We’ve talked about archetypes in some length, especially in the Hero’s Journey Series. Archetypes can be a powerful addition to your story, and I’m sure you’ve been using them without even realizing it. Mostly because “there is nothing new under the sun.” What you write is a mixture of what you’ve experienced and read, which is a mixture of what other artists have experienced and read. Don’t fight against this. Instead, focus on reinventing the wheel, but adding some of that flare that can only come from your creative genius.
People identify with archetypes because we have all been there. Each of us has been a Hero and a Mentor and even a Trickster at some point. So, using archetypes allows your reader to empathize with your character and enter the story. The primary goal of any story is to hold the reader’s attention. There is no better way to do that than to draw your reader into a character so they can live the adventure vicariously. I talk about this as Hero Audience Bonding.
We know, almost instinctively, that we should use archetypes in our stories. In this post, I have compiled some simple thoughts on how to use those character types.
So, without further adieu, here are 37(ish) character tips for using archetypes in your writing.
- Compile a list of character types. (I will be compiling one starting next week.)
- Next time you watch a movie or read a book, keep this list of archetypes handy and try to identify them in the story.
- Thinking back on stories you know and love, come up with a list of five characters for each archetype.
- In your own work, ask whether any of these archetypes could strengthen a story you”™ve been working on.
- You may be able to use one of your existing characters to fulfill the role of an archetypal character.
- Clarify the character Arc– every hero must grow and change be it physical, emotional, spiritual, or otherwise.
- Focus on the Present Tense-who is the character now? While it may be useful to know who the character was ten years ago, the story is being experienced now.
- Use back-story only if it’s revelation- Back-story is only valuable if it surprises the audience or explains the character’s behavior.
- Avoid decorative tags– don’t waste time coming up with imaginative eccentricities. What is the character’s self-assessment? What is the world’s? Is there a gap?
- Show, don’t tell– Don’t tell the audience that a character is a traveler. Show the audience by the array of suitcases and travel brochures lying about.
- Don’t underestimate the power of small moments– When information is revealed to the audience when the character believes they are alone.
- Mix and match archetypes. Try a Mentor who is also a Trickster, or an Eternal Boy/Threshold Guardian.
- Get to know your characters. Adding flesh to those bones will make them feel less “archetype-y.”
- Try associating a character with one of the figures from the Chinese zodiac “” boar, dog, dragon, horse, goat, monkey, ox, rabbit, rat, rooster, snake, and tiger “” each of which is endowed with a complex array of both positive and negative traits.
- The personality enneagram, a nine-pointed array of personality types, might also be a useful reference for character building.
- Consider these psychological types based on the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator psychometric assessment: introversion/extroversion, sensing/intuition, thinking/feeling, and judgment/perception. (Everyone is a combination of both types in each pair, but in different ratios.)
- Don’t focus on characteristics, instead build characters. (Read more about that here.)
- Stereotypes are archetypes that are shallow. Give your character contradictions.
Archetypes in Primary Characters
- If using the Hero’s Journey, understand the Major Archetypes.
- If not using the Hero’s Journey, understand the Major Archetypes.
- Give your main character growth. They need a flaw to be worked through.
- Connect that flaw to the story. So they must grow through that flaw in order to make it through the story.
- Archetypes (like Mentors) don’t have to be standalone characters. A mentor can also be a threshold guardian, for instance.
Archetypes in Secondary Characters
- If using the Hero’s Journey, understand the Minor Archetypes.
- If not using the Hero’s Journey, understand the Minor Archetypes.
- Give your secondary characters a reason to be there.
- Use secondary characters to play with themes.
- For instance, if a theme is “truthfulness” have a secondary character who constantly lies.
- Secondary Archetypes can reflect the hero by showing a past or future version of your main character.
- They can reflect the hero by showing a more exaggerated trait of the protagonist.
- They can react against the hero by being the opposite in some way.
- Secondary characters should aid or hinder your main character’s journey.
Want, Wound, and Need
- Use character growth, especially in your main character.
- The hero”™s flaw and growth revolve around three aspects of the hero.
- The want is the obvious desire they are striving for: the relationship; the elixir of life; acceptance into the secret club; etc.
- The need is the subconscious desire that drives the want. It is not the specific relationship that is the key; it is the need to be validated. The elixir of life isn”™t really what drives; it”™s a fear of death. The secret club isn”™t the end all; instead the hero searches for acceptance.
- The wound is one of the primary things holding the hero back. This may be inflicted by the villain or may be part of the circumstances. The relationship can”™t work because the hero comes from a lower class. The elixir oflife is out of reach because the hero is too old and feels useless. The secret club is out of bounds to someone who cannot read.
- These wounds may be real or imagined, but they always bear great weight in the eyes of the hero.
- The wounded (flawed) hero searches for a want, but grows as they address the need.
I notice, as I review this list, how important character growth is. Every character that is anything more than incidental should grow, at least a little. Not necessarily positive growth, either.
In any case, these are just some tips to think about. Next week, I will begin a master list of character types.
Some of my sources
- Use Archetypes to Create Literary Characters
- Character Archetypes Masterlist
- Character Archetype vs. Character Stereotype
- 8 ½ Character Archetypes You Should Be Writing
- Learning About Your Characters
- Writing Great Screenplays