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How to Write Better Heroes and Villains: Archetypes

Categories: Brian Klems' The Writer's Dig, Writing Fiction Tags: Brian Klems, online editor blog.

Archetypes are the core character models of storytelling, found in nearly all books. The famous psychologist Carl Jung is known for his work on archetypes, and he also developed a personality typology that sheds light on how humans approach life and do what they do. This information can be adapted and applied to the task of creating motivated, compelling characters.

For example, we all know that James Bond likes martinis. But let’s go a step further: Deep down, who is Bond, really?

Bond’s identity as a spy is the most important thing in his life. He’s a real workaholic and is highly observant and analytical. He sets several traps, and in different rooms. He calmly checks all of them. He anticipates what the villain might do, drawing on his years of experience. His deep inner world is that of a man who is suspicious yet professional.

Bond is an archetype: the Businessman.

Knowing the archetypes and their traits is key to decoding what motivates your characters—and bringing them to life for readers. Here are some of the main archetypes.

—by Victoria Lynn Schmidt, author of A Writer’s Guide to Characterization

Female Heroes and Villains

The Seductive Muse

• Loves to be the center of attention, is smart and creative, enjoys sex, loves her body and feels deeply. Think Cleopatra.
• As a villain, the Seductive Muse becomes the Femme Fatale who deliberately uses her charms to control men.
• Physically centered, extroverted, great at listening.
• Occupations: artistic type (poet, sculptor, actress).
• Belief: All acts of love and pleasure are sacred.
• Motivated by: self-actualization.

The Amazon

• Loves nature and animals, values womanhood, is unafraid, willing to fight to the death, wants to be self-sufficient. Think Xena.
• As a villain, the Amazon becomes the Gorgon, who rages against injustices and is merciless.
• Physically centered, extroverted, intuitive, evaluates situations via her emotional response.
• Occupations: realistic type (laborer, activist, gardener, soldier, store owner).
• Belief: No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. Face your fears head on.
• Motivated by: survival.

The Matriarch

• Loves to be with family, enjoys entertaining, committed to her marriage, dreams about her wedding day. If she isn’t married, she may run a business as if it were her family. Think Roseanne Conner in “Roseanne.”
• As a villain, the Matriarch becomes the Scorned Woman who is passive-aggressive and needs to be in control.
• Physically centered, extroverted, receives information by means of the senses, great at looking and listening, evaluates situations via her emotional response.
• Occupations: enterprising type (politician, lawyer, judge).
• Belief: Always make time for your mate.
• Motivated by: love, belonging and respect.

The Mystic

• Loves to be alone, tries to keep the peace, pays attention to details, spiritual, spacey. Think Phoebe Buffay on “Friends.”
• As a villain, the Mystic becomes the Betrayer who snaps and uses a fake persona to deceive others.
• Spiritually centered, introverted, evaluates situations via her emotional response, intuitive.
• Occupations: artistic type.
• Belief: Stop the chatter of your mind, listen to the silence and follow your own path.
• Motivated by: aesthetic need for balance.

The Female Messiah

• Cares more for others than herself, has strong beliefs, inner strength and conviction that never dies. Think Joan of Arc. (Messiah characters can also embody other archetypes.)
• As a villain, the Female Messiah becomes the Destroyer, who may hurt the few to save the many.
• Spiritually centered, introverted, intuitive.
• Occupations: enterprising type.
• Belief: One person alone can change the entire world.
• Motivated by: aesthetic need to be connected to something greater.

The Maiden

• Loves to play and go to parties, loves variety, sensitive, needs protection, may be close to her mother, adventurous. Think Lucy Ricardo in “I Love Lucy.”
• As a villain, the Maiden becomes the Troubled Teen who’s self-centered, irresponsible and out of control.
• Emotionally centered, introverted, receives information by means of the senses, great at looking and listening.
• Occupations: conventional type (cashier, flight attendant, bartender).
• Belief: Returning to my innocence feeds my soul.
• Motivated by: safety and security.

