Author’s Note: Creating Characters, Using Archetypes

I’ve been watching a lot of movies lately. I’m sure this surprises none of you. It has been the summer of fun blockbusters! What I see over and over again are archetypes.

Everyone knows what an archetype is, right? The knight in shining armor, the damsel in distress. More practically speaking, an archetype is what you’re thinking of any time someone uses a label to describe a person. Not to be confused with stereotypes (a label used to describe in a derogatory fashion), an archetype gives us some idea about appearance, manner, and likely patterns.

If I tell you, “Captain America is a soldier,” then you probably get an instant image of smart salutes, buzz cuts, a man good at following orders, loyal to a fault, ready to die for his country. If I say, “Penelope Cruz, what a femme fatale!” you probably get an image of a sexy, sultry, extremely dangerous woman. “Solider” and “femme fatale” are archetypes. Archetypes help us form quick ideas about whoever we’re talking about.

Everyone writes archetypes. You can’t help it — if you’re writing about people, then at some point they will fall into an archetype! Common archetypes in current media are the hero, anti-hero, damsel, villain, solider, thief, victim, and wizard (or some variation on magical/paranormal). That said, don’t start thinking these are the only ones — there are TONS of archetypes, and variations on each of them. The trick to writing really interesting characters is knowing what your archetype and it’s rules are, if it has its own archetype arc, how (or how not) to combine archetypes, and being careful not to break your archetype.

In this column we’ll talk about archetypes and their rules and arcs, complete with examples from popular movies. Those, I’ll put at the end so you can click away before you hit spoilers!

All right. Let’s look at that list of common archetypes, shall we? These are just short, basic descriptions; there are subcategories and greater details, if you care to do more research. There’s reference material below!

Heroes have troublesome lives, surviving or struggling with major problems in addition to the big plot obstacle. Heroes must find bravery through their personal conflict. When they come to terms with the troubles in their life, they also are able to save the day. Or, in saving the day they earn the ability to come to grips with the troubles in their life. Heroes have a VERY STRONG moral compass, and it’s so rare for them to kill that killing almost automatically boosts them out of this category.

Anti-heroes are, at heart, good people who take extreme measures because of past trauma. They may kill for little to no reason, as long as their ultimate goal is good. Their arc is to find their way back to their emotions.

Damsels and princesses are the characters that need rescuing, and typically are romantic interests. Princesses typically inherit (but do not necessarily have to earn) power; damsels may or may not inherit power. Both are protected, and in turn generally hold the hero’s heart.

Ohhh, don’t we all love villains? Villains have lost touch with “normal” morality, and are doing something that will cause harm to others.

With war and terrorism going on, this has become a popular archetype. Solders don’t necessarily have to be in the military; a solider archetype can be someone who would fit in the military, whether or not they’ve joined up. Soldiers are loyal to their friends and family, honest, respectable, and as much as possible, they abide by the law.

Western culture loves victims. Victims have a very special archetype arc, which is to go from being a victim to being victorious. Even dead victims can become victorious, if someone else avenges them. All those bodies on CSI are completing their archetype arc when the CSI heroes solve the case. Of course, not all victims are dead: some victims overcome trauma on their own, coming into themselves and defeating whatever was oppressing them in the first place. (These are my favorite victim stories, personally!)

Wizard (or some variation on magical/paranormal)
There are all manner of magical archetypes, but I’m going to point out two extremes: wizard and mystic. Wizards are the guys with the wands and the overt magic. Wizards are typically knowledgeable, studying from books to gain their magical spells (as opposed to a sorcerer, who might just know, or a witch, who might have summoned earth magic, or anything else). Wizards are scholarly and generally elderly (it takes a long time to learn all they need to know), and firmly in the fantasy realm where it’s assumed magic is accessible, if you just know what incantations to say. The other extreme is mystic. Mystics typically live in worlds that are mostly magic-free. They often have lost touch with reality; most mystics are a little daft or even a little insane and can’t quite handle the world as we know it, but most certainly can handle things going nuts around them. They often have the answer, whether it’s magical or not, when no one else does. They can see things in ways no one else can.

