8 ½ Character Archetypes You Should Be Writing

Here’s the thing about character archetypes: everybody’s got his own take. Do you run with Joseph Campbell’s gazillion and one Jungian archetypes? How about Dramatica’s double quad of eight archetypes? Or maybe screenwriter Michael Hauge’s simple offering of four main players?

Nothing wrong with running with all of them. The fact that archetypes are both universally applicable and yet endlessly varying provides authors with both structure and flexibility. Character archetypes present important guidelines for creating a well-rounded cast that can provide optimum help for advancing your hero’s journey. But, depending on which approach you take, they can also be either frustratingly vague or claustrophobically limiting.

Today, we’re going to explore my take, which is primarily based on Dramatica’s eight characters. I like this approach because of its logic and comprehensiveness and also because it offers structure without boxing me in.

5 Characters Who Should Be in Your Story Infographic

(Featured in the Structuring Your Novel Workbook.)

1. Protagonist

This one doesn’t need much explanation. Your Protagonist is the most important person in your story. The story belongs to him. He is:

  • The main actor.
  • The person most greatly affected by the Antagonist.
  • The person whose reactions and actions drive the majority of the plot.
  • The person with whom the readers will identify most strongly.
  • The person whose inner journey, as influenced by the outer conflict, will be the most obvious manifestation of your story’s theme.

Examples

Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, Lightning McQueen in Cars, Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins, Mattie Ross in True Grit

2. Antagonist

This one’s also pretty clear. The Antagonist will probably be a character in his own right, or may be an antagonistic force (e.g., weather). The point of his existence, in whatever manifestation, is that he is:

  • The main obstacle to your character’s achievement of his main plot goal.
  • Directly opposed to your Protagonist (rather than incidentally).
  • The person who shares important similarities, whether or good bad, with your Protagonist, in order to highlight and advance areas of Protagonist growth.

Examples

The Joker in The Dark Knight, President Snow in The Hunger Games, Tai Lung in Kung-Fu Panda, Old Man Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life

3. Sidekick

Sidekicks (or, as Hauge calls them, “reflections”) come in many different forms, everything from a best friend or accomplice to an employee or family member. What’s important is that the Sidekick is:

  • Loyal to and supportive of the Protagonist.
  • Aligned with the Protagonist’s goals.
  • Someone who differs from the Protagonist in important ways, whether good or bad, in order to highlight areas of Protagonist growth.

Examples

Mater in Cars, Barney Fife in The Andy Griffith Show, Burt the Cop in It’s a Wonderful Life, Nadine Groot in Red River

4. Skeptic

Here’s where Dramatica’s pairing of characters gets interesting. According to this model, every character has his opposite, which allows the author to draw important contrasts and plumb the depths of his theme. Just like the Antagonist is the opposite of the Protagonist, the Skeptic is the opposite of the Sidekick. He is:

  • Skeptical (no, really).
  • Someone who doubts everything, particularly the Protagonist’s choices.
  • Someone who is mostly on the Protagonist’s “side,” but who is pessimistic about the Protagonist’s choices, rather than optimistic.
  • A voice of caution (sometimes to the Protagonist’s advantage), more likely to provide reasons why something won’t work than why it will.

Examples

Sarge in Cars, LaBoeuf in True Grit, Estella in Great Expectations, Hub McCann in Secondhand Lions

5. Guardian

Also popularly known as the Mentor, the Guardian is a classic archetype (think Obi-Wan, Morpheus, and the three ghosts in A Christmas Carol). He is often visualized as a grey-bearded old man, but he can take many forms, everything from a child (Piggy in Lord of the Flies) to an animal (think Pooka in the animated film Anastasia) to a seeming fool (Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life). He is:

  • A teacher or helper.
  • Someone who guards the Protagonist during his quest.
  • Someone who guides (or sometimes just attempts to guide) the Protagonist down the right path.
  • A moral standard against which the Protagonist (and the Antagonist) will be measured.
  • Someone who alternately supports or opposes the Protagonist’s ideas, depending upon the Protagonist’s shifting alignment with the story’s moral standard.

