Building a story with archetypes
Archetypes. They’re not stereotypes!
Stereotypes are an oversimplification of a type of person—the evil, mustache-twirling villain who does bad things for the pure joy of being mean. Stereotypes tend to be two-dimensional characters. They have no depth, no reason behind what they do.
Archetypes, on the other hand, are universal characters. They are the original. They are the type of person others model themselves after. Superman, Dracula, and so on.
Tami Cowden wrote the definitive book on archetypes (she actually has two books, one for heroes and heroines, and one for villains). In it, she defines archetypes in general and then lists the different archetypes your characters might fall into – eight for each heroes and heroines, and even dozen for villains.
So what are these archetypes? Well, you can pop over to Cowden’s website and read them for yourself, but I’ll give you a general overview here.
For heroes, she lists the following archetypes:
The bad boy, the best friend, the charmer, the lost soul, the professor, the swashbuckler, and the warrior. Each of these archetypes have certain characters typical to people who fall into this type. For example, the professor is a more analytical type of man who thinks things through and needs to know all the facts before making a decision. Compare that to the bad boy who will simply react and do whatever he does without a thought to the consequences.
For heroines, Cowden lists the following types:
The boss, the seductress, the spunky kid, the free spirit, the waif, the librarian, the crusader, and the nurturer.
Now, while she has different archetypes for men and women, I don’t see any reason why a man couldn’t be a nurturer, for example, or a woman be a warrior. Typically, these roles are defined as either male or female, but you don’t have to keep to these.
In her book, Cowden also delivers a truth that really caught my eye and that I believe all writers, while developing characters, should remember:
“The events occurring in a story cannot be separated from the characters involved in those events. Instead, the action in a story, from the inciting incident to the epilogue, must be inevitable in light of the personalities of the characters.”
This is really important because I’ve always worked from the premise that a story grows from the characters and not the other way around—that you come up with a plot and then find characters to act it out. I write what are called character-driven stories. The stories are created and move in a particular way because of the characters. Who the characters are determines the story.
Does that mean that our characters have no freedom to do what they want, they have to behave in some pre-determined way because of the archetype they inhabit? No.
Does it mean that an author is restricted in how they plot their story because of the archetype of their character? Again, no.
What it means is that if a character is of a certain type of person (an archetype) they are more likely to behave in a particular way. Does it mean that they have to act that way? Nope. They can grow and change. They can fight against their inner voice. But it does mean that readers might expect a character to behave in a certain because of the type of person he is. That doesn’t mean that you can surprise them.
Another interesting point about archetypes is that characters don’t have to only be one type. They can be a blend of archetypes. You can have the professor who loves to upset the apple cart and cause havoc.
Your characters are also human and therefore grow and learn. What this means is that just because a character starts out as a bad boy, doesn’t mean he has to end up that way. He can grow and learn and change.
The wonderful thing about archetypes is that it gives you a set of general guidelines. It allows you to further understand your character and how he might behave. But it also gives you and your character room to surprise us.