Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Is there such a thing as a perfect cast of characters? A pure, alchemical recipe of personalities that promises the most engaging narrative a reader could ask for? No, of course not – it’s the events of the story that dictate what it needs from its cast, and what works well for one tale will bomb in another. Red Riding Hood is one of the most enduring stories in the world, and there’s still a regrettable dearth of narratives where one character’s sole intent is to eat the other.
That said, there are certain patterns we can observe as working well in fiction. Types of characters who, again and again, combine in interesting ways that spawn interesting scenes and engaging prose. In this article, I’ll be looking at some of these archetypes. First, I’ll lay them bare, examining exactly what they mean and how you can use them. Then, I’ll take a deeper look, suggesting ways to use the ‘perfect cast’ even in stories where you wouldn’t expect them to fit. So, without further ado…
The perfect cast
One of the hallmarks of a perfect cast is the ability to put any two individuals in a situation and still interest the reader. This requires not only that each character is interesting in their own right, but that they have something to say about every other character. This doesn’t have to be direct – you don’t have to write every character as the neighborhood gossip – but if characters are really thought-through, there should be something to work with.
One of the purest expressions of this cast is the type of story where approximately seven protagonists meet up to defeat a shared enemy. Here, each member of the perfect cast of characters is jostled up against the others, and everyone gets some dedicated scenes to explore what they bring to the table.
Stories like this can be unwieldy – seven main characters is a lot to ask of the reader – but they work because each of the characters fills their own niche. When everyone is vital to the whole, there’s less chance of anyone slipping the reader’s mind.
This type of story, and the cast that comes along with it, has been documented and discussed in many different places, but since the team at TV Tropes put so much thought into their terminology, we’ll adapt their character titles for the discussion below. They label this perfect cast as ‘The Magnificent Seven Samurai’, combining the names of The Magnificent Seven and Seven Samurai in honor of how they exemplify this device.Classic Westerns may hold the key to the perfect cast of characters.Click To Tweet
Before I dive into the seven characters that traditionally make up the perfect cast, I want to restate that we’ll be moving on to talking about how to use this cast in a surprising way. So, even if you’re not writing a samurai-inspired Western, stay tuned; you can still use this cast in your story, be it regency drama, YA dystopia, or horror erotica.
Character #1 – The Hero
The hero is your story’s protagonist; the one the story most studiously follows, and who is subject to the most observable arc and the usual cyclic traditions of storytelling. Usually, the rest of the perfect cast is connected through them, or else encounters them fully formed – think of a cowboy rounding up a posse, or a travelling squire who gets caught up in the adventure of a motley crew of fantasy warriors.
The hero is the place to start designing the rest of your cast. We’ll come back to how that works soon, but for now, keep in mind that the other characters are going to oppose, teach, fight, and maybe even love your hero. The clearer your idea of them, the more purpose can go into your other characters.
Character #2 – The Lancer
The lancer is an ideological foil to your hero. Though they share goals, and maybe even a friendship, they go about things in a very different way. Han Solo is the go-to example; a self-serving, roguish smuggler who clashes with the more moral and less experienced hero Luke Skywalker.
Often, the lancer is depicted as a hothead, eager to jump into battle, but that’s only because it’s common for heroes to be disciplined and morally stricken – if you’ve written a gung-ho hero, your lancer should have a more peaceful outcome. The lancer is often a rival within the group, and it’s their job to give the hero a hard time and expose them to an unfamiliar way of doing things. If you want your hero to change their ways over the course of the story, the lancer can be the perfect tool to shift their perspective.
Often, the lancer ends up stealing the show. This is mainly an outcome of the fact that they’re not tied down in the same way as the hero. If you’re writing a hero who starts off inexperienced, testing their moral and personal boundaries on the way to changing the world around them, then your lancer is probably an awesome character who leaps into the story knowing exactly what they’re doing, eventually learning a little humility while still being fun to read about.
Many people will say this is how it has to work, but things don’t have to be this way. If your lancer is running away with the show too easily, take a look at where they’re most entertaining. These are likely to be the areas where you could make the hero a bit more engaging.
Character #3 – The Big One
As indicated by the name, the big one is generally the most immediately imposing of the group. In Everything You Need To Know About Writing Fantasy Weapons, I wrote about the implied symbolism of a character who uses an axe – they’re physically impressive, but the reader expects them to stall at minor victories. They’re there to keep a group at bay or dispatch the last big challenge before the main antagonist. They’re a blunt object, lacking the skill to really save the day.
If this is all sounding a little medieval, remember that that’s only the traditional way of looking at this character. The ‘player’ character in a rom-com who gets tons of attention but never quite gets the girl could be the big one, as could the hot-shot professional friend who talks the bouncers into letting the protagonist backstage. They’re brute force, and the author gets to ‘spend’ them to advance the protagonist’s story.
The big one tends to be similarly big-hearted, and it’s long been a tradition for them to be the gentlest member of their group. Fezzik from The Princess Bride is a prime example; physically able enough to get his friends out of a tight spot or two, but lacking the intellect or ambition to run the show.
