Sorting Stories by Essential Characters

Ray, my daughter, had been in the hospital since Friday.  She’s feeling better (and is home now), but I spent most of the first few days feeling drained and brain-dead and reading the Belgariad:  comfort food.  And watching cartoons:  more comfort food.  I think I’ve overdosed.  Nevertheless, I’m not up for anything stronger.  I tried to read some Chuck Palahniuk and had to bail after a few seconds.

Anyway, this morning, after ditching writing for several days, I woke up having dreamed about…sorting stories by number of essential characters.  The ideas here are not fully developed; it’s mostly just a starting point, I suspect.  But it struck me as bloggable.

The general idea is that the kind of story you can tell depends on the fundamental relationships between your characters…which in my dream was of UTMOST importance to group by the number of characters involved.  Not the total number of characters, but the number of essential characters–for example, the number of essential characters in a romance is either two or three, depending on whether a third character is getting in between the two main characters or not.  There are probably more characters in the story–and they have important roles in the plot–but, in the end, the story’s all about the two (or three) main characters.  There are plenty of characters who are important to the plot, but there are fewer characters who are essential to the story, and…you get it.

1 character:

  • Hero story.  Not all stories with heroes have only one essential character, but sometimes the hero is the only person who’s really important.  James Bond generally fits here.  The Die Hard series.  Bugs Bunny.  Ben 10 (he was in an id/ego/superego trio for a while, but has since moved on).  Richie Rich.  The Abhorsen series.
  • Antihero story.  For some reason, I keep getting stuck on Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” for this.  Pop. 1280 is another.  Hamlet…He hates his uncle, but his essential question is whether or not to kill himself.  “To be or not to be…”
  • I’m not sure whether Alice is a hero or antihero, to be honest.  I’m tending towards anti.  I should probably dig deeper into the difference between the two.

2 characters:

  • Lovers.  Most contemporary romances fall in this category; there’s often some subplot that feels tacked on in order to make a point or extend the length–I suspect it feels tacked on because the writer’s trying to make it feel like it’s part of the main plot instead of a subplot (I hate it when the resolution of the plot all hangs on something that doesn’t really matter in the love story.  Pirates?  Really?!?).
  • Enemies.  Hannibal.   The Fugitive.  The Silence of the Lambs is a great film…but the bad guy has always felt tacked on to me.  He’s a McGuffin.  Samurai Jack (although some episodes vary).  Tom & Jerry.
  • Frenemies.  Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  Ferris?  Is the antagonist of the movie.  He thwarts Cameron at every turn.  Cameron tries to lead a normal, boring life.  Cameron fails.  Dexter’s Laboratory.
  • Buddies.  Buddy stories are often almost Frenemy stories:  two unlikely companions must learn how to get along in order to…  The Fafrd and the Grey Mouser stories.  Of Mice and Men.  The Flintstones (although they have solid subplots revolving around the wives–that is also a buddy relationship).

3 characters:

  • Love triangle.  A note:  Ferris Bueller isn’t a love triangle story, because Simone is really just scenery with very little agency (a sexy lamp).  She could be dropped and you’d still have almost the same story.  Casablanca.  Gone with the Wind.
  •  Id/Ego/Superego.   Three very different characters try to co-exist.  The Powerpuff Girls.  Ed, Edd, and Eddy.  There is sometimes a trio like this hidden in the middle of a Scooby gang or a soap opera–especially in particular episodes–for example Buffy/Willow/Xander).

4-5 characters:

  • Scooby gang.  Often revolves around a main character (Buffy; Scooby-Doo) surrounded by a mismatched team that must learn how to work together.  If you could call Joss Whedon a one-trick pony, this is his trick.  Many superhero teams are a Scooby Gang.  When there are more than five characters in what looks like a Scooby gang, there’s often a traitor in their midst (e.g., The Matrix).   The Belgariad.  Cowboy Bebop.  The Hobbit.  The Princess Bride (even though it would make a GREAT sitcom or even a soap, had it been an ongoing TV show).
  • Sitcom Gang.  Like a Scooby Gang, a mismatched group of characters that revolves around a main character.  However, the main character is often the relatively normal one of the group rather than a leader, and the characters never really learn to work together (except during Very Special Episodes).  Bob’s Burgers.  The Cosby Show.
  • Transcendant.  One or more of the characters achieve godhood or transcend their mortal limitations.  Akira.  Generally, these stories annoy the crap out of me.

Lots of essential characters:

  • Superhero Soaps.   Sagas, multi-generational stuff, mythologies, “universes,” etc.  Lots of characters in episodic stories, that, in the end, become more than the sum of their parts.  Many smaller groups break out of this, for example, the Wolverine/Cyclops/Jean Grey triangle (which is both romantic and id/ego/superego) that operates within the Scooby Gang of a particular X-Men team.  There is no “main” character, when the entire “universe” is taken all together.  The Young and the Restless.  The Marvel Universe. Most MMORPGs.  The Eddings’ collected works.  Various mythologies.  The essence of these worlds is that fundamental relationships between characters can, and do, change over time.  Lovers might soon be enemies; enemies might soon be shoved in a Scooby Gang.  The Lord of the Rings. 

0 characters:

  • Utopia/Dystopia.  In a true utopia/dystopia, none of the characters matter (usually).  The main exception for me is A Clockwork Orange–antihero.  A lot of Kafka and HG Wells fits here.  Katniss Everdeen doesn’t–she lives in a heroic love triangle with a dystopian setting for color; it’s no Brazil.

I’m pretty sure I’m missing some fundamental divisions.  I also want to note that there are Shakespearean variants to consider for most of these, in which the main relationships are repeated or contrasted throughout intertwined subplots.

Another interesting example is Star Wars, which at first seems like a classic Hero’s Journey story that should be easy to pick apart…but there are so many essential relationships that shift in and out of importance (Luke/Scooby Gang, Luke/Vader, Luke/Yoda, etc.) that I’m going to say it’s a Superhero Soap…or perhaps a Space Opera 🙂  And when you pull back to the larger Star Wars universe, it is of course totally a space opera.  Likewise (for our purposes here) the larger Star Trek universe.

So:  let me know what I’m missing, and where you’d put various stories.  I doubt this is an end-all be-all kind of system, but it’s helping me explain why I don’t like some things:  for example, Ray and I watched some Bob’s Burgers yesterday, and it was great Sitcom Gang stuff.  But then we watched Ruby Gloom (kids’ cartoon), and it was terrible.  It was supposed to be a sitcom, but a) all the characters got along, and b) they really didn’t have strong differences between them.  Weak!

Update:  Dan Bressler asks about Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.  I’d say Roland is faced with a choice between becoming part of a Scooby Gang or playing the hero (or antihero).  To Scoob or not to Scoob, that is the question.




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  1. William

    The best examples of the 0 character story that come to mind are “Storm” and “Fire” by George Stewart. With essentially no human characters, they are detailed character studies of a blizzard, and a forest fire. (He is best know for his books “Ordeal by Hunger” a non-fiction account of the Donnor Party, and “The Earth Abides,” one of the better post-apocalypse novels

    • RedQueen

      I don’t know those specifically – but I know Earth Abides. I think that one’s a hero story, but it’s alllllmost a 0 character story, and I can totally see him writing exactly that.

  2. Interesting concept. The examples work well to support it.

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