Posted in character

Character Archetypes

Characters show up in all forms of storytelling. Be that in literature or in movies and television. That means the chances you’ve come across character archetypes already is high.  Archetypes are the typical examples of a particular person or thing. When discussing characters, it’s also a sort of model for a character.

Don’t get confused though! Archetypes aren’t the same thing as tropes. Where archetypes are models, they’re largely independent of genres and themes. Tropes are conventions in storytelling typically defined by genre or theme. the Evil Overlord’s Monologue is a trope, but the Evil Overlord himself isn’t the archetype.

There are twelve common archetypes for characters in storytelling: the hero, the innocent, the orphan, the creator, the caregiver, the sage, the joker, the magician, the ruler, the rebel, the lover and the seducer. Although at first glance it might look like certain archetypes are bound to play protagonist and others are bound to play, don’t be fooled. Each archetype is defined by the behaviors, strengths or flaws they model.

The Hero. The hero archetype is almost always strong and courageous. Although physical strength is the most common form of strong to show up, consider magical characters.  who’s magical strength may be unparalleled. In a negative sense however, Hero types can turn out to be overconfident and arrogant. If you’re having a hard time considering this for any sort of antagonist role, think about how well your generalized tyrant king fits the archetype here: he’s often strong, if not physically then through military or political force.

The Innocent.  Typically, Innocent types bring optimism and enthusiasm as strengths, where their naivety and helplessness may often function as flaws and weaknesses. Initially you might see them suited for a secondary or side character, but consider someone like Dr. Horrible—who continues going for his goals with enthusiasm but is relatively powerless in the situation at large—as an example of how the Innocent archetype turns up in other roles as well.

The Orphan. Don’t automatically assume this archetype has no parents. Orphan types are defined by their perseverance and independence as strengths. They often show up as part of a group: either they want to belong to a particular group, or they’re willing to defend they group they belong with. Ironically it’s those same traits that can show up as weaknesses for orphans. They can put up with a lot of abuse from a group as a whole just to try and people please, or adopt an ‘us versus them’ mentality in which they believe they’re the only ones that can be trusted.

The Creator. Defined by their creativity and their ambition, Creator types are exactly the type to be driven by a goal to serve their world or community at large. On a personal level, they’re happiest when they can do things themselves and take a lot of satisfaction in their work. The negative side of this however is that they can be perfectionists and have an over-inflated sense of themselves. Both as antagonistic and protagonistic characters, the Creator archetype want to see their visions and goals realized.

The Caregiver. As the name suggests, this archetype is a caring one. Empathetic and selfless, their goals are often centered around helping others. As a downside however, they may not have a goal of their own. Their negative traits often show up as being exploitable and people-pleasers. In a lot of ways, those negative traits are what lead Caregiver types into trouble, either because they burn themselves out for trying to do everything, or because they can’t stop themselves from trying to ‘fix’ and ‘help’ everyone in need. Note that this is also a surprisingly good fit for horror and thriller antagonists and villains, being that the villains seem themselves as doing what’s best for someone else, up to the point of ignoring social, moral or personal standards.

The Sage. The Sage archetype shows up incredibly frequently as a mentor or teacher. They come across as wise and experienced, often seeking out knowledge strictly for knowledge’s sake. In negative senses however, Sage types have a lot of potential for flaws. They can come across as know-it-alls offering unwanted advice. For having all the knowledge they do, they can become inactive, knowing something and doing nothing about it, if only to see how the situation plays out. They may also use their knowledge manipulatively by either giving it out for the sake of stirring up trouble and seeing how people react, or by giving false information to try and manipulate the outcome of a situation.

The Joker. This archetype is also frequently referred to as the Jester—and for good reason. The Joker type loves a good laugh and uses playfulness and cheer as their top strengths. In a negative sense however, their pursuit of a laugh can make them flighty or present a lack of empathy. It’s not hard to think of a villain for this type either: Batman’s Joker is quite literally the Joker. Often comedic movies use Joker types as their protagonist.

