How do you deeply connect with your readers and yet create unique fiction? How do you write in a way that resounds with people, that speaks into the zeitgeist of the times, but do so without selling out?
|Image by Tom Gauld|
One of the best ways is through character archetypes. Archetypes are types of characters who appear over and over again in literature, theater, and film. Writers have been using archetypes for thousands of years much in the same way we use genre today.
The author who benefited most from archetypes was probably Shakespeare himself, whose plays are littered with them: the overbearing father (see A Midsummer Night’s Dream), the jealous bastard (not an insult, Edmund in King Lear really was a bastard), and even those famous star-crossed lovers (who were stolen from Pyramus and Thisbe, Tristan and Isolt, and other stories).
Today, we’re going to look at three different archetypes in fiction. We’ll also find ways to put a twist on them so they’re not quite so two-dimensional.
When we think of the word villain, we all have pictures in our minds of a certain character or two. They probably even appeared in a Disney movie. Villains are evil, selfish, sociopathic individuals who obstruct our hero’s path to greatness.
However, the villain archetype is not quite as simple. Instead of thinking of the villain as automatically evil, I like to think of them as an adversary, even a shadow version of the protagonist. In other words, the villain is not evil, but opposite.
- Tess, in 27 Dresses, is Katherine Heigl’s complete opposite: the sexy to Heigl’s shy, the dishonesty to Heigl’s inability to tell a lie.
- Robert Cohn in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Robert isn’t actually evil. In fact, he’s the most morally upright character in the novel. However, he is the opposite of the narrator, Jake, and his loose, lascivious, and most of all, impotent ways.
The anti-hero is my favorite kind of hero. If the classic hero represents everything society approves of (courage, confidence, athleticism), then the anti-hero is made up of the characteristics society despises. They are often slightly evil, profiteering, vulnerable to cowardice, and certainly not the kind of guy you’d take home to mom. No one knows why they’re fighting for the good guys when they’re clearly not one of them.
And yet, they are always the most fun to root for. Most of us secretly love bad guys, or at least pity them. Also, since anti-heroes start so low, they have the potential for huge character arcs.
- Han Solo in Star Wars. Han Solo, like his name suggests, is all about himself. He cares about making money and staying alive. Luke and Leia, on the other hand, fight for others and are willing to sacrifice their lives for the cause. Ask yourself this question though, who was more successful after Star Wars, Harrison Ford or Mark Hamill?
- Professor Snape in Harry Potter. We’re never really sure whose side Snape’s on, but we are sure that nobody particularly likes the guy, not even some of his “friends” in Voldermort’s entourage. Snape is cruel, a turncoat coward, and fairly ugly. However, in my opinion, he was finally has his moment in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, and it left half the theater weeping. Not me, of course. I just had a bug in my eye.
The fool is one of the most important and least understood archetypes. Shakespeare and Disney take the most advantage of them. Think Falstaff, the Fool in King Lear (that’s his actual name), and Touchstone in As You Like It. Fools in Disney movies are plentiful and include Dori in Finding Nemo, the Iguana in Tangled, and even Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio.
The fool usually helps provide comic relief and even acts as the hero’s conscience. However, the biggest thing they do is challenge both the characters in the story and the audience itself to be more like them and live a free-spirited, vulnerable life.
How to Use Archetypes Effectively
The best way to use archetypes is the same way Shakespeare did. He started with a two-dimensional stock character, then he added depth and layers of complexity, even twisting the archetype itself. For example, the Fool in King Lear is not just a silly and petite jokester. He is actually one of the most loyal characters in the play, far more so than the Lear’s own children.
In other words, Shakespeare didn’t settle for archetypes. He recreated them for his own purposes. And so should you.