Fiction writers are always trying to create characters who crackle with authenticity. We strive to create characters who are both familiar and at the same time unique. The familiar provides a sense of comfort and predictability which helps us understand a character at a deep level. They are like us or someone we know. The unique differentiates the character, allowing her to become a specific person and not just a type. This is where the character surprises, and often entertains, us. They do things we wouldn’t, they are driven by other, unseen forces
A working knowledge of archetypes, then, becomes an indispensable tool for writers. Archetypes can be thought of as patterns of behaviors or clusters of attributes that tend to occur together. They appeal to an unconscious sense of order. When used in fiction, they work their magic by tapping into a primal way of understanding and making meaning.
Archetypes show their fingerprints in many ways in fiction. They may take the shape of an overall plot structure, as in the Hero and Heroine’s Journeys or the classical three-act story structure. They may appear as classic character types like the Mentor (think Obi-Wan Kenobe) or the Sidekick (Batman’s Robin). They may also reveal themselves as objects such as the Grail or the Missing Key. Today, I’m going to explore how to craft characters using archetypes.
Archetypes are Not Stereotypes
Before we get too deep, it’s important to take consider stereotypes and how they differ from archetypes. While they may sound like similar concepts, they are actually at opposite ends of the spectrum. Stereotypes are shallow over-generalizations. They cluster together typifications until they become watered down, cartoonish representations. Archetypes, on the other hand, provide specific examples as an invitation to deep exploration. Seldom do you find one character who wholly embodies just one archetype.
The character of Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, provides an interesting example of the differences between stereotypical and archetypal characters. Saul is the Slimy Lawyer, the kind who gives all lawyers a bad name: he will literally break the law to prove his clients’ innocence. He could easily veer into stereotype, but the show writers avoid this by giving him highly specific actions that differentiate him from the stereotype. For example, when we first meet Saul, he turns down Walt’s bribe, seemingly offended by Walt’s assumptions about his integrity.
Only later does Saul step into his unique embodiment of the Slimy Lawyer, concocting schemes to free his clients from their predicaments. His solutions are all highly unusual and morally suspect. The prequel show, Better Call Saul, does even more to establish Saul as an archetype, not a stereotype, showing his path to the lawyer he has become today. We see that Jimmy, as he is known in his earlier days, is compassionate toward an elderly client, respecting her wishes to discontinue a case that has sown discord amongst her friends even though it could have profited him greatly. Saul is given further dimension by embodying more than one archetype: he is also the Fool, as we’ll see below.
Use More Than One Archetype per Character
In working with archetypes, it is helpful to break away from the paradigm of one archetype per character. A character is not so much synonymous with a particular archetype, rather he embodies an archetype at points during the story. The Greeks believed that they were actually possessed by the gods and goddesses. It is helpful to think of archetypal influence like that… I came under the sway of Dionysus as I let myself drink too much.
Some authors put forth definitive collections of archetypes, but in truth there are thousands. And the most basic archetypes can be broken down into subtypes. The Mother, for example, also appears as the Evil Stepmother, The Good Mother, and the Devouring Mother.
When an author has an awareness of archetypes and honors their forms and subtleties, it helps her to create resonance for readers. The author does so by tapping into the collective wisdom where the archetypes reside. Understanding archetypes is like having the Magic Key
Classic Fiction Archetypes
Christopher Vogler outlines the archetypes he feels are most useful to the writer. These archetypes are important for the fulfillment of roles within the classical story.
- Threshold Guardian
Caroline Myss presents a more personalized model of the archetypes. These archetypes are selected to represent the dimensions of an individual’s personality. In her Sacred Contracts Card Deck, there are 72 archetypes represented. This is an excellent resource for writers, as is her Gallery of Archetypes, which is available for free.
Choosing Your Archetypes
Before you chose archetypes that you might want to work within your story, it is helpful to be clear on the following:
What are your character’s goal and need? What does he fear the most? How does he usually respond to problems? What traits does he currently possess that will serve him well? What else does he need to develop?
Sketch out your answers to these questions and then see how they match up with the archetypes below. Which of the archetypes are dominant within your character? Which ones are in shadow (the shadow typically manifests as the more dysfunctional or unconscious side of the archetype)?
- Goal: Remain in safety.
- Fear: Abandonment.
- Response to problem: Deny or seek rescue.
- Task: Fidelity, discernment.
- Gifts: Trust, optimism, loyalty.
- Shadow: Retreating into fantasy.
