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Monday, January 28

What Nashville Can Teach us About Creating Character Archetypes

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I’m a big fan of the new TV series, Nashville. It was a surprise to me, because it didn’t seem like my kind of show, but the hubby and I have learned to give most shows a shot. (thanks to the miracle of DVRs) Some are our favorite series are ones we overlooked until they came out on DVD. I'm very glad I gave this one a whirl, because now I'm totally hooked.

What impresses me about Nashville are the characters. The writers/creators/actors have done a marvelous job of crafting characters with inherent conflict at a variety of thematic levels, so there’s always somewhere to take them story wise. The characters play different roles (in the thematic sense, not the screenplay sense), so when a storyline idea emerges, it's easier to know who to give that plot to. (This is extremely useful for those planning a series) These are similar to classic types like the Mentor or Guardian, but aren't so specific as to their roles in a story.

For those unfamiliar with the show, it’s set in the Country & Western music business in Nashville, TN. There are three archetype characters:
  1. The successful Queen of Country Music, Rayna James (played by the delightful Connie Briton). Rayna has been at the top of her career for a long time, is a legend in the biz, but her career is starting to slide and she’s struggling to stay on top.
  2. The current pop star/crossover sensation superstar Juliette Barnes (played deliciously nasty by Hayden Panettiere). Juliette is the new It Girl who wants the respect of the Rayna James’ of the world, but is viewed as a bubblegum flash in the pan who’s expected to burn out and disappear in a year or two.
  3. The just starting out in her career newbie Scarlett O'Connor (played by the ethereal Clare Bowen). Scarlett stumbles into the music business and is trying to find her way in this new and chaotic world, and still too naïve about it to realize its dangers.
All of these archetypes have other characters that surround them and show additional elements of the type, but this is a common triangle of story people. The old married couple, the newlyweds, the dating pair. The wise old mentor, the wizard in full power, and the apprentice. The beginning, the middle, and the end.

(More on creating secondary characters here)

One element that makes these character types work so well is that the archetypes provide a useful blueprint for how this type of character lives their life.

The mature/end character is one who has seen it all, is wise from experience, but might forget what it was like to struggle. Who’s used to having things go her way, and is caught off guard when they don’t. (or is cynical because he knows from experience things don't go the way they should) She doesn’t have a lot of patience for those who think it’s easy to do what she’s worked so hard to accomplish. It can be the bright lights of success, or the darker side of winning.

The adult/middle character revels in their position and success, is hungry for more, thinks their way is the right way and isn’t always open to the wisdom of others. One or two successes proves their power, and they don’t expect this to ever change. They have the naiveté to think success is permanent, or the hope that once they make it they're done. Even the fear that now that they've made it, it can all vanish any second.

The child/beginning character is facing everything for the first time, and marches in unaware. Things are new and exciting, and even when they're scary there’s not enough world experience for her to realize how danger our of difficult the situation is. They can feel the fear of growing up, or the blind optimism of youth.

Inherent flaws go with a character archetype. Understanding those types and personalities can make it a easier to create characters who fit different roles and don't overlap, so you don't have the same basic character with multiple names.

(More on discovering the roles your characters play here)

The mature character type probably isn’t going to be bowled over or swept away in something just because it’s new and exciting. The child character probably won’t realize someone is taking advantage of her. The adult character probably won’t realize she's overstepping her authority.

Even though I use mature/adult/child, age really has nothing to do with it. The traits and roles they play are what determine the archetype, not the physical ages of the characters.

If your story is about a group of teen boys, maybe one is the "mature" boy whose parents died when he was little and has been in and out of foster care, forced to grow up too soon and has more world experience than your typical teen. He's the "wise old mentor" type, even though he's a kid. He represents experience.

The boy with the happy and healthy family who's never seen anything shocking or experienced any heartache is the "young child" type. He represents innocence.

You don’t want all of your characters to feel the same, so be creative with how you use archetypes. Nashville has several "mature" characters. Deacon Claybourne is a very experienced, at the top of the career type, yet he's never achieved the success he should have. He has all the respect and experience, yet winning comes with demons in his world. Addiction. Loss. Struggle. He has a much darker perspective on what being on top means. Rayna's husband, Teddy Conrad, is a great example of a mature character worried about losing it all and forgetting the lessons life has taught him.

(More on character arcs and the internal conflict here)

The "child characters" all have different roles about being young and on the verge of making it. Scarlett is sweet and loyal and hopeful, yet her boyfriend Avery is selfish and abandons his band mates just for a break. Gunner Scott is trapped in between, working hard and trying to do the right thing, but letting personal feelings hinder his chances of success.

Archetype characters can be useful skeletons to provide your characters with a solid backbone. They can work on a thematic level, and an emotional one. They can help you pinpoint and clarify the growth arcs you want, and allow you to show aspects of the road not taken or the price to be paid if that growth isn't made (or the victories if the growth is embraced).

What's your favorite character archetype? 

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my bestselling Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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  1. Great post Janice. I don't watch much TV but this is a great example of what you can learn about characters from the TV series you enjoy. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. I've never seen Nashville, but I really appreciate the way you broke down archtypes for us.

    My favorite archtype... that would be the trickster/mentor. Characters like Puss In Boots who guide and protect the hero while making him want to tare out his own hair in frustration.

  3. Natalie, there's been a bit of a Renaissance in the TV world the last few years. The writing for a lot of shows has just been spectacular. And with shorter seasons (which I have mixed feelings about) it's more like watching a movie trilogy. Strong story arcs, great characters, great actors. It's been a nice thing to see.

    Chicory, that's a great archetype. You never really know where they stand, which adds so much unpredictability to the story.

  4. I've only seen one episode of Nashville, but it was great. My family loves country music, so we were hooked on "Telescope" for a while.

    I love the way you broke it down to mature/adult/child. I never thought of it that way! While reading this post, I attached these roles to the characters in my current wip, and it seems they're on target. Thanks for the insight.

  5. One of my favorite shows contains a great example of a love triangle: the hero, the woman, and the woman's ex-husband. Not only did the writers maintain a nice balance between everyday-hero Jack and tall-dark-and-handsome Nathan, but they balanced it so well that I rooted for the rival about as much as the hero.

  6. Julie, the music is fantastic. I just adore Scarlett's voice. I hear there's going to be a soundtrack, so I'm looking forward to that.

    Nice hear your WIP is on target :) Of course these archetypes are just tools, you don't have to use them, but having the different perspectives can really round out a story.

    Rachel6, that's great! What show? It's really hard to do a good love triangle.

  7. "Eureka", on Syfy. Snarky guy versus sweet; they didn't cling too hard to tradition, either, which was also nice.

  8. Thanks! I've seen a few episodes, but that's one show I somehow missed.

  9. Another Nashville fan! Learning about the different character types in a familiar TV show definitely makes it easier to understand. Thanks!

  10. Big time :) From a writer/story standpoint, there's lots to learn from it.

  11. A friend of mine watches Nashville and loves it. So when I read this post and that you pointed out from a writer/story standpoint, there's a lot to learn, I'm in.
    Actually, in less than two hours I'll snuggle up with my pooch and watch the seventh episode. Great interview by the way over at Anita's new blog. :-)

  12. Oh cool, I hope you like it. Coming in late might be rough, but it'll probably hit reruns before too long. Though they did have a really nice "the story til now" documentary style wrap up over the holidays. Wonder if that's on the website somewhere to catch you up?