Aristotle’s Essential Characters
For writers beginning to Think / Pro, converting from a hobby writer to a professional writer, Aristotle seems like a wrong turn. Especially when we’re looking at the Essentials of Characters.
Geez, what could he possibly know? I mean, look at him. He’s a bust.
I thought this way, too–once.
I mean, Aristotle is over two thousand years OLD. Really OLD. Decrepit.
What on earth can someone so OLD tell me about story?
I grew up with movies and TV. I have computers. And I drive a car. He had a banging chariot and scratched on something called parchment. He didn’t even have good paper and ink.
What does he know? A lot.
As I mentioned in the last blog, the Essentials, he examined successful dramas in order to discover the reason they were successful.
Those dramas had several similar things.
And those several things were also why stories worked over and over. They were why some people were great storytellers, and some people just weren’t.
And the reasons all had in common this: They revealed character. Personality. Motivation. Behavior. Real-ness.
The same thing that we modern writers try so hard to do as we try to become great storytellers.
Our lesson is to learn from those who’ve gone before. We don’t need to re-invent the wheel. We just need to examine each spoke in the wheel.
The wheels had five spokes. We looked at one wheel in the last blog, with the 5 Essentials. Now we’ll look at the other wheel (our chariot can’t fly when one side is dragging). It has five spokes, too.
So let’s look at Aristotle’s Essential Characters.
Five in number, we’ll look at four of the iterations today. Our next blog will look at the fifth: Antagonists (since the conflict-creators are just as important as the protagonists).
First up, though, are those protagonists, along with a chorus of characters called the Chorus and that pesky thing known as the Deus ex Machina.
(Stay with me. Don’t let weird words weird you out.)
Here’s the Essence of the Essential Characters.
Characters drive plot. When first we writers consider a situation, the character who confronts it is what we find intriguing.
The Greek word agon is translated as conflict. When the primary character is called the protagonist, we see that agon at the center of the word. This reminds us that conflict should be at the center of your primary character’s development and story arc.
Today, when we refer to characters in opposition to the protagonist, we refer to them as antagonists. The Greek agon is also at the center of this word. The antagonist was not a specialized term in Aristotle’s day. Instead of antagonist are two character terms that you may find new (although I add a little bit about modern antagonists).
Agon gives us the modern word “agony”. Any characters involved in the conflict should agonize over their actions and reactions to events and other characters. The protagonist, especially, will agonize when s/he must sacrifice something dear in order to achieve the desired goal.
The protagonist is the primary character facing the conflict. Pro- is a prefix for “confronting”. With the agon, the protagonist is clearly the primary character confronting the conflict. This reminds us writers to keep our protagonist active, not drifting or reeling from situation to situation.
While the weaknesses and the fatal flaws of hamartia are good, better for our protagonists would be deep-seated fears that drive them away from the action they desire.
When I say ‘fear’, I am not talking about agoraphobia or claustrophia or homophobia. These are strong irrational fears that cause panic attacks.
I am talking about secrets. Give your primary characters secrets that they are highly motivated to keep. The revelation of the secret would destroy them not only publically but personally, both their outward lives and their inward images of themselves.
The secrets should connect to haunting past events, often called ghosts. That past taints their present as well as everything they plan for the future. And the characters will twist themselves into pretzels to stop any revelation.
The secrets’ stain should plant a seed of corruption in every aspect of their life.
In ancient Greece, the Chorus truly was a group “singing” or chanting to the audience. The chorus even began with choreographed steps.
Primarily, though, the Chorus interacted with the protagonist, providing reactions to the protagonist and information for the audience.
In modern stories, the Chorus has become side characters who 1] illuminate information or 2] bolster and support the protagonist or 3] serve as a minion of the antagonist.
Side characters are the modern Chorus. They help reveal the primary characters through their interactions.
Classically, the Chorus has three roles:
- provide exposition: background, situation. For example, a mentor who makes the protagonist examine what’s been and what could be.
- provide social commentary and expected reactions, emotional and logical, such as the good friend, the confidante.
- announce entrances. The character who says, “Who is that person?” Info-dump can ruin a story. Writers can instead use dialogue to present the information through conversation. This avoids the author rattling words onto the page and boring the reader. (Of course, the best way to “info-dump” is to scatter it through the story.)
Here’s my list of characters designed to illuminate your protagonist and antagonist. Add them to the list of 5 + 5 + 5 villains for conflict, and you have 25 lovely side characters to pick and choose from.
10 Types of Side Characters
- Threshold Guardian ~ determined to block the protagonist’s passage
- Ally ~ the helpful and worthy friend who always has the protagonist’s back
- Foil ~ a character who in many respects is just like the protagonist. (You can have more than one. In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare had four for Romeo: Mercutio, Benvolio, Paris, and Tybalt.)