- Examples: Drew Barrymore in E.T., The Little Prince, Alice in Wonderland
- Goal: Regain safety.
- Fear: Exploitation, victimization.
- Response to problem: Powerlessness, wish for rescue, cynical compliance.
- Task: Process pain and disillusionment fully and be open to receive help from others.
- Gifts: Interdependence, empathy, realism.
- Shadow: Haunted by feelings of abandonment.
- Examples: David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum
- Goal: Win, get own way; make a difference through struggle.
- Fear: Weakness, powerlessness, impotence, ineptitude.
- Response to problem: Slay, defeat, or convert the problem or enemy.
- Task: High-level assertiveness; fighting for what really matters.
- Gifts: Courage, discipline, skill.
- Shadow: Pursuing victory at any cost.
- Examples: Rocky, Hunger Games (Katniss), Mad Max.
- Goal: Bliss, oneness, unity.
- Fear: Loss of love, disconnection.
- Response to problem: Love it.
- Task: Follow your bliss, commit to what you love.
- Gifts: Commitment, passion, ecstasy.
- Shadow: Obsessive passion that harms others.
- Examples: Titanic, Casablanca, Nicholas Cage in Moonstruck.
- Goal: Help others; make a difference through love and sacrifice.
- Fear: Selfishness, ingratitude.
- Response to problem: Take care of the problem or those it harms.
- Task: Give without maiming self or others.
- Gifts: compassion, generosity.
- Shadow: Neglect of one’s self.
- Examples: It’s a Wonderful Life; Nurse Ratched (shadow) of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Ratched. Kathy Bates (shadow) in Misery.
- Goal: Search for a better life or a better way.
- Fear: Conformity, becoming entrapped.
- Response to problem: Leave, escape, take off.
- Task: Be true to a deeper or higher truth.
- Gifts: Autonomy, ambition.
- Shadow: Inability to settle down, constant flitting around.
- Examples: Thelma and Louise, King Arthur
- Goal: Growth, metamorphosis.
- Fear: Stagnation or annihilation; death without rebirth.
- Response to problem: Be destroyed by it or destroy it.
- Task: Learn to let go, turn it over, accept mortality.
- Gifts: Humility, acceptance.
- Shadow: Intoxication with destructive power.
- Examples: Robin Hood, Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List.
- Goal: Creation of life, work, or new reality of any kind.
- Fear: Inauthenticity, miscreation, failure of imagination.
- Response to problem: Accept that it is part of the Self, part of what one has created; be willing to create another reality.
- Task: Self-creation, self-acceptance.
- Gifts: Creativity, identity, vocation.
- Shadow: Eccentricity or madness; fear of financial ruin.
- Example: Amadeus; A Beautiful Mind; Vincent van Gogh
- Goal: A harmonious and prosperous kingdom (life).
- Fear: Chaos, loss of control.
- Response to problem: Find its constructive use.
- Task: Take full responsibility for your life; find ways to express your deeper Self in the world.
- Gifts: Sovereignty, responsibility, competence.
- Shadow: Excessive feelings of entitlement; controlling and demanding.
- Examples: Richard III, Henry IV, Macbeth
- Goal: Transformation of lesser into better realities.
- Fear: Evil sorcery (transformation in a negative direction).
- Response to problem: Transform it or heal it.
- Task: Alignment of Self with cosmos.
- Gift: Personal power.
- Shadow: Misuse of power and knowledge.
- Examples: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, The Mists of Avalon by Marion Z. Bradley, the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
- Goal: Truth, understanding.
- Fear: Deception, illusion. Response to problem: Study, understand, or transcend it.
- Task: Attainment of knowledge, wisdom, enlightenment.
- Gifts: Skepticism, wisdom, nonattachment.
- Shadow: Interest in financial gain or control over followers.
- Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings and Obi Wan Kenobe in Star Wars.
- Goal: Enjoyment, pleasure, aliveness.
- Fear: Nonaliveness.
- Response to problem: Play with it or play tricks on it.
- Task: Trust in the process; enjoyment of the journey for its own sake.
- Gifts: Joy, freedom, liberation.
- Shadow: Superficiality stemming from the denial of one’s own emotional health.
- Examples: Forrest Gump; Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul.
I’m Kira Swanson, a mindset coach for writers. I help writers master their mental game so that they can focus on what they love: writing. I help my clients to tap their inner source of motivation and inspiration, create the time to write, and quash the self-doubt that plagues so many creatives so that they can finally finish that draft.