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Neutral characters


Disciplines > Storytelling > Characters > Neutral characters

Neutrality | Neutral characters | See also



In much of life the people we meet are not particularly concerned with us. They have their own goals and are pursuing these with the energy that they choose and the abilities they have. They are not necessarily good or bad in the sense of supporting or opposing us -- they just don't care beyond normal human values that dictate civility with others.

When our paths cross with neutral characters, we may find mutual benefit, we disagree or may otherwise interact in some way. Neutral characters can play many different roles in stories, challenging the Hero or providing unexpected and perhaps accidental support.


Neutral characters

Here are just a few of the neutral characters that can be found in stories.

The King

The King is the ultimate ruler whose position both requires and enables terrible decisions and commands. He has gravitas and all may be cowed before him. The King is also the ultimate symbol of order, and how strongly he rules determines the extent of order or chaos in the kingdom.

As a symbolic character, he is not necessarily a real king, and may be a company manager or gang leader. Within a family, the father is usually the king. The key indicator is that within a given social order, he is at the top of the pile.

In some stories, he provides the motivation, sending the Hero on the quest and perhaps offering the hand of his daughter, the Princess as a reward.

The King may occasionally be challenged by usurpers who would take his crown, leading perhaps to civil war. He also may set his barons against one another to distract them from cohesive revolt.

The Queen

The Queen sits at the right hand of the King, the other part of the symbolically perfect royal couple. She is the mother of the nation to the King's father, adding softness to balance his hardness. Elegant and beautiful, she achieves her goals more through charm than position.

The Queen may also rule alone, in which case she takes on more of the positional power of the King and has a corresponding harder edge.

The Fool

The Fool, in the best Shakespearean sense, is a long way from being a fool. Intelligent and wise, they literally live on their wits. They will speak the truth, though often in riddles. Their fooling may risk the ire of others, but they have the protection of the king.

Below this arch-Fool, other Fools provide humor and levity that break up the serious action with moments of relief. They may also speak with the voice of an Innocent, seeing and saying that which others may not.

The Guardian

The Guardian acts as a gateway, a doorkeeper that will not let you pass over a boundary. This may be to something specific or may simply to be to the next stage of the journey. They are driven by the pure goal of guardianship and will prevent by physical force, magic or whatever power they have, which may well be significant.

To get past a Guardian, the Hero may have to fight them. They may also have to solve a puzzle or go on some sub-quest or other diversion. Whatever it takes, the Hero must do what is required.

The Guardian may thus test the Hero, allowing them to demonstrate their determination and prove skills that will be needed on the road ahead. Guardian sub-adventures thus provide mini-stories of their own.

The Go-between

The Go-between acts as a shuttle mediator between two characters who are unable or unwilling to speak directly to one another. The Go-between acts as a voice for each, enabling them to be heard.

The may go between Hero and Villain, Ordinary Person and King, or between man and woman who have argued or perhaps not yet met and fall deeply in love.

The Go-between may thus act in a supporting role but their motivations may be their own. By stepping back from the action, they allow people who are separated to hear what the others is saying, untainted by the Go-between's opinion.

The Sage

The main attribute of the Sage is Wisdom, which they offer when they believe it is wise to do do. Women do get a look-in, for example as the 'wise old woman', but men do seem to get the lion's share of leading roles as Sages.

They can easily play in a support role, typically as Mentor, but may also be detached and aloof, offering wisdom to those who are wise enough to seek it. Sages often turn up when they are needed and disappear again afterwards, such as Gandalf in Lord of the Rings.

The Sage will advise the Hero but seldom directs them. Their sagacity may thus be shown to be worthwhile through letting the Hero make the final choice.

The Oracle

The Oracle predicts the future, but not always in a way that the Hero interprets or expects. Stories may thus revolve around the Hero's misunderstanding of the ambiguous forecast. Curiously, Oracles are often women, perhaps associating them with 'women's intuition'.

Macbeth, for example, assumes the witches' forecast that he will be slain when 'Burnham Wood walks to Dunsanane' as meaning never -- but what actually happens is that Duncan's men use branches from the trees as moving camouflage.