Foils will highlight the protagonist’s weakness or flaw and fail to stand against the trail that undermines that weakness. Thus, their failure helps the protagonist prepare for their own test. (Boromir and Aragorn in The Fellowship of the Ring)
- Love Interest ~ In old stories, the woman that the protagonist loved was often merely a walk-on character. Now the love interest is a woman side-by-side with the man. Even better, the woman is the protagonist, and the man is the love interest.
- Blocking Figure ~ characters who have the best intentions for the protagonist but stand in the way. Juliet’s parents are great examples.
- Idol ~ the character that the protagonist has looked up to but who is revealed as having clay feet.
- Jokester ~ He plays to an audience. He doesn’t care about the audience’s derision, as long as he is getting laughter. His actions are actually reactions, a cyclical feeding off the audience.
- Trickster ~ a character who thinks himself clever, but his actions only cause problems for everyone else. Ulysses is a trickster: When he must tell the cyclops who blinded him, he gives the cyclops a direction to aim the boulders—and nearly sinks the ship Ulysses and his men are escaping on. And then the cyclops prays to his ancestor Poseidon to punish Ulysses; Poseidon does so. (Ulysses is a clever idiot. That’s a simple explanation for trickster.)
- Shapeshifter ~ comes in two forms. Form One: the character that is trusted who is actually working for the antagonist. Form Two: the character that no one trusts who is actually very trustworthy.
Deus ex Machina
Aristotle’s last character to include in every story is the Deus ex Machina. Literally, this is the “god out of the machine”.
In ancient Greek dramas, sometimes the protagonist would have no possible way out of the dilemma. Enter the DexM. A god would intervene, providing some miracle that kept the hero from dying.
Audiences in Aristotle’s time loved the DexM. The ancient Greeks celebrated the god’s arrival as a religious experience. The dramas, of course, were part of a religious ceremony, running for several days. This means that, of course, the DexM would be celebrated for saving the day, like a Mighty Mouse come to rescue when no other rescue was humanly possible.
Modern audiences and readers, however, frown upon such sudden, unanticipated escapes. They consider it a weakness by the writer.
We call DexM a coincidence. When coincidence is unexplained or unexpected, the logical part of our catharsis is unexplained and unacceptable.
The best example of the infuriating DexM is a mystery when the detective suddenly finds out the answer through a letter (or other clue) not shared with the reader. “All is now clear,” the detective declares. Well, to her it is. As for the rest of us, we change the channel or throw the book across the room (print version, not the ebook).
One DexM that Works but Doesn’t Quite Work
An example of the outside hand saving a character recently occurred in the TV series Vera. This police procedural is based on the books by Ann Cleeves. A DexM occurs in series 2, episode 4. Other than this one instance, I have found this series to have excellent writing.
The dead drug dealer’s son stops the dead drug addict’s mother from committing suicide. As she lost her purpose when she lost her son, he lost his purpose in trying to connect to his father. DexM occurs by placing him on the bridge just as she climbs the railing to jump off the bridge.
It’s a neat juxtaposition: He needs parenting; she needs a child. He saved her physical life; she will save his intellectual and emotional life. But the DexM nags at us. It’s a weakness that could be resolved with foreshadowing.
When we resort to coincidence or an outside hand that saves the protagonist or any character from doom (or causes the doom when it could be avoided), then we should set it up with foreshadowing.
In an ancient story, the hero would call upon the god to save him. He would make an offering, and an eerie response to that offering (such as the fire leaping three times) would show a god actively aware of the hero. Another such touch in the center of the story—such as a fog mysteriously blowing away—would set up the god’s continued involvement. Nothing more need be done.
In a modern story, the protagonist could escape doom by the timely arrival of a subway or the inconvenient friend’s visit or the scary neighbor who’s not as evil as the antagonist. Of course, the scary neighbor—lifting weights in the hall, cleaning his gun on the balcony shared with the protagonist, bandaging a wounded arm—could just as easily work for the antagonist.
The subway’s arrival can be foreshadowed by having the protagonist take it into the town much earlier in the story. The inconvenient friend can drop in early on and then in the story’s middle, just as the protagonist needs to be somewhere else.
As a writer, when you discover a DexM is needed, in this lovely age of computers, it is easy to add foreshadowing. The key is to keep the foreshadowed elements as simple shadows, brief touches, noticed and gone—in the same way mystery writers plant clues and red herrings.
With these early essentials, Aristotle provides us with tons of assistance in understanding well-written characters. This Geeky Greek may be ancient, but he rocked the foundations of character for us. And for that, Aristotle still rocks.
Join us on the 30th of this month, with a squeezed-in blog, for the Antagonist.
I mean, we can’t leave out the Antagonist, can we?
 Now I want to write this story of the scary neighbor, but as a rescue, not deepened doom.