Whether we’re looking at Shakespeare or SpongeBob, there are common character archetypes that appear in stories across time and cultures. Archetypes are characterized or classified by the role they serve or their purpose in a story. The classical archetypes of a good story include the protagonist and antagonist, the mentor, the sidekick, and the love interest. Let’s take a closer look at these five archetypes and how animation studios bring them to life.
This protagonist is the main character in a story, show or movie. In many cases, this character turns out to be the hero. It is usually easy to identify the protagonist because the storyline revolves around them and their lives, problems and internal conflicts. Roughly, in Greek, the word protagonist translates to “player of the first part” or “chief actor.”
Why is a protagonist so important? They aren’t always the heroes; sometimes they are just the focal point in a show or even in an advertisement. A protagonist is typically on the “good side,” and follows a moral compass that many deem good. The protagonist is likely to change throughout a story and that action expresses the theme of a story an animation studio is trying to put out. A protagonist serves as a doorway into an emotional story or an emotional heart. They tend to draw a viewer or reader into the story. The best protagonists are characters that people can relate to. As a viewer, you may have shared hopes, fears or goals with a protagonist.
When we look to animation and some of the most well known protagonists we see characters like Buzz and Woody or Superman. Though heroes in our eyes, protagonists are far from perfect. They hold some type of flaw, whether it be internal or within their environment. The conflict they face then causes them to fight back or fall back from the big obstacle, and the way they choose to react to a situation is how we choose to interpret the character’s qualities.
Classical forms of storytelling feature a main character known as the protagonist, which we discussed. This character will typically enter the story first. Then enters the antagonist. This character is typically depicted as the “bad guy” or the “villain.” Antagonists are without a doubt entertaining and bring a moral conflict to light, which as a result puts our hero at a fork in a moral road.
These characters serve to teach viewers wrong from right. These characters are an essential component to any story for many reasons. They are the primary opposition for a protagonist. They elicit the protagonist in the story to change their perception and try to live in a less flawed world, no matter who or what they must hurt to attain it.
When an antagonist or a villain in any story is personifying a central conflict, it brings a different element to a story that will benefit it. The pressure an antagonist puts on the protagonist eventually brings forth inner conflicts. These characters typically test their counterpart’s moral compass and commitment to being morally just.
The role of a sidekick was once referred to as the “close companion.” This role dates back more than a century. Specifically, we have our first literary glimpse at a sidekick in The Epic of Gilgamesh, which features a protagonist-sidekick. The main character seeks not only friendship, but also advice from Enkidu. This character has defined many of the consistent and quality characteristics we seek in a great sidekick in regards to a production of a film, book or television series and more.
Gilgamesh was unarguably the main character. However, the epic reveals that the secondary character, Enkidu, played a smaller but still meaningful role in the story. When Enkidu is killed, Gilgamesh responds aggressively because he has grown close to his friend and confidant. The depth of the reaction Gilgamesh has not only adds depth to him as a character, but also lets the audience know how significant the bond was between the protagonist and sidekick.
Another common trope of the sidekick is to infuse the story with humor. This is especially true of animated characters. Where would Bugs Bunny be without Daffy Duck to set him off? Some may see Daffy as more of an antagonist, but he’s not really out to get Bugs. The two characters play off of each other and add lots of laughs along the way.
Other great sidekicks in time include Dr. Watson and Sancho Panza. These sidekicks perform different roles and functions in support of the main character they assist throughout a storyline. They serve a grander purpose than simply being a companion or assistant. They humanize the characteristics of a protagonist. They are also the character that moves the story.
The mentor is usually a great help for the protagonist in any story. They guard or protect them during a big quest or journey that involves both physically harmful obstacles as well as emotionally harmful obstacles. They can take many forms. Typically we imagine a grey-haired and aged man, but sometimes the mentor can take the most unsuspecting form.
These characters usually provide support and guide their “student” toward the right path. Mentors are known for having high morals and standards that can often challenge the student they are looking after. They always find a way to inspire them and push them to aspire for something good.
The Love Interest
This character might often be over-looked, but also plays a very important role in many stories. They are the person with whom the main character falls in love with. They serve, as a catalyst in the journey a protagonist must go through. Depending on the ultimate goal of the protagonist, the person who is their love interest can be of great assistance and motivation, much like a mentor can be.
So the next time you’re watching your favorite cartoons, pay close attention to more than the character design quality. Look into the roles you believe each character plays and their significant contribution to a story line. You’ll find it is hard to have a compelling story without these staple archetypes.
Powerhouse Animation is a traditional 2D animation studio based in Austin, Texas with offices in Burbank, California. Since 2001, Powerhouse has been making ideas come to life through animation, illustration, and motion graphics. With a staff of 35 in-house artists, animators, videographers and designers, Powerhouse works on a wide variety of projects and has created animation for companies including Disney, Sony, Marvel, DC, Old Spice, Miramax, the USO and more.