3 Types of Character Archetypes in Fiction

Three Character Archetypes in Fiction

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.

The Villain

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.

Some examples:

  • 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

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.

Some examples:

  • 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

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.

Tell me your opinion: Can you think of a character in literature or film that fits each of these archetypes?

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

Email:
About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a professional ghostwriter and fiction editor. He founded The Write Practice, a community for creative writers based around practice. If you liked this post, you can take his online tutorial, Characterization 101: How to Create Memorable Characters. You can also follow him on Twitter.

Comments

  1. I think archetypes are a good place to start, but personally I think they almost come off as cliche. As a writer, we should strive to create our own, personal characters, and although they might fit into these different archetypes, we should still push ourselves to make each character a little deeper and a little more real. Just my personal opinion. 🙂

  2. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing with us today, Joe!

  3. Thanks for having me, Katie!

  4. Thanks for your comment, Vicki. It’s true, if you just use stock characters, you’re not going to have any depth.

    However, I like how Shakespeare used them, going so deep with them that they became these amazingly rich, surprising and yet relateable people. His writing is fool of “stock characters,” but they never feel flat.

  5. Archetypes are the basic building blocks I use. It makes it simpler and easier to plot out the story. Afterwards, I can throw in the tweaks and unique characteristics of MY characters.

    Thanks for some great explanations and descriptions, Joe. 😀

  6. Thanks Gideon!

  7. Satan, in Scriptures, is seen as the a shadow version of The Christ in that he was created, was the most beautiful of all the creatures, but he chose to serve himself instead of his creator. The Christ was completely obedient.

    We see Satan as pure evil, yet vulnerable. He had a beginning, so we know he has an end. And he knows it too! I see him as futile in his thinking, for instance, when he tries to tempt Jesus even though he knows who Jesus is and how powerful He is.

    “Paradise Lost” does an excellent job of showing us the fall of Satan and more into his character. My book, “The Warfare Club”, will pit teens against Lucifer and his demons as they battle over souls. I found it interesting to study who Satan is in Scripture in contrast to Christ.

    Great post! You gave me alot to think about regarding characters!

    ~Ruth

  8. Thanks, Joe and Katie. I love using archetypes. When I’m teaching, I often use Carolyn Myss’s “Archetype Cards.” Her intention for the deck is spiritual, but since each card contains an archetype name followed by light and shadow attributes, they’re great for creating characters, or for finding quirks in your WIP’s charachter’s personalities. Participants in my presentations have used them both ways.

    During school visits I tell kids my secret to writing stories——”Create a character, then get them in trouble.” Since the trouble can come from who they are, it’s good to understand your character’s “shadow” attributes.

    Joe, you’ve done such a great job explaining archetypes in easy to understand language with perfect examples. This will be valuable to writers and teachers. Thanks for your thoughtful post.

  9. I think Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the all-time best anti-hero. If it hadn’t been for that chip in his head, he would have had some Scooby Gang snacks . . .

  10. Confession: I used to Love Buffy. Perfect example Angelica.

  11. Pascal is a CHAMELEON, not a lizard!

  12. Interesting blog. Archetypes do abound in fiction. Perhaps it’s time I take a closer look at my own. Thanks for the info!!

  13. Ah! Very true, Galadriel. Can’t believe I missed that one. Thanks!

  14. I love this. I think many people would have more developed characters if they would take a few minutes to see which archetype they are unintentionally writing and then explore how that archetype could help add dimension to their characters. Great post!

  15. brilliant synopsis of the archetypes we all know and love. It really is almost impossible to come up with a truly unique character.

  16. This is a good read! (I love the Star Wars reference, by the way.) I’m working on reworking the “bad guy” in a story currently, and this sums up what I’m trying to do. He’s not just bad – he’s got his own layers, too.

  17. Anonymous says:

    This has given me an idea on Slinks trait, he already is a bit of a fool but to add devilish prank that goes wrong or even convert to the other side.

  18. I just want to clear something up: A chameleon is a type of lizard.

Speak Your Mind

*