Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Cat's character types

With some inspiration from Joss Whedon (yes, again).

Okay, you know those character archetypes? The hero, princess, blah blah, all this stuff about Threshold Guardians. Apparently it's all represented in Star Wars, but since I was too young for the first three and too old (and cynical) for the last three, I've never really watched them and so couldn't rightly say. But I do remember reading a review of Serenity that compared it to the work of George Lucas. Flashy special effects, the review said, are no substitute for strong characters, smart writing and a good plot.

So. When I talk about character types, I'm going to use the Joss Whedon model. It's not a definitive list. I noticed when I started watching Firefly that some of the characters have a lot in common with characters from Buffy. There's a leader, and a joker, and a father figure--in these respects, it's fairly similar to the Star Wars model, whose archetypes seem to be (ironically) designed to drive the plot. That old Threshold Guardian, for instance, who is there to propel the Hero on his journey. They tend to relate to a story about a hero on his journey--a journey with a beginning and an end. JW's character models tend to be set up for the long run, stories that don't have neat beginnings, middles, and endings; but do have strong character dynamics.

Here are the character types as I see them. They apply to quite a few ensemble pieces, although it might not be immediately obvious. Not all types apply to all ensembles, and sometimes one character can be more than one character type at a time, or can change from one to the other.

(Note: I'm going to pick a pronoun and stick to it for each character type, but that doesn't at all mean that the type can't be the opposite sex).

The Leader Often eponymous, ie. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Richard Sharpe, Robin Hood. This is the character we focus on. In books, he's often the one who tells most of the story. Sam Vimes from the Discworld series is a great example: big chunks of the City Watch books are in his POV; in fact Night Watch is almost exclusively so. The Leader isn't always the boss or the captain in the world as he sees it--like Sharpe, he might have layers and layers of commanders above him--but in the world we're looking at, and to his men, he's the man in charge.

The Faithful Sidekick Again, a pretty familiar character type. Zoe from Firefly is a prime example. Loyal to Captain Mal with every bone in her body, she has her own life, her own relationships and her own thoughts and feelings, but out of all the crew, she's the one who's going to do what Mal says with the least amount of questions. The Sidekick is the one the Leader trusts above everyone else. In the BBC's Robin Hood, Much the Miller's Son is the epitome of Sidekickness. For Richard Sharpe, it's Sergeant Harper. The Sidekick isn't interested in leading the crew by herself--in fact that's the last thing she wants. But if the Leader is having trouble, guess who steps into the breach?

The Sidekick is often a double role. In Buffy, the Sidekick is variously Xander, who is also the Joker, and Willow, who is also the Fixer.

The Fixer The one who gets things done. The one who finds things out. The one who answers the question, "So what are we up against?" The Fixer knows people. He knows how to make things, or break them. He's the one who hacks into the computer system or decodes the puzzle or devises the escape plan. In Buffy, the Fixer is Willow. Whether it's casting a spell, slogging through a demonology, or researching on the net, she's your gal. For Robin Hood, the Fixer is the resourceful Will Scarlett, who knows everything about everybody and can make anything from anything, so long as it's wood. In the BBC's Hustle it's Ash (they even introduce him as the Fixer). In Firefly, the Fixers are Kaylee and Simon--but in the film Serenity, it's Mr. Universe.

The Fixer can also be a fluid role, and sometimes coincides with the Joker or Sidekick.

The Wise Counsellor Like the Sidekick, this is usually an easy one to spot. The Wise Counsellor is usually, although not always, an older figure, a father figure. Buffy's watcher Giles is a prime example. But in Angel, the Counsellor is Wesley--similar in age to the rest of the crew (and much younger than Angel!). The Counsellor is often fairly close to the Fixer, and can sometimes be mistaken for him. The difference is that no one goes to the Fixer for emotional advice. Even the Leader sometimes needs to know they're on the right track, and it's the Counsellor who provides the reassurance. This is clearly seen in Firefly, with Shepherd Book.

