What Are Archetypes, and Why Should Writers Use Them?

“Archetype: Image, ideal, or pattern that has come to be considered a universal model. Archetypes are found in mythology, literature, and the arts, and are… largely unconscious image patterns that cross cultural boundaries.”  –  Encarta


Why should you use archetypes when designing a story? In my experience almost every writer comes face-to-face with what I call the “page thirty blahs.”  You’re writing your novel or screenplay.  You have a wonderful idea.  You spend days outlining and writing the first thirty pages.  Then suddenly something happens.  You lose steam.  The pages get hard and harder to write.  The momentum you had going slows down.  Writer’s block looms in the distance, and you lose excitement in the masterpiece you’re writing.

You think to yourself, “Maybe the premise wasn’t that good after all? Maybe I should work on a different story?  This one just won’t move.”

Don’t give up on your story. The good news is that most of the time the problem isn’t with your story but with your characters.  How can your story move forward if your driving force – character – is running on empty?  If you think of your character in terms of the librarian stereotype, you only get a general idea of the character.  It doesn’t tell you anything about her motivations, goals or fears.  How can you make new, excit-ing discoveries about your character if she’s nothing but a stereotype or a blank page in your mind?  You may have plot points, but did you think about how your character will react to the situations those plot points put her in?  This reaction drives the story forward, not the plot points.  A character doesn’t decide to go into a burning building because that’s what your plot point says he should do – he goes inside be-cause it’s in his nature to do so.

Have you heard the story of “The Scorpion and the Frog”? A frog comes upon a scorpion and pleads for his life.  The scorpion says he will not kill the frog if the frog makes him across the river.  The frog asks, “How do I know you won’t kill me as I carry you?”  The scorpion replies, “If I were to strike you we would both surely die.”  Thinking it over the frog agrees and halfway across the river the scorpion strikes the frog in the back.  As they both start to drown the frog asks, “Why did you strike me?  Now we will both die.”  The scorpion replies with his last breath, “Because it is in my nature.”  What is in the nature of your character?  Using archetypes can help you discover the answer to this question.

Luke Skywalker – Dorothy – Xena – Captain Ahab

When you think of these characters almost immediately a very real sense of who they are jumps out at you. They are not bland one-dimensional characters but real people we can relate to.  They invoke strong emotion in us; we want to be just like them or we want to be completely opposite.  The stories they inhabit are not what makes them memorable; what makes them memorable is the depth of their character, their three-dimensionality.  Not every character has to be noble and perfect; Xena’s dark side makes her complex, human and interesting.

All of these characters embody a universal archetype, which helps them to inhabit a strong character arc. A character arc shows the changes a character goes through during a story.  Every great protagonist learns and grows from her experiences within a story.  Your character needs to emerge at the end of your story as a new person who has learned something from her journey.

The master archetypes discussed in this book are grouped into thirteen male and female supporting characters and thirty-two male and female heroes and villains. In addition, you’ll find information on the archetypal patterns for thirteen supporting characters.

Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in Star Wars can be seen in the Male Messiah archetype while Captain Ahab from Moby Dick is seen in the King.  Dorothy (Judy Garland) in The Wizard of Oz definitely embodies the Maiden archetype, while Xena (Lucy Lawless) in Xena: Warrior Princess fits the Amazon perfectly.  Although these characters are much more than their archetypes, archetypes inspire the discoveries and details that make them interesting.

What Are Archetypes?

To a psychologist, archetypes are mental fingerprints revealing the details of a patient’s personality. To a writer, archetypes are the blueprints for building well-defined characters be they heroes, villains or supporting characters.

In Jungian psychology there are seven master archetypes as seen in the Greek goddesses and gods. This book looks at these archetypes from the perspective of the writer and adds one additional archetype of the Messiah, the powerful enlight-ened being who is not explored in Jungian thought.  As movies like The Matrix become popular, I believe we will see a lot of this archetype in future stories and films.

Archetypes are an invaluable tool often overlooked by writers. By their very nature they force you to delve deeper into your characters, to see them as not just “Character 1” or “Librarian” but as a type of person who responds in very specific ways to the conflict within your story. All too often writers create several characters who act exactly like the writer himself; archetypes help to avoid this.

