Hero: Actively pursues a positive goal to avoid negative consequences. He or she does not need to be a wholly positive and/or purely righteous person—just fascinating, complex, and after a sympathetic goal. Audiences tend to be fascinated by a hero’s contradictions, by someone who is neither all good nor all bad, but reasonably flawed. And by someone who will learn to overcome this key character flaw by the end of the movie.
Anti-hero: The main character of the movie that actively pursues a negative goal (such as crime, murder, betrayal) in order to achieve what he or she considers to be a positive result. Sometimes an anti-hero succeeds and walks away from the scene of the “crime”; most often, the anti-hero (force of darkness) is defeated by the forces of good. Examples: Clyde Barrow in Bonnie in Clyde, Travis Bickel in Taxi Driver, Salieri in Amadeus, George Eastman in A Place in the Sun.
Tragic hero: A character with a tragic flaw (such as a dangerous obsession, greed, envy) that pursues an active (but misguided) goal in order to achieve positive results—which turn out to be self-destructive and/or ultimately negative. Examples: Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane, Christopher McCandless in Into the Wild.
Note: Often an “anti-hero” is also a “tragic hero”; the main point is that a “tragic hero” has a character flaw that cannot be overcome.
Main antagonist: The one main (usually negative) character that most actively challenges and/or obstructs the goals of the protagonist. To determine the identity of the true antagonist of the movie, look to the climax and see with whom the protagonist is engaged in a power struggle. The more personal this showdown (or power struggle), the better. Example: Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs, Alex Forest in Fatal Attraction, the Green Goblin in Spider-Man, Lawrence Olivier’s evil dentist in Marathon Man, Marquise Isabelle Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons.
Note: In a romantic comedy, the antagonist is usually also the love interest because he or she most challenges the protagonist’s “comfort zones” and will force the hero to become more vulnerable—which is challenging and scary! Example: Sally in When Harry Met Sally, William Hurt’s anchorman character in Broadcast News, Jimmy Stewart’s reporter character in The Philadelphia Story.
Nemesis: The term used to describe lesser antagonists (to distinguish them from #1 main antagonist); nemesis characters co-exist with the main antagonist in the overall plotline, challenge the protagonist, and may also try to obstruct the truth from coming to light. Nemesis characters are like “speed bumps” in the road; they tend to be obstacles in the path of the protagonist. Examples: Tommy Lee Jones’ Marshal Sam Gerard in The Fugitive, the Flying Monkeys in The Wizard of Oz, the wicked step-sisters in Cinderella.
Shape-shifter: This can be either an ally or mentor whom the protagonist discovers later in the story is actually a nemesis or the true antagonist (example: Dr. Richard Kimble’s best friend Dr. Nichols in The Fugitive) or a seemingly antagonistic character that turns out to be an ally or mentor (example: Darth Vader in Star Wars). The whole point about a shape-shifter is that he or she is able to transform from good to bad or vice versa. In a supernatural movie, this transformation can be quite literal. Example: The Green Goblin in Spider-Man, the evil queen played by Susan Sarandon in Enchanted. In a thriller, this transformation might be kept as a secret from the protagonist (and the audience) until the climax of the movie (example: Keyser Sose in The Usual Suspects, the dead child in The Sixth Sense). And sometimes this secret is revealed to the audience early on (example: Patrick Swayze’s best friend, played by Tony Goldwyn, in Ghost), but withheld from the protagonist in order to generate greater suspense.
Pivotal character: This is usually a stranger that the protagonist meets who, by the middle of the movie, becomes an agent for change. The protagonist’s path intersects with this person and their interaction causes the protagonist to re-examine or re-evaluate his or her priorities, values, morals, and/or existence. The midpoint of a movie’s structure can also be referred to as a “pivot point” because this is the point where the seeds of change are planted for the protagonist—and they will later sprout into a full epiphany; the pivotal character often plays a vital role in this evolution.
Note: The entire plot of the movie usually hinges on this pivotal character! Examples: Whoopi Goldberg’s character in Ghost, Will Smith’s character in Six Degrees of Separation, Shane in Shane, Brad Pitt’s hitchhiker character in Thelma and Louise, the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella.
Love interest: The person most desired by the protagonist. Almost all romantic comedies contain a love triangle, and it’s often not until the end of the movie that the protagonist fully realizes who his or her true love really is, because this love must be mutual (requited) and based on honesty (and many romantic comedies depend upon a deception or some kind).
Mentor: Usually this is a wise elder character that provides wisdom and advice to aid the quest of the protagonist; often the mentor is introduced as part of the setup (in act one) and we don’t necessarily need to ever see him or her again (or we might cross them again, in some fashion, at the end of the movie). Examples: Yoda in Star Wars, Glynda the Good Witch of the North from The Wizard of Oz, the personnel director (played by Olympia Dukakis) in Working Girl.
Note: In some cases, the mentor is also the same person as the pivotal character.
Ally: Friend or confidant that helps the protagonist on his or her journey.