In the sixth and seven seasons of Buffy, Giles was a part-time character. During his absence, the gang suffered the lack of a Counsellor. While Willow was able to provide the gang with the exposition, there wasn't anyone around to help and guide the gang, which showed in their bad decisions and unfortunate character arcs.

The Joker Easy to spot. The Joker often coincides with the Sidekick--for instance Xander in Buffy fulfills both roles. In Firefly, the Joker is Wash, who is married to Zoe, the Sidekick. The Joker might not have the smarts or the skill that the other members of the team have, but he does have wit, and he's not afraid to use it. He's one of the most likeable characters, who can lighten any dark and gloomy scene with a well-timed comic punch. Joss Whedon invariably writes a Joker into his ensembles, and says that these are the characters he most identifies with.

The Lover Can often be confused with other characters. For instance, I was pretty sure Spike was the Lover in the latter seasons of Buffy, but he stubbornly refused it. The Lover is usually the least useful member of the team, and a terrible distraction to the Leader (whose lover she usually is). She might not actually be his physical lover, like Inara in Firefly, but she's definitely tyhe object of his affection, even if he doesn't know it. But, like the Counsellor, she's the one the Leader goes to for emotional healing. Without the Lover, the Leader isn't half the man he could be.

The Lover can be another character type too, or can change from one to another: for instance Cordelia goes from Sidekick to Lover in Angel, and Spike from AntiHero to Lover in Buffy. The Lover should not, however, be confused with the Damsel.

The Damsel Probably the least PC of the character types, but pretty necessary. The Damsel is usually the youngest member of the team, like Buffy's sister Dawn. The Damsel is, rather obviously, the one who gets kidnapped, the one who needs rescuing. However, the problem with an ongoing series is that pretty soon, the Damsel gets tired of being tied to the train tracks and starts taking care of herself. Willow was an excellent Damsel until she became a wickedly powerful witch, so Dawn stepped in. And when Dawn grew up, the Potential Slayers arrived, confused and helpless and in constant need of rescuing. The Damsel needn't be totally clueless: Kaylee in Firefly makes an excellent Damsel, although she's also a decent Fixer. In Robin Hood, the Damsel is not Marian, but the collective villagers, always being rescued by Robin and the gang.

The Anti-hero Usually my favourite character, the Anti-hero is the one who doesn't really want to be a member of the team; and if he does, it's not for the same save-the-world, good-of-mankind reasons as the rest of them. He could be Firefly's Jayne, the hired muscle who doesn't always see eye-to-eye with Mal's humanitarian missions, but goes along with them because he gets paid to--and because Zoe would kick his ass if he didn't. Spike is my favourite Antihero: he doesn't want to be in the Scooby Gang at all, but since he can't hurt humans and he can kill demons, he tags along and stirs up trouble. The Anti-hero isn't always sure about the cause the team is fighting for, he's not really willing to die for it, and he's perfectly willing to argue the Leader to death about it. Quite often, he doesn't want to be part of the team at all, but he doesn't have much option.

The Anti-hero isn't the same as the villain (who, not being part of my warm-and-fuzzy family of a team, doesn't feature in the ensemble), although he may have been, at one point, like Spike. The Anti-hero is, at heart, selfish, and he's not likely to risk his own skin for anyone else's. But since he's become a member of the team, he can't help but feel a little softhearted towards various members every now and then, and might actually surprise himself by helping out occasionally. In some circumstances, like in Buffy, the Anti-hero can morph into someone else entirely: in this case, the Lover.

So there you have it, the Cat Marsters guide to character types. Try and analyse some of your favourite ensemble pieces, and see if the group dynamic fits.


  1. You taught this well, but mostly it just made me want to watch Firefly. Except my BIL borrowed my DVD's months ago and still hasn't returned them!

  2. Anonymous10:12 pm

    Dang it! Just when I think I'm over my Whedon obsession...you go and do something like this and i fall off the wagon.