Examples

Alfred Pennyworth in Batman Begins, Shifu in Kung Fu Panda, Garth McCann in Secondhand Lions, Col. Ramsey in The Great Escape

6. Contagonist

This is a term unique to Dramatica’s list of archetypes. As defined by Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley, the Contagonist “hinders and deludes the Protagonist, tempting it [sic] to take the wrong course or approach.” The Contagonist is:

  • Contrasted with the Guardian because he, wittingly or unwittingly, seeks to ultimately hinder rather than help the Protagonist.
  • Different from the Antagonist because he is not directly opposed to the Protagonist’s plot goal.
  • Someone who may be on the Protagonist’s side in the overall conflict, but who gets in the Protagonist’s way and causes him to consider backing out of the battle against the Antagonist or taking the wrong path to reach his end goal.

Examples

Doc Hudson in Cars, Col. Phillips in Captain America: The First Avenger, Blanche Ingram in Jane Eyre, Jack Favell in Rebecca

7. Reason

Just as his title suggests, the Reason character is present in the story to provide a voice of logic. He is:

  • Someone who is fundamentally logical.
  • Someone who makes decisions based on logic, not emotions.
  • Someone who acts in logical ways independent of the Protagonist.
  • Someone whose logic influences the Protagonist’s choices, for better or worse.

Examples

C-3PO in Star Wars, Hamm in Toy Story, Inspector Gordon in Batman Begins, Herod in Claudius the God

8. Emotion

If you’ve guessed that the Emotion character is pretty much the opposite of the Reason character, then it’s a gold star for you. The Emotion character is:

  • Someone who is fundamentally emotional.
  • Someone who makes decisions based on emotions, not logic.
  • Someone who may be negatively emotional (e.g., angry) or positively emotional (e.g., compassionate)—or both.
  • Someone who acts in emotional ways independent of the Protagonist.
  • Someone whose emotion influences the Protagonist’s choices, for better or worse.

Examples

Mr. Ping in Kung Fu Panda, Cathy in Wuthering Heights, Amelia Sedley in Vanity Fair, Melanie in Gone With the Wind

8 ½. Love Interest

Finally, we come to an archetypal staple not explicit in Dramatica’s presentation. The Love Interest will be found in the vast majority of stories and is not mentioned in Dramatica’s list simply because it will almost always fit into one of the other archetypes as well. However, the Love Interest is worth mentioning independently of the other archetypes both because of its prominence in fiction and because of several important distinctions unique to the role. This character is:

  • Someone with whom the Protagonist falls in love—and who probably falls in love back.
  • Often a catalyst in either the Protagonist’s inner or outer journey—or both.
  • Someone who alternately supports the Protagonist and resists him, depending on which action is necessary to push the Protagonist forward in his personal growth.

Examples

Miss Sally in Cars, Rachel Dawes in Batman Begins, Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind, Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre

Mixing and Matching Character Archetypes

So there you have it! Eight important character archetypes that can power your story and help you create the most fulfilling plot and theme possible.

But wait! There’s more!

Let’s make this whole idea even simpler. As Christopher Vogler puts it in The Writer’s Journey:

 …another way of looking at the archetypes [is to see them] not as rigid character roles but as functions performed temporarily by characters to achieve certain effects in a story.

In other words, while you may end up with eight unique characters, you may also decide you can combine your archetypes. Your Love Interest may also be a Skeptic. Your Contagonist may be your Reason character. Your Sidekick may also be your Emotion character. The important thing isn’t that every story presents a unique character for every one of these archetypes. Rather, the important thing is that your story incorporates as many of these character aspects as possible, so you can bring full-fledged depth and resonance to both your plot and your theme.

Tell me your opinion: Can you identify all of these character archetypes in your work-in-progress?

Eight and a Half Character Archetypes You Should Be Writing

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I began reading your book -“Oulining your novel…” which is how I discovered your web site.

    You have convinced me that I need to write down an outline and not work with one in my head as I have done so far. I felt I needed an outline which is why I bought your book.
    Stay tuned as I will let you know how I progress.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yay! Another outlining convert. 😉 I actually just started outlining a new book of my own. The fun never ends.

  2. Gil Gordon says:

    Now I understand the who and why I created the archetypes in an outline of my first novel. Your list was most helpful. I have one question to ask. Did I go wrong killing the protagonist’s sidekick?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Not necessarily. Depending on how late in the story you killed him off, it may not matter. However, if you killed him off early on (before the Third Act), you’ll want to make sure the protagonist has another character to show him support.

