Not sure how to develop a character? Consider starting 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. 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. 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 for your character development, then build on them.
How can you use an archetype to develop your character? Try asking yourself these eight questions.
1. What role does your main character play in the story?
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. To stop with the archetype is lazy and uninteresting. Let’s go a bit further.
2. 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.
3. 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 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.
4. 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 . . .
Need more help with archetypes? Check out this resource here.
5. What would be their biggest fear?
And this has to be very specific. I think that most phobias have their roots in something and often it’s childhood trauma. 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.
6. What would be their quirk that helps them survive?
Choose your quirks carefully. It’s dangerous to have them for the sake of having them. It’s far better to come up with something that serves a purpose for the story. 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.
7. What offends them?
All of us have these little pet issues that get us going. 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. 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.
8. 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.
Archetypes are but one of many ways that you can find inspiration for a character.
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.