How to Write Character Archetypes



nounarchetypeplural nounarchetypes
  1. a very typical example of a certain person or thing.
    "the book is a perfect archetype of the genre"
    • an original that has been imitated.
      "the archetype of faith is Abraham"
    • a recurrent symbol or motif in literature, art, or mythology.
      "mythological archetypes of good and evil"

I love archetypal characters. Maybe more than I should. Let's take the cast of my novel Made for Mercy (which is currently on sale if you need a late summer read!) as an example. 

Here we see:

- The kind, sweet, cutesy girl with a pink bedroom and lots of candy who is actually a super-secret, super-skilled military psychologist (Kita)
- The extremely quiet male romantic interest with a tragic backstory and really just an overall tragic story, he didn't deserve what he got (Rin)
- The physically strong, mentally scarred female main character who feels a constant need to prove her worth (Maru)
- The psychotic villain with a host of increasingly unhinged personalities, who wavers back and forth between good and evil but ultimately turns out to be evil (Depends on when you ask him)

Characters like these are called "archetypes" for a reason. They've been written before, they exist to some degree in real life, and they magnify certain traits that no realistic person would display quite so prominently. The tricky thing about writing archetypal characters is allowing them to exemplify whatever trait you want to focus on (i.e., dichotomy between a good side and a bad side) while not straying into the territory of "this is the same character as every other archetype in every other book, and I've read this a thousand times already."

Here's how to write archetypal characters who aren't stale, who will interest the reader, and who will hold active roles in the plot.

1. Subvert the archetypes.
Warsafe, my current project, is filled with subverted archetypes. Instead of the "Chosen One," we have "exactly the wrong person for the job, but feels so strongly about the situation that they can't help getting involved." Instead of the quiet, traumatized character, we have the irrationally optimistic traumatized character. Instead of a feel-good romantic subplot, we have an unhealthy romance between two characters who are my favorites, and who are also absolutely terrible for each other. 

If you want to employ archetypes without running the risk of becoming stereotypical, take a few of the most common archetypes and flip them on their heads. Make sure the resulting character is still within the bounds of possibility - after all, archetypes exist for a reason - and then get creative with breaking every possible rule.

Here are some examples.

Archetype: Tortured hero
Subversion: Hero with a traumatic past who is happy, kind, and caring

Archetype: Sacrificial lamb (a character who sacrifices themselves for the greater good and who never sins)
Subversion: A character who is terrified of self-sacrifice, avoids it when they can help it, and is petty and rude

Archetype: Double agent
Subversion: A character who is genuinely working for both sides at the same time, rather than being secretly loyal to only one; perhaps they do not see the two groups' ideals as conflicting, or perhaps they're only in it for the money.

2. Lean into the archetypes.
This is the opposite of the point above, but it's another way to make your archetypes authentic. If you want to write about the "mad scientist," take all the usual stereotypes associated with this type and shove them down your character's throat. Give them a white lab coat and a smirk and a test tube filled with simmering green liquid. Again, there's a reason why archetypes exist: People like them, and they are to some extent true to real life.

The danger with this strategy is that stereotypical characters can sometimes make your story seem stereotypical, too, regardless of how innovative you make your plot. Read on to learn how to avoid this common pitfall.

3. Understand the difference between fiction and reality.
Larger-than-life. That's the word you should use to describe your archetypal characters. Their personality traits should be wildly on display, so obvious that your reader can see them from a mile away. If your character bites their lip because they're always nervous, show them doing it, show it often, and have other characters comment on it. If your character giggles, show how much it annoys their friends. If your character has a mean streak, have them be mean frequently and often and to everyone in their vicinity.

Authors tend to forget their characters' archetypes halfway through the story. Don't let this be you. If needed, make yourself a short list of your characters' dominating personality traits and have it in front of you all the time. 

One word of warning: Be sure to use different wording to describe the same actions, or else your reader will stop seeing it as a repetitive action and start seeing it as simple repetitive phrasing, which is much less interesting.

4. Don't have only one archetypal character.
Archetypes play well together. What doesn't work, though, is when you have a story with only one archetype. Usually, this character will suck up all the personality that should have been spread evenly around the other characters and end up being the only one who is at all interesting. 

I have a specific book in mind when I make this criticism, and it is, unfortunately, Allegiant. In this book, Tris Prior ends up being the only character with a sharply defined personality, leaving everyone else flat, lacking definition, and unlovable for the reader. (If you disagree, realize that your perception may be influenced by having read the first two books in the series, where the characters were all much more clearly defined.)

5. Allow the character to recognize that they are somewhat stereotypical.
People tend to be self-aware. I know, for example, that if you give me an economics textbook and ask me to explain price elasticity, I will start on a two-hour tangent that can only be stopped by the phrase "dinner is ready." 

In the same way, if your archetypal character is a mad scientist, let them know it. Have them look in the mirror and proudly compare the disrepair of their hair to Einstein. Have them apologize to other characters for talking about the theory of relativity over dinner. This gives your character depth and opens up the opportunity for them to recognize and grow out of some of their characteristics, if those happen to be negative.

6. Be careful writing unlikeable main characters.
God views all humans as redeemable. Humans do not. If you make your main character a psychotic murderer with absolutely no lovable traits, your reader will probably condemn them to a well-deserved spot at the bottom of their DNF list. Sure, they're an archetype, but that's not an archetype most people want to spend four hundred pages with. Not all archetypes are created equal, and the role of main character is especially important to cast wisely.

Are you ready to start writing your novel? Looking for tips on how to write the perfect email? Do you have a story in mind, but aren't yet sure how to share it? Here are some helpful links!

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