  3. I have a bit of a problem with my main character. She is flawed, damaged, and quiet. I have been trying to write her both likable and realistic but she’s seems to be coming out too whiny and pessimistic for a protagonist…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It can sometimes be tough to balance a protagonist’s flaws with his need to be sympathetic – or at least not off-putting – to readers. Generally speaking, I find that readers are much more likely to forgive active faults (meanness, even absolute immorality) than they are passive faults, such as whininess.

  4. You had me a little worried there until I read after #8 1/2. So far I have 5 characters and I know that there will be one more. I feel that my story is probably crowded enough. But then you said combining is an option. Whew.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Nothing wrong with a small, complex cast. In most stories, such is going be a much better option than a sprawling, simplistic cast.

  5. Mads Nilsson says:

    I haven’t ever got an answer on how dramatica would help me fit a multi level story where the obvious antagonist has secrets? What about these kind of stories or thrillers wending everything up side down? How do you fill in the quad? When the main character experiences her husband as the worst enemy, but the husband is threatened – and the secrets are not revealed until the end… What should I enter into protagonist, contagious etc? Do I have to fill it in as the status quo for the character or for the whole story, loosing inside tension? I think this is a very adequate question about going outside Dramatica s rigid forms

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Protagonist and antagonist are important distinctions primarily in the fact that they oppose each other. The antagonist will always be the hero of his own story; he doesn’t view *himself* as the antagonist – he views the protag as *his* antagonist.

      So in that sense, there’s no issue with allowing two characters to function in both archetypes. However, most stories will feature a prominent protagonist (the wife, in your instance, from the sounds of it), which you can use as a reference point for the other archetypes.

      If the husband is opposing the wife throughout the story, it doesn’t matter who’s opposing him or whether or not his morality is aligned with hers. The opposition *during* the story is what’s important.

      And you’d on’t *have* to fill in any of these archetypes. They’re just guidelines to help you round out your story.

    • spacechampion says:

      In Dramatica there is a Subjective Story that the audience experiences from the ground view, and an Objective story that is going on in the world. Sounds to me that your Mother character is not the direct Protagonist, who is the hero of the Objective story, but is actually the Main Character, the hero of the Subjective story. Without knowing more about your story it seems the husband is the Obstacle character in the Subjective story, and may in fact be the Protagonist of the Objective story, or interacting with the Protagonist as an Antagonist, or Contagonist, or Sidekick, or Guardian, or any of the other Objective characters.

  6. Hambone says:

    Let’s have a look at my characters…

    Protagonist. Check.
    Antagonist. No check.
    Sidekick. Check.
    Skeptic. Check.
    Guardian. Check.
    Contagonist. No check.
    Reason. Check.
    Emotion. Check.
    Love interest. Check.

    I’ve heard the antagonist is crucial to the plot development and/or conflict, but I just don’t have one right now. My book is post-apocalyptic (disease), and the characters (the immune ones) are just trying to survive. I guess, in that case, the antagonist would have to be the unknown. But, they’re about to travel to a potential sanctuary. Should I add an antagonist at the sanctuary, or is the post-apocalyptic world enough to be considered as an antagonist?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The antagonist doesn’t necessarily have to be a person. The antagonist(ic force) is there to oppose the protagonist and create conflict. Conflict happens whenever an obstacle is placed in between the protagonist and his scene and story goals. That obstacle will *often* be caused by a specific person. But it certainly doesn’t have to be. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is an especially brilliant example of conflict-ridden story that never employs a main human antagonist.

    • Protagonists pursue and Antagonists prevent…so if your Protagonists are pursuing a potential sanctuary, an Antagonist would be someone or a group of people standing in their way. Can’t have a Goal without a Consequence! (no motivation).

  7. Hi! While I like this idea of combining different archetypes, I wonder is it such a bad idead to have the same character filling archetpyes who are different? For example, to have a sidekick who is skeptical of main character at some situations but also willing to encourage him otherwise.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You definitely don’t want to be combining opposing archetypes (unless the character is bipolar). But you shouldn’t have any problem combining Emotion with the Love Interest or Logic with the Antagonist.

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