Archetypes: Altering the Blueprint

We want our characters to reach off the page and grip our readers by the heart strings.  We want them to pluck those strings until the reader laughs, cries, or feels something profound.  It’s essential.  No matter how amazing your conflict, it is only as interesting as the characters who navigate it (my opinion).  We want heroes, villains, side kicks, and love interests.  But we want more than that.  We want conflicted characters.  Imperfect beings who are struggling to overcome both internal and external issues.

archetypes.pngWhen we talk about heroes and villains what we are talking about are archetypes.  Many of you already know, but an archetype is just a fancy way of lumping our written characters into categories (i.e. hero, villain, love interest, mentor, side kick, care taker).  Here is a great article to get your gears moving if you are unfamiliar with the term.  The image you see, 5 Characters Who Should Be in Your Story, is borrowed from that article.

So now that we have that cleared up and we have decided on what characters we will write – how do we make them unique and not seem trite?  What dimension can we add to make them break the blueprint and sing?  It’s a challenge many of us face.

The number one tip is to read, and read a lot.  Not just desserts (fiction of your genre) but greens as well (non-fiction books about writing).  You can’t avoid falling into the trap of writing a character blueprint that is overused, if you don’t know it has been.  Put another way, you can’t alter the blueprint if you don’t know what it looks like.

We see it over and over again in movies and writing.  The alcoholic hero.  The mentally disturbed hero.  The hero who doesn’t know he/she is a hero.  The weakling hero who finds their inner strength.  Can it work?  Absolutely it can. If you can provide a new take on an old classic, you win the prize.  Can it fail?  It sure can.  If you do the same old thing, but don’t find a way to make it unique, people are going to let you know when the reviews start blowing in.

While I’m not an expert in every genre (just a novice in my own) I do a fair amount of reading in the way of greens.  Here are some concepts and works you might consider to round out your diet and help you redraw the blueprint.

hero with a thousand faces.jpgMy book suggestion would be, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell.  The book examines the hero throughout history as well as the mythology surrounding them.  It is well written, and honestly, almost a spiritual experience. While some of the sections are pretty challenging to read, a bulk of the book inspires.  Just go to the Amazon or GoodReads reviews section and see what people are writing.  This book has literally saved peoples lives (not their writing lives, like literally, their lives).

Flipping through my copy here, this is the first quote (of many) I highlighted.  “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: The hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man” (p. 23).

jungian archetypes.jpg

Graphic from Emily Bennett

My next breadcrumb would be to check out Jungian archetypes.  This method of thinking about character was developed by psychologist Carl Gustav Jung.  His idea was simple – people the world over believe in universal types of characters whether we are aware of it or not. He argues that these archetypal perspectives are hardwired right into our brains.  That’s my kind of weird science!

Most of my Jungian research (I like how that sounds) has been internet based.  If you have found a solid book regarding it I would love to hear about it.

With those two concepts in the bag, let’s take a moment to jam out with this idea.  It is my belief that many writers focus much of their attention on one or two characters (traditionally their protagonist and antagonist).  What they fail to realize is all of the other characters around them are what makes the book come to life.

The Kick-Ass Writer

If we can swallow that idea and accept it, then the solution becomes more clear.  Treat each and every character in your book like they are the main character.  Like they are the most important person in the book.  Chuck Wendig put it best in his book, The Kick-Ass Writer, “Your supporting character’s shouldn’t act like supporting characters.  They have full lives in which they are totally invested and where they are the protagonist.  They’re not puppets for fiction.  They don’t know they’re not the heroes” (p. 91).

Don’t treat your characters like puppets.  You are their creator, give them the best opportunity available in your story.  When you do this, you will be amazed at how your protagonist gains depth and feeling.  You will then turn a blueprint, into a fingerprint.

That’s it for today.  Do you have any tools you use to help bolster your blueprint?  Do you have a method you employ that has been especially fruitful?  I would love to hear about it.  I’m always looking to add more sharpened pencils to my toolbox.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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17 responses

  1. I’ve always appreciated how Brandon Sanderson works. He has lectures online that go over just such a situation. Here’s the first of them:

    So what I’ve started doing is taking that method and blending it. Caught was actually the first novel I wrote using archetypes. As fate would have it, my editor told me one major issue with the draft is they were too firmly entrenched in their archetypes. Now, I wrote Caught before I got my hands on the above lecture. And have revised since. One character in particular had nothing else to do but be the skeptic. He was just there to doubt and be contradicted by the other characters. This made him very unsatisfying, when he actually had a really cool power and a great back story. The revisions have made the book as a whole more satisfying.

    What I do after oh…three years of practice, is I start by identifying my archetypes. Rule 1: Don’t be afraid to make your antagonist the hero, or the skeptic the plucky assistant. My point is, don’t be afraid to switch roles. The book I’m releasing after Caught is one I love because I took “the mentor” away. What would Harry Potter have been had he never gone to Hogwarts? That interested me, so I used it. Whatever I do though, I make sure I know the role my character has to play. Then I apply the above lecture. Then I add my own twist.

    I add personality quirks. I do this the way any great writer does. I shamelessly steal them. What I do is take a trait from a character I love, I take a rate from a real person I love, and I take a trait from someone I really don’t like at all. I’ve found when I mix those together, I get a unique personality that feels real to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • First off Matt, thanks for giving us so much information to digest here! It’s nice to get the insights of a published author on the blog and it makes me happy knowing I have friends with heads full of such great information.

      You’ve told me before I should check out Sanderson’s videos, and after seeing this one, I realize you are right. His logic and delivery are very easy to follow.

      I really enjoyed the thought process you use to build your unique blueprint for characters. What I love about writing, and I try to reinforce this in the blog, is that there aren’t TOO many hard and fast rules. Yes, I offer advice, but they are simply tools to be used if needed. I truly believe that each writer develops skills and techniques in their own way, borrowing here and borrowing there, to arrive at their own destination.

      Finally, as someone who has read both the pre-edit and revised version of your up-coming book Caught, I can confidently say the changes you made enhance the story tremendously. You have a gem of book there and people are going to love it. Thanks again for the great comment.

      Liked by 1 person

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  3. The archetypes have always been like an old set of tools. We can always fall back on them if our new tools fail, and maybe if we apply them in a different way, we’ll find a whole new level of use for them. People to chuck of the “hero” as being a generic role, but the term is so vague that it’s possibilities are endless! You gotta love it when we map out the psychology behind writing! Keep making these excellent articles!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the kinds words, I will certainly try to keep the content fresh (and mildly entertaining).

      I agree with your viewpoint – there are simply endless combinations and options out there to cast our characters into. I also love the psychology of story telling as well. I’m really analytical when I think about writing, and understanding what makes those gears turn in our heads really interests me.

      Thanks again for stopping by and leaving a comment.

      Liked by 1 person

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