The Oracle may be played by a Witch or perhaps a member of the party who gets taken over by some strange force. They may be a Medium for supernatural beings or have an unexplained ability to see the future. In 'Back to the Future', the main character, having gone back in time acts as an Oracle.

The Narrator

The Narrator tells us what is happening, in case we have not worked things out from the action. This can be very useful in complex storylines, helping us get back on course and make sense of what has happened. They thus act as an embedded storyteller.

The role of Narrator may be taken by any character, who may even speak directly to the movie camera. They may also be a disembodied voice that explains what is happening.

In the Star Trek stories, the 'captain's log' is used as a way of reminding us what has happened and adds detail of the captain's thinking, again helping us makes sense of what will happen next.

The Distracter

The Distracter pulls the Hero off the main path, perhaps appearing initially as a Giver or maybe as a false Villain. In any case, we (or just the Hero, if we are in on the Distracter's falsehood) are fooled into thinking that this is the right way to go. Sometimes the Distracter is a completely innocent person who gets caught up in the action and whose denial of involvement is taken incorrectly as evidence of their association with the Villain.

Distractions can be very short-term and temporary and may be a long-term confusion. Done well, they add tension and richness to the story, reflecting the way that life's journey is not always straightforward.

The Scapegoat

The Scapegoat holds the unfortunate position of being to blame for pretty much anything. People find themselves in this role in life and it can also happen in stories.

Story Scapegoats may be useful ways of explaining why things happened and who did things. Motivations may be allocated and the Scapegoat identified. After all, in stories truth is what the storyteller says is true. Scapegoats can be useful for tidying up loose ends and removing unclear tensions. They may also be the main culprits for critical actions.

Sometimes it is realized that the person initially thought to have committed the crime is not the real culprit. This is a common turning point and perhaps we feel a little sympathetic guilt or maybe turn the tables and point haughtily at the characters who jumped to the wrong conclusions.

The Taker

The Taker wants something for themselves and will seek to acquire it, often by fair means but sometimes by foul also. They may well be Machiavellian in the way that the ends of ownership justifies the means of acquisition.

Takers may capture treasure, attention and affection. Anything they want, they take. Children may fulfil this role, where they play by the simple rules of 'if I hold it, it is mine'.

Takers provide distraction in stories and may be third parties, taking what both the Hero and Villain are also seeking. In this way, the Hero and Villain may be curiously united for a time in capturing the Taker or at least retrieving what they have taken.

The Free Spirit

The Free Spirit marches to a different drum, seeing the world through independent eyes and going their own way and with their own rules. This freedom gives reason to unexpected behavior and may legitimize actions outside of norms and even the law.

The Free Spirit may flit through the story, adding delight and distraction. The goal of some Heroes is to catch the Free Spirit, for example where the male Hero wins the heart of the free-spirited woman.

We may well envy the freedom of the Free Spirit yet find them attractive and delightful characters.

The Enforcer

The Enforcer enacts the law or rules of some sort. Their loyalty is thus to those rules and not to any side in the story. The police are often enforcers and may give chase or hinder the Hero or the Villain, depending on who has broken the laws at this time.

The Enforcers reassures us that order will prevail and that Villains will eventually be brought to justice. Sometimes their stupidity in hindering the Hero frustrates us, but we do not think them bad -- just perhaps ill-informed and blinkered.

The Enfant Terrible

The Enfant Terrible acts in a highly unconventional manner, not because they are bad but because they have different motivations and values. They typically do little or no direct harm but can be embarrassing and difficult to handle as they do not obey normal social rules.

Groucho Marx played an Enfant Terrible in his movies with his brothers, making light of everything and playing the fool for his own entertainment.

The Enfant Terrible adds confusion and uncertainty to the story and may also contribute a certain amount of comedy as their antics upset various applecarts.

The Slayer

The Slayer's main purpose is to kill, but within rules that take no notice of good or bad. The Slayer may thus be a mercenary, not aligned to any side but simply working for the highest bidder. Slayers may also be Guardians, acting to kill all who try to pass a point or take a treasure.

The cold killing of the Slayer frightens us. It also reassures us and makes us feel safe when they slay on our behalf.

See also

Magical characters, Tragic characters

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