The Magician. Although they closely resemble the Sage archetype, Magician types rely on their knowledge from other sources, sometimes occult or supernatural and sometimes from other secretive places. Unlike the Sage who doesn’t always meddle, the Magician will interfere to complete their own goals.  In a negative sense however, Magicians tend towards egocentricity and arrogance. They can and absolutely will manipulate both their knowledge and others around them to fulfill their own end goals.

The Ruler. King, Ruler, Leader, Politician, Boss—whatever you call this archetype, the traits remain largely the same. These are the ones who remain goal-oriented and can control and handle most situations with ease. And, like the name suggests, Ruler types can easily become corrupt, using the power they for dominance. They may also become suspicious or even paranoid, fearing the loss of their control and power.

The Rebel. A good Rebel type is an innovative and outspokenly passionate one. Across the board, they also speak out against injustices and inequalities. The darker side of this passionate archetype is just that: they’re sometimes too passionate, giving in to anger and an unwillingness to follow a path set by others.

The Lover. Giving of themselves as freely as a Caregiver and as passionately as any Rebel, Lover types are strongly driven by their search for intimacy on both romantic and platonic levels. They can count empathy and charisma among their strengths, but when things go wrong their lack of self-identity and deep emotional drive can turn against them. Because the Lover archetype is directed primarily by their search for love and belonging, emotional turmoil is one of their biggest obstacles—and can all too easily turn them obsessive and needy when it comes to the object of their affection. This means they can play virtually any role, from the protagonist defending their loved ones, to the love interest and yes, even into the villain obsessively chasing the one they want.

The Explorer. The two key strengths of the Explorer archetype are curiosity and self-reliance. This is the type to seek out something new just for the experience. Because they seek out new experiences and things so often, it’s easy for the Explorer to alienate themselves from others in the belief that others will only encumber them. It’s the same reason they can end up trying a dozen different things without any results to show—they’re enjoying the attempt more than the success.

Which archetype do your characters fall under? Which one do you see yourself as?

Posted in character

Motivating the Antagonist

Think of your favorite show, or book series. More specifically, think about the villain. Think back on every terrible thing they’ve done.

Now, ask yourself why they’ve done those things.

If your first reaction is to say because they’re evil, or because they’re terrible people, or any reason that can be boiled down to ‘just because’ stop. If you can at least guess at their motivations or reasons such as greed or revenge, then you’re good to go: you have a fully developed character for an antagonist.

Whenever you come across an antagonist in a story—your own included—they should be just as developed as any other character. This means they have a backstory, they have motivations and they have goals. Because antagonists most often show up as the villains of a piece, it’s too tempting to say they’re doing things just because they’re  bad. People don’t like doing bad things, so he or she must be doing these things just because they’re bad, right?

Wrong.

Even someone terrible enough to properly earn the title of villain has a reason for what they do. They may not have the moral high ground, but they do have motivations and reasoning to make them choose the terrible instead of the ethical.

Take a look at your own antagonist. Ask yourself the same questions about them that you would about your protagonist or any of the supporting characters. What are their long term goals? What are their short term goals?

What obstacles do they have to solve to achieve those goals?

Now take it one step further. Ask yourself why they want those things. Don’t automatically assuming their logic is twisted either—your antagonist might be trying to get in the way of your romantic couple because they feel they need to protect one or the other from what they perceive as a bad choice. Similarly, your antagonist might want to kill the king because he feels the king is abusing his power.

Don’t forget backstory is just as important your antagonist as it is with any other character. Consider what their family life was like, where they grew up, what hardships or ordeals they’ve faced.

It’s also worth noting that two of the more common tropes in antagonists is either mental instability or abusive backgrounds. While these are tragic and often difficult topics, keep in mind that they’re common tropes and potentially harmful. Think of the people you know who struggle with mental illness or who have come from traumatic childhoods. They probably don’t go around doing things to hurt people or animals on the regular, which makes using it as a reasoning for your antagonist weak and unrealistic.

