bourne Identity), Grand Admiral Thrawn (Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy), Michael Corleone (The Godfather).
Type IV: The Charming Psychopath
What I Love About Them: The less restrained counterpart of the cold professional is the charming psychopath. Whereas a more restrained killer does his job and packs it up, the psychopath will savor the fight. Their one true joy is an endless battle against a worthy opponent. The charm of these unbalanced villains and anti-heroes is their polite conversation, which their savage violence nicely undercuts. They’ll engage you in a friendly chat, gut you like a fish, and then apologize for doing so before repeating the trend with someone else. Sometimes they’re a wish fulfillment character, whose unrestrained violence is cathartic when they go after corrupt or selfish opponents, like unleashing the monster on the fool who provoked it.
Best Examples: GLaDOS (Portal), Professor Moriarty (Sherlock Holmes), The Joker (The Dark Knight), Solf J. Kimblee (Fullmetal Alchemist), Caine/Hari Michaelson (Acts of Caine), Alucard (Hellsing).
Type V: The Honest Soul
What I Love About Them: Everyone knows what a hero does: they save people. But not everyone knows what a hero is. A genuine hero isn’t proud or brooding over the problem of evil. For me at least, the best heroes are the ones who have a simple outlook on life, getting up every morning and choosing to do what’s right because it’s in their nature to be good. It’s not that they don’t feel temptation or have moments of weakness, but they’re usually too humble to abuse their talents or consider abandoning their integrity. And more than anything, I think the best heroes are the ones who can build a life outside of their adventures, to have something they can come back to when the fighting’s over or the torch is passed on to a new generation.
Best Examples: Bilbo Baggins (The Hobbit), Captain America (Marvel Comics), Obi-Wan Kenobi (Star Wars), Dr. John Watson (Sherlock Holmes), Fluttershy (My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic), Jack Skellington (The Nightmare Before Christmas).
I hope this discussion about character qualities and archetypes was insightful enough. If you’d like to continue it, why not talk about your own favorite character types in the comments below?