Cast of Characters


There are only three stories in all of literature, man against man, man against nature, or man against himself. Some say seven, but I say three.

But either way, every story needs a cast of characters just as a husband needs a wife or a lady’s purse needs money. Two are mandatory, even if it’s man against himself, you still have the one person split into two, the hero and his nemesis. Otherwise, there is no drama, no conflict, and all you have is a slice of life.

So you’ve got your hero or heroine and a villain, a romance will spice up your story. And both the good guy and the bad guy can have one—a romance, think of Batman and the Joker. Everybody loves somebody. And even if reared by wolves, you’ve had a mentor, more than likely, many wise advisors. In your tale, your hero or heroine should have a mentor to help them grow. And let’s not forget a sidekick to round out the ensemble. After all, who would the Lone Ranger be without Tonto or Yogi without BooBoo Bear? Hero and Villain can have a sidekick also.


For most novels, then 1) hero 2) heroine (romance) 3) villain 4) mentor and 5) sidekick. Think of any favorite book or movie, and almost always, you can easily pick out these players. I often speak at schools with my mid-grade chapter books. I can take Sponge Bob or Finding Nemo, and the students all know exactly who the sidekick is, the hero, his love interest, the villain, and the mentor. Teachers are always so impressed.

To set your characters up, you need to know your genre. In most romances, the reader only wants to be in the head of the heroine (first) and the hero (secondary). Once you’re comfortable with your cast and the heroic journey you’re taking them on, keep in mind that your reader loves to know what the characters love and hate. In my humble opinion, those are the only two emotions that should ever be named. All others should be shown, but that’s a different lesson.

In addition to the characters’ flaws that you must exploit, reveal their absolutes and test their resolves. But remember this: all major characters need to be introduced in Act One, normally, the first third of your story. So depending on the genre and publisher’s preferences—for my historical Christian romances, that’s three hundred pages—by page one hundred. If a rich uncle is to save the day at the end of a book, set it up in Act One. Shadow things to come. Hint at flaws and cracks in your player’s character. Anticipation and superior position, your readers love them both.  

One thing important to remember is that you must have ‘unity of opposites’. What fun would a football game be between a high school team and the Dallas Cowboys? None. Make your nemesis stronger, better, invincible then invent a believable way for your hero to defeat him. In a romance—unless the mismatch IS the story—make the lovers the couple everyone knew should be together if they could just get over their differences.

This barely touches Cast of Characters, we could go into depth on each one, but it is a start, and everyone has to start somewhere. Take your own life. You’re the hero or heroine. Do you have a romance? A sidekick? A mentor? A villain? Who are your favorite cast of characters?

  1. Avatar of Andy Bachman
    Andy Bachman says

    Thank you for another priceless article.
    Never miss a single one!

    1. Avatar of Caryl McAdoo
      Caryl McAdoo says

      So glad to have you, Andy. Thanks for your kind words! I love teaching this in elementary schools, the little kids are so much fun when they realize all their favorite cartoons and movies have these character roles!

  2. Avatar of Kristin Fouquet
    Kristin Fouquet says

    Caryl, I’m loving your column. Thanks again for sharing your knowledge. I feel my writing is improving as I’m forced to now ask myself new questions. Each of your posts up until this one could apply to all fiction writing, I think. I write mostly literary flash fiction, short stories, and novellas. I believe you are a novelist writing in a genre- romance. The way I understand it, genre fiction is more plot-based and literary fiction is more character-based. I know these are classifications and most writing is a balance of both, but maybe weighing heavier on one side or the other. With that in mind, my question is do these rules for a cast of characters apply more to genre fiction than to literary fiction?

    1. Avatar of Caryl McAdoo
      Caryl McAdoo says

      So glad you are enjoying the column, Krisitn. I am definitely a novelist and do love writing in the Christian romance genre, both historical and contemporary. Also write for mid-grade as well. Those young readers are such eager fans. I love marketing to them 🙂 Yes, genre fiction perhaps is more plot based, but in reviews–including a recent one in Publishers Weekly–comments of well-developed characters are almost always mentioned. I think that’s important in any fiction writing. So yes again, I agree plot and characterization are both important. To answer your question, and this is only my humble opinion, whether genre or literary fiction, for the story to be interesting and hold a reader’s attention, it needs a cast of characters for drama – conflict for the hero and for his growth. Doesn’t HAVE to be all five (hero, romance, mentor, sidekick, and villain), but at least two or three, don’t you agree?

      1. Avatar of Kristin Fouquet
        Kristin Fouquet says

        Yes, Caryl, I agree! Thanks again for keeping the wheels turning. Looking forward to the next installment.

  3. Avatar of Paula Boer
    Paula Boer says

    Good article on characters, and I agree with the roles. However, let’s broaden the definition of ‘man’ to include ‘creatures’ – many of my stories have no humans at all ;-).

    1. Avatar of Caryl McAdoo
      Caryl McAdoo says

      Oh sure, Paula. That’s right of course! 🙂 Husband and I co-authored 3 mid-grade chapter books and the hero/heroine in each is an animal. An Orphan colt is my POV character in THE ADVENTURES OF SERGEANT SOCKS, book one THE JOURNEY HOME and book two THE BRAVEST HEART, and our Great Pyrenees AMAZING GRACI, GUARDIAN OF THE RIVER BOTTOM GOATS stars in our third River Bottom Ranch Story. Next time I’ll say Man or Creature 🙂 Thanks for you suggestion!

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