What motivates your antagonist? Let me know in the comments!

Posted in Exercises

Exercise: Describe Yourself

I’m one of those people that freezes whenever someone asks me about myself. Questionnaires, applications and interviews where the phrase ‘describe yourself in three words’ make me cringe.

Which is exactly what we’re doing today: describing ourselves.

Specifically, you should describe yourself as a character in a story. This should go beyond just physical descriptions but also include things like your voice and any tics you might have. Mannerisms can tell us a lot about character.

Go for it! Set a timer and in ten minutes come back and share your self-description.

Posted in character

Using Negative Traits for Arcs

Like real people, characters should have flaws. After all, Nobody is perfect and your characters need to be Somebody. Hence, they need to have flaws and negative traits to help balance out their strengths. Having a negative trait in their character also helps provide conflict and gives you as the writer a place to build their arc.

Take a look at your character’s negative flaws and ask questions. Are they quick-tempered? Stingy? Vain? Perhaps they have low self-esteem or they care too much about what others think. Once you know where their shortcomings are, ask yourself how it impacts their ability to resolve the main conflict. Does an inability to listen to others cause a miscommunication? Does their timidity cause them to keep quiet when they have a perfect solution?

Their flaws should impact them in some way.  Use those negative traits as an obstacle to getting what they want. This forces your character into needing to make a change and gives them a motivation for their character arc.

As the arc progresses, ramp up the problems caused by that negative trait. As the results become worse and worse, your character is forced to try a new tactic to get what they want. This reinforces the idea that their negative trait needs to change.

Not every character arc will end with a complete turn around. Change is hard to do, especially when it’s something like a bad habit or a negative trait. Rather than forcing your character through a full reimagining by the end of the story, let that negative trait remain—but tone it back. Show they can still be just as stubborn, stingy or selfish as they were, but that their instances of doing so are lessened by the impact of their past actions.  

Posted in Exercises

Exercise: From the Other Side

For this exercise, we’re taking a look at some non-fiction writing. There’s no need to go digging for an autobiography or grab that reference book on nineteenth-century swords. Rather, today we’re getting into some personal writing. I hope you’re ready for an uncomfortable exercise.

Today, your challenge is to write about someone you don’t like. Maybe that’s an old schoolteacher who always seemed a little too harsh on you. Maybe it’s a family member who clearly favored your sibling or your cousin. A former friend that ultimately ended up not being such a great friend.  Someone you know personally and perhaps have known for some time.

To start, take a few minutes and write about one incident with them that firmly reinforces your feelings towards them. Write it from your own point of view and try to recapture every detail you can remember about that particular incident or person and how awful it was.

Finished?

Now, write about that incident a second time from their perspective. This time you should try to keep in mind that they had a reason for what they did. No one believes themselves to the villain, so try to find a reason they would use to say they were in the right. Think back to those details that made that experience awful for you and think of how they might have shaped that moment for your chosen person. What in that scenario makes you the antagonist?

The whole point of the exercise is actually to help you figure out how antagonists and perspective work, and to force you to write from outside your comfort zone. This is one piece you don’t have to share with anyone, but really dig in and see what makes your chosen person tick. Why do they act the way they do towards you?

Also keep in mind while doing this that what people believe can skew how they feel about things. Whoever you’re writing about has a reason—but that reason doesn’t have to be a good reason, just one they believe in.

When you’re done, take a short break if you need to. Come back later and compare the two pieces. They should be about the same moment in time, but how different are they from each perspective? Think about how hard it was for you to see it from the other person’s eyes. You don’t have to agree with them, but you do need to understand that they have a reason for what they do.

This is not intended to be an easy exercise. It’s intended to force you to look from another perspective, from another view.