Wednesday, March 06, 2019

The Practical Guide to Using Character Archetypes in Your Novel

creating characters
By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Character archetypes are a useful tool in creating characters for a novel.

At some point in your writing journey, you’ve probably come across the term archetype. This has no doubt led you to articles quoting Carl Jung (the father of psychology) and his twelve character types. Pursuing that further, led to multiple articles about the variations of those and the common archetypes used in fiction.

And then your head likely started spinning and you wondered how the heck any of that was going to help you write a better novel.

Personally, I think there’s a difference between Jungian archetypes and fictional archetypes. Jung’s focus was on defining the human psyche, not telling a grand tale, so his list tends be more thematic in nature. Which is great if you’re writing literary fiction with Deep and Meaningful Themes, but not so great for the rest of us.

Practical archetypes for fiction are more down to earth and helpful, and they vary by genre. They’re excellent guides and templates for building characters, themes, and stories.

So, Real Quick: What Is an Archetype?

Archetypes are essentially models or prototypes that represent a pattern of behavior or universal truth. They’re concepts representing aspects we can easily identify and potentially identify with. According to Jung, they are: The Hero, The Child, The Orphan, The Creator, The Caregiver, The Mentor, The Joker, The Magician, The Ruler, The Rebel, The Lover, The Seductress. But if you want to go crazy with all the options and varieties, here’s a list of over 325 of them. 

The Problem with Jung’s List of Archetypes

creating characters
How do concepts work with characters? 
Because they’re conceptual, they can be difficult to work with when creating a character. 

The Hero isn’t a problem since every book has a hero, but many might wonder how The Magician fits into a non-fantasy story, even though Jung didn’t mean a literal magician. 

This can be particularly tough on newer writers, who might think they need to put all twelve into a novel and somehow use them literally. But this archetype represents a character who is perceptive and clever, who alters reality in some way. 

For example, a character who sees past the protagonist’s BS and hones in on what’s really wrong might be The Magician in a novel—perceptive, clever, and changes the “reality” the protagonist lives in.

A Much Easier Way to Use Archetypes in Your Novel

When you think of archetypes as common or expected roles in a genre, it gets easier to work with them. 

No matter what type of story you’re writing, you know you’ll need a protagonist (the hero/heroine), an antagonist (villain), allies (people to support the protagonist), and minions (people to support the antagonist).

Beyond that, the types of allies and minions will vary depending on the genre. There are best friends and nemeses. Sidekicks and henchmen. Mentors and evil geniuses. A best friend character plays the same role no matter what the genre—Samwise supported Frodo, Ron and Hermione supported Harry, Thelma supported Louise.

Different genres use a variety of archetypes to suit specific roles needed. 

Pick your favorite genre and think about the types of character roles you commonly see—not the clichés, such as the “hooker with as heart of gold,” but the established roles that genre typically sees. This can help you create the cast for your own novel, because you'll know the types of people associated with that type of story.

(Here’s more on the difference between an archetype, trope, and cliche)

Here are some common archetypes by genre:

Quick note...some of these can also be considered expected tropes in certain genres. The line between archetype and trope can get blurry when an archetype becomes so common in a genre readers expect it, and are disappointed if it doesn't appear. 

Romance: The love interest, star-crossed lovers, the bad boy, the alpha male, the best friend, the charmer, the good girl, the boy/girl next door, the lost soul.

Fantasy: The chosen one, the hero, the sidekick, the ally, the villain, the mentor, the maiden, the betrayer, the trickster, the damsel-in-distress, the guardian.

Science fiction: The rebel, the scientist, the mad scientist, the pilot, the hotshot, the mechanic, the alien, the wild card, the diplomat, the hacker.

Horror: The jock, the cheerleader, the stoner, the virgin, the cannon fodder, the big bad, the survivor.

Mystery: The victim, the investigator, the femme fatale, the grieving spouse, the apprentice, the ingenue, the recluse, the loose cannon, the busybody.

Westerns: The outlaw, the cowboy, the drifter, the cattle baron, the homesteaders, the gunslinger, the lawman, the marshal.

These are some of the “stock characters” readers expect to see when they pick up that genre, but it's by no means a complete list. Subgenres will have their own common roles, such as the "investigator" in a mystery will change depending on what type of mystery is it. Detectives, federal agents, amateur sleuths, private eyes, etc.