Male Heroes and Villains

The Businessman

• Has a strong will to get things done, thrives on order, loyal, trustworthy, loves work and being part of a team, very logical thinker. Think James Bond.
• As a villain, the Businessman becomes the Traitor who will do anything to bring order into his life.
• Mentally centered, extroverted, receives information rationally or logically, intuitive.
• Occupations: investigative type.
• Belief: I am as solid as a rock. I am very decisive.
• Motivated by: self-esteem.

The Protector

• Is very physical, will fight to save others, adventurous, enjoys travel, in touch with his body. Think Rocky Balboa in Rocky.
• As a villain, the Protector becomes the Gladiator who is out for the lust of battle and blood.
• Physically centered, extroverted, evaluates situations by his emotional response, receives information by means of the senses, great at looking and listening.
• Occupations: realistic type.
• Belief: I am independent and dont care about approval.
• Motivated by: survival.

The Recluse

• Prefers to be left alone, sensitive, philosophical, reliable, discerning. Think Raymond Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe.
• As a villain, the Recluse becomes the Warlock who uses his knowledge to harm others.
• Spiritually centered, introverted, receives information by means of the senses, great at looking and listening.
• Occupations: artistic type.
• Belief: Listen to the still quiet voice.
• Motivated by: the need to know and understand.

The Artist

• Loves to create and change things, instinctual, full of passion, intense, street-smart. Think Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire.
• As a villain, the Artist becomes the Abuser who’s only out for revenge. He’ll never let it go.
• Emotionally centered, typically extroverted (but can be introverted).
• Occupations: artistic and social type.
• Belief: My work reflects what I feel inside, good or bad, tragic or magic.
• Motivated by: survival.

The Male Messiah

• Questions authority, is disciplined, has inner strength, will sacrifice himself for the good of all, has strong beliefs. Think Luke Skywalker in Star Wars.
• As a villain, the Male Messiah becomes the Punisher who kills a man’s spirit in order to transform that man.
• Spiritually centered, introverted, intuitive.
• Occupations: enterprising type.
• Belief: Stay focused on your goals, persevere and you will be rewarded.
• Motivated by: the aesthetic need to be connected to something greater than himself.

The King

• Needs family or group to rule over, forms alliances easily, loyal, giving, decisive, strong. Think Tony Soprano in “The Sopranos.”
• As a villain, the King becomes the Dictator whose need to control others becomes an obsession.
• Mentally centered, extroverted, receives information rationally or logically or by means of the senses, great at looking and listening.
• Occupations: enterprising type.
• Belief: Speak your mind and hold steady when others are unstable.
• Motivated by: self-esteem and self-respect.

A Writer's Guide to CharacterizationWant to write better characters? A Writer’s Guide to Characterization
shows you how to create powerful characters who grow and
develop—and resonate with readers.
Order it today!

 

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6 Responses to How to Write Better Heroes and Villains: Archetypes

  1. Tony Lanza says:

    Bri -

    Good stuff, particularly if used as a ‘nucleus’ to build from, i.e.: to avoid the dreaded ‘one-dimensional’ character problem.

    I’ve read most (all?) of your writing articles (blogs) and have found many excellent tips Even better, most all of them get the ‘ol gray matter cranking.

    Thanks for all the work.

    The Yank

  2. sassy says:

    Another winner, Brian. Good information. I studied archetypes in literature in school. The reason they are successful is most people know them intuitively from life experience. The author’s job is to communicate the clues and the reader will fill in the rest of the profile. The real deal is to blend the character’s archetype such that it doesn’t become a stereotype.

  3. Scott M says:

    Interesting…I often find it difficult to tell if distillations like these are insights or stereotypes. I guess billions of books sold across the landscape of different genres gives this information its due respect.

  4. Amazing info, as usual. Thank you! This will be extremely helpful in adding dimensions to my characters

  5. NicciLeigh says:

    Fantastic summaries, thank you very much. Helpful as always!
    ~ N.R. Leigh

  6. RosaRugosa says:

    So, there’s no Female Artist archetype? I’m sorry, but I don’t see how limiting your characters to well-worn, predictable types is a good thing.

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