There are plenty of other archetypes, and other places to find them. I’d suggest reading up on archetypes by people who talk about real-life archetypes; if you learn about real people, then your fictional people will be better. Carl Jung talked about real-life archetypes, as does Caroline Myss. (Myss, despite not being a psychologist, is my preferred source due to clarity of explanation and variety of types, but I’d recommend her CDs; she speaks better than she writes.)  I’ve heard that another great resource is TV Tropes, which has a list of archetypes. If you’re trying to figure the rules or arc for an archetype on your own, write down all the characters that come to mind when you think of that, make sure they don’t fall into a different archetype — don’t put Wolverine in the hero category, when really he kills and is therefore an anti-hero, for instance — and then start finding their similarities. When you discover that a few key elements are nearly always present, you’ve found your archetype rules.

Now, for some recognizable archetypes! (Spoilers beware!)

Heroes: Let’s go iconic, shall we? Superman. Batman, though he’s a rather dark hero. The obvious: Harry Potter. Less obvious: Neville, also from Harry Potter. In the final book/movie, he steps forward when everyone believes Harry’s dead and gives a great speech, rallying the troops. Then afterward, he fights through a major battle to strike down the snake. Neville has one of the best hero arcs I’ve seen all year, because he goes from cowardly and geeky to extremely heroic. Even Harry, though he has a bigger battle, doesn’t go from one complete extreme to the other.

Anti-heroes: The grandfather in Up. Sure, he doesn’t kill anyone, but not for lack of desire. The rest of his arc fits, though; he hates the world, has locked his emotions away, and must get back in touch with them. More obvious anti-heroes: Wolverine, the Punisher, all of the Leverage crew (with the possible except of Nate Ford, who might be the only true hero). Granted, they don’t kill, but they break the law and do bad things, and most of them are finding their way back to morality.

Damsel: Repunzel from Disney’s Tangled was a great, strong princess. (It’s not easy to find strong princesses or damsels, by their very definition.) Fiona in the Shrek movies is another. They don’t have to be female, either; Robin of Batman fame was often a damsel, back in the 70s and 80s.

Gargamel, Loki from the Thor movie (not from the actual Norse legend), The Hellfire Club from X-Men: First Class, Voldemort from Harry Potter, pretty much all aliens ever. Do I really need to continue?

Captain America is the obvious choice. John McClane of Die Hard fame is a soldier-without-an-army, though. (As well as an anti-hero, for those of you wondering. You don’t have to have just one archetype, and sometimes they mesh!) The soldiers in Transformers (pick one) all have that archetype. GI Jane is a rare female solider, along with Alice (Resident Evil) (again, not really in the military). Soldiers can also be bad guys: the general who wants to kidnap the Hulk, Baron Nemo in Captain America.

The Leverage guys. Neal on White Collar. Flynn Rider, of Tangled. The Dread Pirate Roberts, in The Princess Bride. (He is also a hero, despite his pirating ways — note that he doesn’t kill anyone in the entire movie, even if it’s mentioned that he’s been a pirate. And in Buttercup we have another damsel!)

RJ, in Over the Hedge (believe it or not, though he’s a thief he doesn’t really embody that archetype), The Mad Hatter in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, Draco from Harry Potter, Phillip from Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (you know, the priest guy who rescues the mermaid).

Harry Potter himself is not, in fact, of the perfect wizard archetype: he’s too busy being a hero, he’s too young, and he’s not knowledgeable enough. Well known wizards are Gandolf, Snape, Voldemort and Dumbledore. Mystics include Bagger Vance, from The Legend of Bagger Vance, Luna from Harry Potter, Walter Bishop from Fringe (though he’s dealing with science, his archetype fits this mystic pattern, as well as fitting the idiot-savant, absent-minded professor or genius scientist archetypes), and River from Firefly/Serenity.

Now that you have some idea of what an archetype is, go! Learn! Study more of them! We’ll build on this next month.

JB writes romance and fantasy novels, and before that wrote tons of fanfic in several genres. For more information, check out or

Posted on September 30, 2011 at 15:38 by JB McDonald · Permalink
In: Books, Columns, Columns, The Written Word, Uncategorized · Tagged with: , , ,