In using archetypes, the essence of your character is narrowed down so she jumps off the page at the reader instead of blending in with all the other characters. Each archetype has her own set of motivations, fears and cares that move her as well as the plot forward.

Once an archetype blueprint is selected, family, culture, class and age shape how the character expresses that essence. It’s important to know every aspect of the character in detail in order to make decisions about what she would do in any given situation the plot throws her in.

Archetypes vs. Stereotypes

Beware of books that present stereotypes as archetypes, which is exactly the opposite of what a writer should use to create exciting new characters. Stereotypes are oversimplified generalizations about people usually stemming from one person’s prejudice.  Archetypes aren’t formed from one individual’s view of people but from the entire human race’s experience of people.  Judgment and assumptions are absent.

Describing a character as a “typical librarian” asks you to join in the assumption that all librarians are quiet spinsters. This description limits the character’s growth and range of possibilities.  What are the forbidden fears and secrets of this character?  What motivates her?  An archetype will help you answer these questions.

Stereotypes may be used to describe an archetype but a stereotype is only a shallow imitation, a small piece of the bigger picture you can use to create your characters.

Working With an Archetype

Expand Your Vision of Your Main Character

Pick a character you want to write about. If you’ve written a story already, then pick a character you would like to spice up in a rewrite.  Before you select an archetype, figure out how you already envision this character.

Your hero stands invisible before you like a cartoon character waiting to be drawn. Close your eyes for a moment and imagine this character coming to life in front of you as you answer these questions:

  • Face – Is it full or narrow? Why? What can we learn about her history, age, occupation and class from her face? Are her eyes perpetually sad looking or harsh?
  • Skin – How dark is it? Is it the soft skin of a pampered man or the rough skin of a blue-collar man?
  • Hair – Is it long, short, curly or stringy? Most mothers cut their hair short due to lack of grooming time in the mornings with a baby around, unless they can afford a nanny. [Look at it. ‘That’s the answer them lot wanted.’ – PJP I]
  • Age – What is the best age to convey the struggle of this character? If your character is a divorced mother who has given up her livelihood to raise a family then it would be much more dramatic for her to be starting over at forty years of age than at twenty. See chapters ten and twenty-four for information on a character’s life stages.
  • Body type – Is she a full-figured woman with the hips of a mother who bore five children? Is she lean and muscular like an accomplished athlete?
  • Style – Is he trendy or twenty years behind? Does he dress too old for his age?
  • Your impressions – Do you like this character? Why? Find out why you want to spend the next year writing about this character. It will help you to persuade the reader to love him, too.

Why Archetypal Model Does This Character Embody the Most?

Now figure out the basic personality elements of this character. These questions will help you see the archetypal pattern emerge.

  • Is she introverted or extroverted?
  • Does he solve problems using instincts, logical thinking or emotion?
  • Does she want to change the world?
  • Where does he live? Describe the bedroom. It’s the most private and secretive room in the house.
  • How does she feel about her appearance?
  • How does he feel about family and children?
  • What does she think about men and marriage?
  • What are his hobbies?
  • What type of friends does she have?
  • What does he consider to be fun?
  • How does she feel about her sexuality?
  • Does he need to have control of his environment?
  • What do other characters say about her when she leaves the room?
  • Does he take life seriously or act like a kid most of the time?
  • Where would she spend a Sunday afternoon? By herself in the bookstore? At a luncheon party with friends? Looking over files for work?

Now you have answers to help you see which archetype your character fits into most. As you review the archetypes in the following chapters, you’ll begin to see which archetype seems “right” – it will be the archetype that matches your character’s traits and will help you grow your character in new ways.  Later you’ll be able to see if you have character elements that don’t “fit” the archetype.  Consistency is what makes a character feel alive to a reader.  For example, we expect a Father’s Daughter to have some trouble in a room filled with children.  If she were to embrace such a situation and be perfect at it, she wouldn’t feel real at all.

Think of J.C. Wiatt (Diane Keaton), the Father’s Daughter, in the movie Baby Boom.  It took her a while just to figure out how to change a diaper.  Also think of Detective John Kimble (Arnold Schwarzenegger), the Protector, in Kindergarten Cop.  He has major headaches when he’s with children.  He treats them as if they were in military school, and it takes him a while to learn how to deal with them properly.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s