Character #4 – The Smart One
The smart one serves as a mirror to the big one, offering pure intellectual force to be deployed at will. They’re often on-hand with equipment or knowledge that the hero needs, allowing easy exposition in a way that keeps the reader relating to the protagonist. Think Gretchen from Recess, Giles from Buffy, Hermione in the Harry Potter series, or the Q of your choice from a 007 story.
What the smart one knows defines what it’s normal to know, and how smart other characters look in comparison. This helps calibrate your reader’s idea of their own understanding – if, for example, the smart character explains something like social media or dragons, this tells the reader that, even if they understand it (and would expect most people in the real world to feel the same), it’s specialist knowledge within the story.A smart character can define what’s normal to know in your world. Flying pigs? Old news.Click To Tweet
In terms of depiction, the smart one tends to be a nerd, but this is becoming less and less popular. As the internet has become the norm, specialist expertise have become less taboo, and it’s not uncommon to see the smart one be particularly cool in modern stories – they’re basically the gatekeeper to whatever world the protagonists want to enter. That might mean they have the gadgets or can crack the uncrackable lock, but it might also mean they have the gang contacts to find out when the big shootout is going to happen.
Character #5 – The Old One
The old one has a wealth of experience, but they’ve often got the damage to go along with it. The old one has been in the protagonist’s place before, or close to it, and while they’re not capable of attaining the goal themselves, they’ve probably got some good advice about how to do it.
The old one is often a mentor (sometimes to the protagonist, sometimes to other characters), and may even exit the story early, signaling a thematic shift that leaves the other characters to fend for themselves. Think of Gandalf being dragged away by the Balrog – now things are really serious.
Sometimes the old one carries the mental or physical scars of their past experiences – a stark warning of what the hero might face – and sometimes it’s their job to mediate between the hero and the lancer (justifying a huge, group-fracturing argument when they’re no longer around to keep the peace.) More often than not, though, they’re a direct foil for…
Character #6 – The Young One
The young one has a lot to learn, and while they contribute to the group, their primary function is to make everyone else look good. Think of Linus Caldwell in Ocean’s Eleven – a particularly gifted hustler who routinely doesn’t understand the methods or jargon of the others. One benefit of this is that it allows other characters to explain things in a way that’s digestible to the reader, but they also set the barometer for what’s dumb. Along with the smart one, they allow the author to set particular limits on what people in this world know, setting a comparison by which other characters’ intellect and experience can be shown.
The young one also represents an easy narrative win for the author; the reader wants to see them improve and win a little respect, maybe even be key to the eventual victory. While it’s good writing to fold this into the main story, it’s also a nice moment that you can drop in anywhere to lift the reader’s spirits.
Because they’re so widely inexperienced, young characters often have a particular skill that justifies their inclusion. In Ocean’s Eleven, Linus is a remarkably skilled pickpocket, but it can be pretty much anything. Another trick is for someone to see potential in the young one – not only does this make the young one more interesting, but it makes their supporter seem like an expert (since smart characters have opinions).Experiment with contrast in your characters: reckless/calm, young/old, smart/strong...Click To Tweet
The young one is most obviously paired with the old one, either as a generational struggle or a student/master relationship. Since the hero is often entering a new world or way of doing things, it can also be useful to pair the young one with the lancer, establishing their experience by giving them an apprentice, or just lavishing them with hero worship.
Character #7 – The Funny One
The funny one is there to manipulate the mood both of the reader and of other characters. They can relieve the tension after a scary scene or make the old one feel better after a flashback. The funny character generally tends to be a little outside the group, though they’re not necessarily just comic relief. (There are, after all, many ways to write a funny character).
As with the lancer, the funny one is in prime position to become the reader’s favorite, just because they’re the source of so many amusing moments. They’re also effective fodder for a shocking death or development (‘the funny one is seriously ill’ is an effective plot point), and can do a lot for the story if developed into a trickster character.
The funny one’s role often expands to meet the needs of the rest of the cast. Grant Morrison’s JLA comics made clever use of Plastic Man – a character whose studiously facile outlook helped ameliorate the constant onslaught of world-ending threats and grounded characters like brooding Batman, ‘New God’ Orion, and literal avenging angel Zauriel.
Character #8 – The Spiritual One
This character is a little different from the rest, mostly because they’re generally used an amalgamation of several character types when an author doesn’t want to use all seven. This spiritual one is a peacemaker, sometimes using a unique outlook to defuse tension and sometimes to educate the other characters (see how the funny one and the smart one are seeping through?)
This character is also often known as ‘the girl’, referencing a regrettable tendency for authors to include just one woman in their group and to make it her job to keep the peace and calm down the more interesting characters. Sometimes, she even gets this role because she’s the source of conflict, often via a love triangle. This type of writing frequently falls foul of something called ‘the Smurfette principle‘, where the fact that a character is a woman is often used as her chief (and only) defining characteristic.
