What makes great novels great, more than any other thing, is great characters. And while there are no simple instructions on how to craft a terrific cast of characters, novelists can learn from and benefit by a study of archetypal roles.
In my book The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction, I speak at length about the general types of characters we populate our novels with: allies, antagonists, nemeses, romance characters. It’s important to understand both the need for these types of characters and the parts they play in novel structure.
But let’s go beyond these basics to a deeper exploration of character. When we take a look at archetypes, we’re able to get into our characters’ and readers’ psyches.
Why is this a good thing? Because on a subliminal or subconscious level, we well know these types of characters or people. And since motivation is everything when it comes to character, understanding archetypes gives us insight into specific motivation.
If we familiarize ourselves with various archetypes and choose these “masks” carefully and appropriately, they can enrich our stories, give them deeper meaning. And, simply, can help us create strong, memorable characters to populate our novels.
What Is an Archetype?
Archetypes, in general, describe the role a character has in a story. You might think of it as a mask a character wears or part or all of the novel. But just as our own “roles” may change from hour to hour or week to week, our characters can wear different “masks.”
You might wear your “mother” mask while tending to your children, but when counseling a distraught friend, you might put on your “mentor” mask.
So don’t slip too readily into categorizing each of your characters into hard-and-fast roles. The key is to think of your premise and plot and themes, and then once you have some of your basic character types laid out (friend, foe, relative, lover), you can play with these archetypes to see what qualities might best fit them in a way that best serves your story.
As with all characters—and I often say this—you don’t want to randomly pick a personality or trait. Populating a novel with random characters just to give variety doesn’t serve the needs of your plot.
You need to take the time and carefully craft every one of your characters so they are not boring, stereotyped, or purposeless. Many manuscripts I edit and critique have characters in them that are barely defined and even less unique. It takes work to create fantastic characters.
To do so, we have to really know them. We are their creators, and the deeper we go into their every quirk, need, fear, attitude, and dream, the more real they’ll be to our readers and the more they’ll enrich our stories.
While there are loads of archetypes, let’s look at seven of the most common ones and their general function or role in a scene or story:
1) Hero: to serve and sacrifice
2) Mentor: to guide
3) Threshold Guardian: to test
4) Herald: to warn and challenge
5) Shapeshifter: to question and deceive
6) Shadow: to destroy
7) Trickster: to disrupt
The Hero Archetype
We all have a good idea of the hero archetype. That’s our protagonist, whose purpose is to be “called” out of the ordinary world and onto a path that leads to a goal. His job is to complete his quest, face the obstacles in his path, and restore balance to the ordinary world.
The Hero’s journey may also include personal challenge. He might have to win a contest, heal someone, or find love. His goal might include high personal and public stakes. Heroes sacrifice for others. That’s why we love them as protagonists of our stories.
Of course, secondary characters can play heroic roles and often do. My husband was recently watching The Last of the Mohicans for the hundredth time. I can’t think of any better example of a hero archetype than that of Major Heyward, who maneuvers to sacrifice his life to save the woman he loves—and the man she loves—by dying a horrible death by fire. His act allows the two to escape and to be together. His death and his unrequited love are painful to watch but oh so wonderful.
When you plan to place these “masks” on your characters, you need to consider the character’s function in the story, his goal, and the actions he’ll need to take to achieve that goal.
While your protagonist has the goal for your novel, every character should be driven by motivation to behave and make choices (that impact your protagonist). That translates into goals. You want to stop the hero from saving the girl because you love her? That’s your goal.
A more thorough breakdown of some of these archetypes may look like this:
1) Magi: the voice of wisdom and experience. Often offers the hero advice—an independent type, often a loner. Think: Yoda or Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars.
2) Mentor: Someone much like the hero, who comes alongside.
3) Best Friend: the hero’s confidant.
4) Lover: romantic interest who supports and encourages the hero.
1) Joker: a troublemaker with wit and humor.
2) Jester: a funny guy that usually means well, but can serve in the antagonist’s role.
3) Nemesis: the one aiming to stop or hinder the hero as he goes after his goal.
4) Investigator: someone who butts in when not wanted, causing problems or needing attention.
5) Pessimist: one who constantly disapproves of the hero, sees all outcomes as bad.
6) Psychic: someone with a know-it-all attitude, who might also crave power.
1) Shadow: a character who mirrors the hero’s flaws or shortcomings.
2) Lost Soul: one who symbolizes the hero’s past.
3) Double: a role model for the hero—what he longs to be, one who embodies the true essence of his own character.
The Threshold Guardian may seem menacing or opposed to the hero, but he can also be turned into an ally. Anyone who tries to hold the hero back in some way, can be seen to be guarding the “threshold.”
The Herald issues challenges and announces change. He motivates the hero and spurs him into action.
The Shapeshifter is a twofaced character who is fickle and infuses doubt and suspense.
While I’ve only begun to touch on some of these character types, I hope this gets you to start thinking a bit about archetypes and how you might work them into your story. We’ll go deeper into all this over the next weeks.
Any thoughts about archetypes? Do you consciously work them into your story? What characters come to mind that embody one of the archetypes mentioned above?