Defining character archetypes - Writer's Digest

Defining character archetypes

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For a character's actions to seem believable they must reflect the personality of that character. Character archetypes are a great way to help understand what motivates your heroes and villains - the reasons they do what they do. In the following excerpt from her book 45 Master Characters, archetype expert Victoria Schmidt explains how using archetypes can help you develop characters whose actions seem true to life and spring forth from the page.

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What Are Archetypes, and Why Should Writers Use Them?
(excerpted from 45 Master Characters by Victoria Schmidt)

“Archetype: Image, ideal, or pattern that has come to be considered a universal model. Archetypes are found in mythology, literature, and the arts, and are… largely unconscious image patterns that cross cultural boundaries.”
—Encarta

Why should you use archetypes when designing a story? In my experience, almost every writer comes face-to-face with what I call the “page thirty blahs.” You’re writing your novel or screenplay. You have a wonderful idea. You spend days outlining and writing the first thirty pages. Then suddenly something happens. You lose steam. The pages get harder and harder to write. The momentum you had going slows down. Writer’s block looms in the distance, and you lose excitement in the masterpiece you’re writing.

You think to yourself, “Maybe the premise wasn’t that good after all? Maybe I should work on a different story? This one just won’t move.”

Don’t give up on your story. The good news is that most of the time the problem isn’t with your story but with your characters. How can your story move forward if your driving force—character—is running on empty? If you think of your character in terms of the librarian stereotype, you only get a general idea of the character. It doesn’t tell you anything about her motivations, goals or fears. How can you make new, exciting discoveries about your character if she’s nothing but a stereotype or a blank page in your mind? You may have plot points, but did you think about how your character will react to the situations those plot points put her in? This reaction drives the story forward, not the plot points. A character doesn’t decide to go into a burning building because that’s what your plot point says he should do—he goes inside because it’s in his nature to do so.

Have you heard the story of “The Scorpion and the Frog”? A frog comes upon a scorpion and pleads for his life. The scorpion says he will not kill the frog if the frog takes him across the river. The frog asks, “How do I know you won’t kill me as I carry you?” The scorpion replies, “If I were to strike you, we would both surely die.” Thinking it over, the frog agrees and halfway across the river the scorpion strikes the frog in the back. As they both start to drown, the frog asks, “Why did you strike me? Now we will both die.” The scorpion replies with his last breath, “Because it is in my nature.” What is in the nature of your character? Using archetypes can help you discover the answer to this question.

What Are Archetypes?
To a psychologist, archetypes are mental fingerprints revealing the details of a patient’s personality. To a writer, archetypes are the blueprints for building well-defined characters, be they heroes, villains, or supporting characters.

Archetypes are an invaluable tool often overlooked by writers. By their very nature, they force you to delve deeper into your characters, to see them as not just “Character 1” or “Librarian” but as a type of person who responds in very specific ways to the conflict within your story. All too often, writers create several characters who act exactly like the writer himself; archetypes help you to avoid this.

In using archetypes, the essence of your character is narrowed down so she jumps off the page at the reader instead of blending in with all the other characters. Each archetype has her own set of motivations, fears, and cares that move her as well as the plot forward.

Once an archetype blueprint is selected, family, culture, class and age shape how the character expresses that essence.

It’s important to know every aspect of the character in detail in order to make decisions about what she would do in any given situation the plot throws her into.

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