While this might seem like a bad thing and lead to cookie-cutter stories, it’s actually a comfort for readers, because they know what they like and know what they’re going to get each book.

(Here’s more on what Nashville can teach us about archetypes)

Just because it’s an archetype, doesn’t mean all the characters are the same. Characters can play the same role, but still be completely different from other stories. It’s how we create the character in that role that matters.

Character Archetypes Are Great Places to Start Creating a Character

character creation
Build your character using their role
This is the practical side of archetypes. Once you know what type of story you want to tell (and if not, next week I’ll be looking deeper into story archetypes), you fill out the expected cast of characters and start fleshing them out to suit your needs. 

You may decide you don’t need a love interest if there’s no romance in your fantasy, or you might choose a loose cannon for your police procedural. If your science fiction is set in space, you’ll have a different set of characters than if it’s set in a post-apocalyptic city.

Jung’s character archetypes work because they provide universal goals and fears to build upon. 

This is a very helpful tool when you’re still trying to figure out your conflicts and character arcs. Even when a character pops into your head fully formed, they don’t always share their deepest hopes and fears. But if you have a general sense of their role, you can better see what their goals and fears might be.

For example, the Outlaw wants freedom and to live by their own rules, which means being “trapped” and forced to follow someone else’s rules is a likely fear. 

But say you have an Outlaw character who fears being alone—that’s a bit of a disconnect in their character. Being alone defines the archetype, so odds are either that’s not their true fear, or they’re not really an Outlaw. Or, you have to develop why they’re embracing their greatest fear instead of running from it.

Connor Neil has a few nice lists with graphics for easy archetype reference, and J.J. Jonas put together a lovely PDF of goals, fears, and traits based on Carol S. Pearson’s research. This is pure gold from a character-creation standpoint. Carl Golden has another helpful breakdown of the personality traits, goals, motivations, and fears.

Character archetypes help you understand the roles needed for your story. 

If you know you want to write a romance, you know you’ll need several of the character types off the romance list. Reviewing the common-role list can even spark ideas or remind you of a character type you forgot to include to more clearly define your subgenre.

Character archetypes help you combine or delete unnecessary characters. 

Minor and walk-on characters tend to pile up in a first draft, but when you look at what their roles are, and where they fit into a novel, you can usually see where they overlap. Maybe there are several minor characters who are there only to offer advice at the right time, but you already have a mentor character in a larger role. Letting that character give the advice instead allows you to cut the others.

Archetypes are tools and guides that help writers craft stronger stories. Think of them as structure templates for characters—a wire frame that looks like a person, but how you decide to flesh it out is what makes that character unique.

Do you use character archetypes? What are some of your favorites?

Find out more about characters, internalization, and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue 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.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I am confused in the difference between an archetype and a trope. I have read your article on the difference but I need clarification.
    You listed things like the recluse, the damsel in distress as archetype which I had assumed to be tropes instead before.
    Can you clarify this to me.

    1. Some do overlap, or they change over the years, or they're an archetype in one genre but a trope or a cliché in the other.

      Archetypes can also be established tropes in certain genres. Stories with quests almost always have a guardian, and often a herald. Other genres might use both types, but they're expected in fantasy. So they’re more trope in those novels.

      Damsel in distress is one that is very likely to shift into cliché before too much longer. When it represents "someone in trouble who can't help themselves" it's an archetype. When it's "the person who needs saving" it's more trope in certain genres, such as fantasy and thrillers. When it's "a pretty woman who's there for the sole purpose of being recused" it's a cliché. The only thing a damsel is distress is good for is being in distress so the hero can rescue her.

      The recluse, on the other hand, is still a useful concept that represents someone who doesn’t want to get involved, or who wants to be left alone (the loner type). But it’s also a trope in many mysteries, where uncovering the truth from people who don’t want to reveal it is a major part of the story.

      Archetypes and tropes can turn into clichés when the character is nothing but one small aspect of the idea. The character is no longer “a person” but “a device.”

      Does that clear things up? And I think this just helped me write half my next trope/cliché posts, so thanks!

    2. Yes
      Tho I would like to know since your article here is addressing archetypes whether it could what you say on this article also be applicable to tropes as well?

    3. I could certainly add that. Thanks!

  2. I can understand how helpful this method could be for building character. I especially like the idea of Caroline Myss’ Archetype Cards.

    1. I especially like archetypes during the brainstorming stage. It gives me direction so I'm not wandering blindly trying to come up with ideas.