Contemporary shows are either essentially all-male, like “Garfield,” or are organized on what I call the Smurfette principle: a group of male buddies will be accented by a lone female, stereotypically defined. In the worst cartoons — the ones that blend seamlessly into the animated cereal commercials — the female is usually a little-sister type, a bunny in a pink dress and hair ribbons who tags along with the adventurous bears and badgers… The message is clear. Boys are the norm, girls the variation; boys are central, girls peripheral; boys are individuals, girls types. Boys define the group, its story and its code of values. Girls exist only in relation to boys.
– Katha Pollitt, ‘Hers; The Smurfette Principle‘, The New York Times
This is something that’s important to keep in mind when designing the perfect cast of characters – being a woman isn’t a single ‘type’ of personality, and reducing women to stereotypical portrayals can limit your storytelling options and irritate readers. If you’re writing a group with only one woman, consider her role in the story, and consider whether everyone else needs to be male, or whether you’re just treating it as the default gender.
While this version of the spiritual character is regrettable, it doesn’t have to poison what’s an otherwise useful archetype – often, your group of characters will benefit from having a peacekeeper; someone with an even more radically different outlook than the lancer. Most modern depictions of Robin Hood place Friar Tuck in this role (though they also tend to cast Maid Marian as the Smurfette of the group).
The spiritual character could also be just plain weird, or even have a chemically altered worldview; their main function is to see things in a radically different way, allowing a new viewpoint to enter the story in a way that isn’t so much about challenging established perspectives as offering variety. There’s an argument to be made that Shaggy, from Scooby-Doo, fits this character type. He certainly doesn’t want there to be a monster, but he’d also rather eat a sandwich than help his friends get rid of it.
The characters above all do great things for a story, offering different perspectives on the same events in a way the reader will find compelling. But what makes them the perfect cast isn’t what they do individually, but how they work together. The real trick is to hurl two characters together and still find chemistry.
This process starts with the hero. Defining them skillfully and in depth gives you a range of points to contrast other characters against. It’s obvious why the lancer relies on the hero for definition, but they also define what the young one should be good at, the type of advice the old one should offer, the expertise of the smart one, and so on.
Defining these characters through the hero will also give them a range of points about which they’re in accord and many about which they disagree. If the old one is mentoring the hero, for example, then she probably doesn’t agree with the lancer’s way of doing things. On the flip-side, they’ve both probably been around the block a few times, and that may create a bond. Does the old one like the funny one’s jokes? If they’re a jolly old sort then probably, but that also suggests the young one should be an overly serious young recruit. If you’d like your old one grumpier, then a more fun-loving attitude might suit your group’s youngest member. Of course, that’s assuming your young one and your funny one are different characters.
Amalgamating your cast
I’ve listed eight characters above, seven of which are often touted as the perfect team. These are only guidelines, though, and you may find yourself wanting to use a smaller cast. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it’s worth keeping in mind that the archetypes above work for a reason – they bounce off each other well and offer a diverse range of perspectives. If you don’t want to use them all separately, it’s still worth considering how these perspectives can be shared.Give your characters varied outlooks and watch their conversations come alive.Click To Tweet
To this end, it often makes sense to amalgamate character types. The hardened warrior, for example, can often be the big one and the old one. The crafty archer can be the smart one and the spiritual one. The rookie cop can be young one, lancer, funny one, and smart one, all rolled up into one.
It may help to think of the characters above as archetypal figures viewing the events of your plot. How do they see things differently? Where are the moments that give your story new life? Most importantly, how can you get these perspectives onto the page?
Using the perfect cast in any story
If this is the heading you’ve been waiting for, thanks for sticking with me. As I mentioned above, not every character type has to make it into a story, and not every type has to be a character in their own right. What’s also important to understand is that the characters don’t have to be a ‘group’ in any traditional sense. There’s no need for them to travel together, share goals, or even meet.
The characters above offer unique perspectives and ways of getting the most out of each other, and you can adapt this in a variety of ways. Instead of a group of cowboys, imagine the characters above as your protagonist’s family. The big mother, the smart little brother, the wise old grandfather. Now, split them up further – make the young one their apprentice at work and the funny one a friend they call occasionally to talk things over. You can spread this cast over a variety of setting, even having them confront one another through the main protagonist – what does funny friend think to old grandad’s life advice, for example?
Maybe your lancer isn’t even a permanent character – just someone the hero chats to while waiting for a bus, discovering their worldviews are almost entirely different. Heck, maybe your peace-making character (be they funny or spiritual) is a dog who does some cute tricks.
At the end of the day, each of the character types I’ve mentioned has something unique to say about your plot and its characters. As you populate your story with its own unique cast, consider the extent to which they do the same, and consider incorporating some aspects of the types above. If you do, there’ll come a point, late in drafting, where one character has the perfect perspective to help move the story along. It’ll feel like amazing luck, but it’ll be because these characters have a lot to say to each other, and you had the foresight to let them say it.
Do you agree with the character types above, or do you want to add your own? Let me know in the comments. Or, for more on writing great characters, check out Don’t Let Fake Minor Characters Ruin Your Story. Finally, Everything You Need To Know About Writing Fantasy Weapons has a lot of transferable information about the types of characters that play off each other well, and how to show the reader who’s who with minimal effort.