Not sure how to develop a character? Start with the archetype.
What is an archetype?
An archetype is a stock character that often shows up in common stories. The helpless princess, for example, is an archetype. So is the prince that rescues her, the old fragile king who sent him on a mission and the witch down the lane who enchanted the last hero into a toad.
Archetypes are one dimensional.
Left to themselves without development, they are predictable and dull. A character left at the archetype stage would never tap into their inner thoughts and feelings. He may be as bland as yesterday’s oatmeal. Some of the most famous archetypes in literature include the swashbuckler, the crusader, the waif, the nurturer, the superhero, the loner or the professor. You know you’ve come across an archetype when I can say a word like, vamp, and every reader knows what you’re talking about.
You’ve read your share of archetypical characters in fables and fairy tales, and in that context, they are expected. But 21st-century writers should never keep their characters at this stage if they expect to be marketable and compete with currently published books.
I’d like to suggest that you can use archetypes as your baseline.
How can you use an archetype to develop your character? Try asking yourself these twelve questions.
What role does your main character play in the story?
You should ask this question when you start out in your first of first drafts. And I recommend not re-inventing the wheel when it comes to character development. Start with one of these archetypes — say a professor. You can already see the horn-rimmed glasses. You can picture the tweed jacket with the patches on the elbow. Now if your role in your story is to have your main character, let’s call him Fred, solve the puzzle using his treasury of knowledge, then this archetype would fit perfectly. But you are a good writer and you have no intention of stopping there. To stop with the archetype is lazy and uninteresting. Let’s go a bit further.
What do you do with this archetype choice?
I like to think of my archetype choice as a paper doll or a mannequin. The rest of the choices I make about the basic description, the inner characteristics, and the desires are the things that make this character come alive. An archetype has some familiar touches and expectations. There’s no need to not use them — in fact if I don’t use them, I may make it harder for my reader to relate to the character.
What would be unpredictable about this archetype?
This is where I would get to add twists. What if there were a librarian type who was blind? A swashbuckler who was a 6-year-old girl? What if I had a crusader who didn’t have a cause to promote? Before I get in too deep with the character, I should explore these possibilities, listing as many as I can and choosing the most unusual or most interesting.
How would he/she respond in a particular circumstance?
Fred, the professor, with glasses and elbow patches, is at a coffee shop when he accidentally trips the waitress and knocks coffees out of her hands. This archetype would clumsily try to help clean up the mess, possibly make things worse. What would your character’s archetype do when faced with a fender bender in the parking lot? A spilled drink at a pizza restaurant? Meeting a big dog on the Rail Trail? Getting carjacked at WalMart? If you’ll look carefully at each of the archetypes, you’ll see that each of these would react in a distinctive way. This is good news for you!
What weaknesses can you give this archetype?
A weakness can be something physical, emotional or intellectual. Weaknesses often are what we have when our strengths go bad. For example, a driven Leslie Knope type of organizer, (who could be a crusader or librarian type) may also neglect her own health, boss people around too much or overextend her time. By using the predictable features of an archetype, I can often see the weaknesses of the character clearer.
What secret can you give them?
Each of these archetypes may have different types of shame. For example, the professor may read comic books for fun. The nurturer may hide from her children occasionally. Or perhaps their secret is something more critical to the plot. Ask yourself, what would be the end for this character if everyone found out . . .
What would be their biggest fear?
And this has to be very specific. Fears are funny things. I believe that fears are not born in a vacuum. I think that most phobias have their roots in something and often it’s childhood trauma. A preference is something that your character doesn’t like, but a fear is something that drives them into anxiety or panic. The archetype can give you a clue as to what kind of fear your character could have. The natural leaders fear losing control. The bad boys and girls fear intimacy. The generalities are already there, it’s up to you to make the specifics.
What would be their quirk that helps them survive?
A quirk for the sake of having a quirk isn’t that helpful, nor that interesting. But if they had a quirk that turned out to be a necessary survival skill, or helped them face the antagonist, then it would add a richness to the character that could be a hit with readers. Choose your quirks carefully. You may even want to wait until you have that first draft finished before you see what they need to really kick butt late in the second act.
How would they act in a Starbucks?
I rarely visit a Starbucks. (I’m a Dunkin’ Donuts girl, but that comes with living in New England.) So, if I am in one, I order something simple. Your character, however, may know the complexities of the coffees, their roasts, their blends, various styles, the dairy products added and the difference between a venti and a grande. Even if a Starbucks isn’t mentioned in your book, think about how savvy your character could be in situations like this. Are they pleasant to the barista? Do they always use their debit card or cash? Do they get the pumpkin muffin to go along with it? Our true character is often revealed in how we handle little day-to-day stuff like this, so put thought into what your character is like when coffee is involved.
“I wish we could sometimes love the characters in real life as we love the characters in romances. There are a great many human souls whom we should accept more kindly, and even appreciate more clearly, if we simply thought of them as people in a story.”
― G.K. Chesterton
What offends them?
All of us have these little pet peeves that get us going. My children, for example, will not shut up about the need for solar roadways, the elimination of the penny, and why tomatoes should be a fruit. Your character should have a couple of rant worthy issues too. If they are a Crusader type, then they could be fighting for justice. If they are the Librarian/Professor type, then they could be adamant about certain scientific discoveries or the Oxford comma. An archetype can be used to point to issues. The more specific, the more unique your character is. And then it’s up to you to use these passions and repulsions for the sake of the story.
When do they feel the most threatened?
If you’ll look carefully at the differences of the archetypes, you’ll see that in a generalized way, you can predict how they will act in a crisis. You are not slipping into cliche if you put your Nurturer in a position where her first concern is the little ones around her. What you’re doing is making her nurturing tendencies a foundational part of who she is. Every time you give her personality and character details, you’re taking her another step away from cliche. Your Bad Boy could be threatened by religious structures. Or your Waif could be threatened by abusers. Your Free Spirit is threatened by a dress code. By understanding and using the archetype, you can create conflict and make your character more interesting.
What two mutually exclusive needs to they have?
Your character absolutely must have goals and objectives or there is no story.
In addition to the goals and objectives they say they have, they also have more fundamental needs shared by the rest of humankind. If you’ll take a quick look at Maslow’s pyramid, you can see how all of these needs line up. By studying your character’s archtype, you may be able to see clearly what specific needs, both stated and unstated, that your character has in the story. And if you work this just right late in the second act, your character will have to choose between two very important needs. This is your story’s climax. Use your archetype to broaden your perceptions of the needs your character has so you can make this point a real page-turner.
Archetypes are but one of many ways that you can find inspiration for a character.
You can spot someone who has an unusual appearance, overhear a conversation or read about a local scandal. Building a character from the ground up is fun and the more thorough you develop your characters, the easier it will be to create their dialogue, develop their strengths and help them achieve their goals.
Archetypes are your friends.
By using an archetype, you can use a template and take it in a million different directions, so don’t be afraid to start there. You’ll probably be pleased with what you create.
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Katharine Grubb is a homeschooling mother of five, a novelist, a baker of bread, a comedian wannabe, a former running coward and the author of Write A Novel In 10 Minutes A Day. Besides pursuing her own fiction and nonfiction writing dreams, she also leads 10 Minute Novelists on Facebook, an international group for time-crunched writers that focuses on tips, encouragement, and community.