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Writing Character Archetypes


Introduction


Archetypes are found in all fictional content we consume. As an avid reader, and a lover of fiction, I have consumed a lot of literature. I started to notice patterns in the content. In high school, my teachers taught me about the hero’s journey, symbols, motifs, and the like—patterns that every good story had. But today I want to talk about archetypes.


Archetypes are broad representations of human nature. They can be a character, a plot, a theme, or a symbol. To avoid college-thesis-length examination of the archetype, I only want to focus on character archetypes in this post.


We all love familiar things: ordering chicken tenders at a new restaurant, watching movies you watched as a kid, and remaking family recipes when your family is half a world away. The familiar is reassuring, a pattern we seek when in need of comfort. That pattern stokes the feeling of nostalgia, a reminder of the past we long to return to. As a reader, I am drawn to the familiar. And as a writer, I am drawn to create the familiar. Archetypes function as an identifiable pattern we are all drawn to in literature.



Stories, more even than stars or spectacle, are still the currency of life, or commercial entertainment, and look likely to last longer than the euro. - Adam Gopnik


Prerequisites


To understand a character archetype is to define what an archetype is. The term archetype has its roots in the Greek language. The root word archein translates to “old” or “original,” while the root typos translates to “model” or “type.” Translated from its roots, the word archetype can be defined as an “original pattern.” Many types of literary devices operate in patterns across and within literature that are notably different from archetypes.


A motif is a repeated pattern within a text. For example, the appearance of a raven before a moment of doom throughout a novel is a motif. The pattern transforms the raven into a symbol of foreboding. The motif only functions as a pattern contained within each story. An archetype offers a model or form used repeatedly to represent the pattern of human nature across many different story.


Another common pattern of modern literature is the trope. The most commonly used definition of a trope is a literary device that appears repeatedly across a genre, becoming easily identifiable to readers. Tropes generally adhere to their specific genres, though there is some overlap. For example, the Chosen One (think Harry Potter or Anakin Skywalker) is typically a fantasy trope.


An archetype is when you zoom out of the trope and identify the role it fulfills. Tropes put the archetype into context. For example, the well renowned chosen one trope, the main character prophesied to defeat evil or achieve greatness, embodies the hero archetype.



Warm Up


Character archetypes are fairly easy to define and utilize. For the best use, you want to know the common traits associated with the character archetype. For this warm up, jot down some character traits you think would apply to the popular archetypes listed. What are their defining traits, strengths, and weaknesses? Archetypes are meant to be vague so be as detailed and creative as you want.


· The Mentor

· The Damsel

· The Outcast





All the most powerful ideas in history go back to archetypes. - Carl Jung



Character Archetypes and How to Use Them


Examples of Archetypes


Here are a couple of examples of popular character archetypes:



The Hero and the Villain


The hero and the villain archetypes are often synonymous with protagonist and antagonist. These archetypes embody the good vs. evil conflict in most stories. The hero is the main character on the “good” side of the morality line. The villain is the opposing character on the “evil” side of the line. This pair is pitted against each other in a struggle for control.


· Batman and the Joker

· Harry Potter and Voldemort

· Sherlock and Moriarty



The Outlaw


The rebel, the menace to society, the outlaw who sees rules as optional, is a character who refuses to abide by the restricting standards of society. They are defined by their stubborn independence and overwhelming virtue.


· Robin Hood

· Captain Jack Sparrow

· Katniss Everdeen



The Jester


Colloquially known as the clown, the fool, or the comedian, the jester’s defining characteristic is humor. The jester uses the coat of humor to mask a far more complex character. Though often the side character, this archetype has potential as a protagonist that uses humor and wit to get themselves in and out of trouble. They are a fun and engaging addition to any story.



· Harley Quinn

· Puck from Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Night’s Dream

· Genie from Disney’s Aladdin



Why The Archetype Works


Using archetypes is an integral part of storytelling. It is as important now as it was when the first story was told. Its use adds to the “readability” of your story. While it’s not copy-paste, your readers come to your story with an expectation that you, as an writer, are meant to surpass.


Making it Your Own


Character archetypes provide a flat elevated surface for a writer to utilize. Taking that flat character and shaping it into a 3d character is the art of the artist. As a writer, there are several ways to mold your character from the archetype.


Dress Your Character


The character archetype is a newborn babe, with endless possibilities. An important aspect to consider is their personality. A character’s personality is based on their emotional capabilities, how they process information, and how they interact with the outside world. Using these methods is what creates a believable and interesting character. A good resource to consider when shaping your archetype’s personality is MBTI personality types. These consist of sixteen personality types outlined from the theories of psychological types described by Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung.

Another component to consider is identifying your character’s fears and goals within their model. What does the hero fear? What does the villain hope to achieve?


Give the Characters a Strong Plot


No matter how complex and compelling your character becomes, they need an interesting plot to fully develop into themselves and engage the reader. Their journey is what shapes them into unique characters. If Luke Skywalker never purchased R2-D2 and simply worked on his uncle’s farm, the audience would’ve been lulled to sleep by the monotony. Create a interesting conflict and craft engaging dialogue. Refer to previous post on Writing Strong Dialogue for more help there.


Characters are not created by writers. They pre-exist and have to be found. - Elizabeth Bowen

Conclusion


The archetype is but a component of your formula. Following a structure within a structure is what storytelling is. We are a pattern based species. At this point in our evolution, creating something new is hard to do. But making something old into something new is what captures audiences. Blueprints are meant to be reliable guides to your masterpiece. Examine what characters you’ve already created. See what archetypes they fit into and how you molded them. Did you stick too close to the mold or did you defy expectations? Use these molds to create something out of this world.






Resources


Types of Archetypes in Fiction Literature: Story, Character, Setting, and More - Jennifer Xue highlights the most common archetypes found in literature and outlines how to use archetypes to build strong characters and storylines.

Writing 101: The 12 Literary Archetypes - The Masterclass staff lists and defines twelve common archetypes utilized by writers.


What Are Character Tropes and When Should You Use Them? - The Novel Factory staff describes the differences between archetypes and tropes and how to use them in your writing.


Can Science Explain Why We Tell Stories? - Adam Gopnik examines the universality of storytelling through the lens of psychology.


The 16 MBTI® Types - The Myers & Briggs Foundation staff outlines all sixteen personality types.

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