Author’s Note: 3D characters, or, how to combine archetypes

Last time I talked about some basic archetypes (I cannot stress enough how many of them there are; the more you know, the better!) and said we’d build on it this month.

Well, we are! Woo hoo! Let’s talk about combining archetypes and adding traits. No one is just one archetype. When you see a character and you find yourself thinking, “They’re so two-dimensional,” generally what you mean is, “They have only one archetype and nothing unexpected about it.” Good writing means that even minor characters get an archetype and an unexpected trait, or two or more archetypes if they have enough screen time. The victim on CSI might be shown to also be a mother (victim and mother – two archetypes), or to be an avid football player (the jock archetype), or to do ballet (the dancer archetype), or any number of other things. You don’t always have to show an entire archetype — just show that this ONE archetype isn’t the end all and be all of their existence. This creates characters with depth.
You can combine archetypes that are similar or you can combine archetypes that are very different. Both can be done successfully, though in general combining dissimilar archetypes makes a character stand out. This is great if it’s your main character, or a character with a lot of screen time. You might not want every character to stand out, though, or you end up with a book of distractions.

In addition to combining archetypes, you can also combine one archetype with unexpected traits. Making the jock an avid reader, for instance, would be combing an archetype — jock — with a trait — avid reader. ‘Avid reader’ is more hobby than archetype, but it isn’t usual in the jock archetype and is therefore character enhancing. We’ll look both at combining archetypes and adding an unusual trait to a well-known archetype.

Combining archetypes

Hot damn, but I love combining archetypes! Any time you see a character who’s a victim in one setting and a hero in another, you’ve just seen two archetypes combined — victim and hero. These are fairly contradictory archetypes; more often you see archetypes that may not be complementary, but aren’t contradictory, either. A character can have both a soldier and a warrior archetype, for instance. If you look at Zoe in Firefly, she follows her captain’s orders (even when she doesn’t agree with them) and is intensely loyal and willing to get the job done – Soldier. But she’s also willing to go into battle for reasons other than loyalty; she stands up for what she perceives as right even when her captain disagrees, or when her husband disagrees, and she argues with people verbally or physically to get what she wants – Warrior. (You might, at this point, wonder why I’m categorizing her as a warrior rather than a hero. First off, she kills bad guys without remorse — very much a warrior trait. She also doesn’t have the hero’s arc to deal with: she’s not overcoming anything physical or emotional. She is who she is.) Combining archetypes, in short, is when you combine archetypes.

Archetypes with unexpected traits

First, characters with an unusual trait in addition to an archetype are usually minor characters. These are the characters that don’t have a lot of screen time, so there isn’t time to develop full archetypes, but there is time to add an unexpected trait to an established archetype.

In some ways, this is harder than combining two archetypes. We tend to think in archetypes very naturally. When you say, “That’s out of character,” you’re really saying, “You’re breaking the archetype without setting up any indication of a second archetype or any indication that this would make sense as an outside trait.” In order to combine an archetype and an unexpected trait, you have to use traits that aren’t contradictory. I can’t make my coward-archetype want to go bull riding, but I can make my coward archetype an avid boxer who doesn’t get into bar fights. An additional trait must still fit the character. Throwaway lines aren’t your friend here, because they just feel jarring to your audience. Either build a trait in consistently, add a trait that isn’t contradictory (just surprising), or use a second archetype.

Here’s a funny truth: If I have a book worm and he goes skydiving, my audience will say, “That was out of character!” If I have a bookworm who also has a thrill-seeker archetype that I show, then if he goes skydiving my audience will say, “Ahhh, that’s a character with depth!” The difference is in the subtleties. I can show a thrill-seeker archetype through small things; running a yellow light, jaywalking, reading thrillers, the desire to go treasure hunting. If I show that he has other traits within the thrill-seeker archetype, then adding sky-diving will fit.

All this means that when you give a character with an archetype an unusual trait, it has to be something people can believe. If it’s something too wild, it’s best to give them an entire archetype, and work it into their character. One way to give them a trait that’s unexpected is to look at the stereotype. I mentioned last column that a stereotype is the derogatory version of an archetype. For instance: all blonds are dumb, all women are bad drivers, all black people are poor, all gays lisp, all nerds are overweight, all overweight people are dumb, all Europeans are white. If you have one of these stereotypes, break it. Make your physicist overweight, your Scotsman black, your jock gay, etc. These are all things that are true, but people don’t think about them: they break the stereotype, and add depth to your archetype.

Shall we look at some examples? Yes! Because I love examples!


You like how I underlined that? Everything else had a heading. I didn’t want it to be lonely.

First, let’s look at combined archetypes.

Magneto from — well, any of the X-Men movies or comics. Magneto is clearly a villain, desiring to kill or enslave the humans on earth (depending on which movie you watch or comic you read), but he’s combined with a victim archetype. Magneto is a WWII concentration camp survivor, and we’re shown some of the horrors he’s been through. This creates some great depth and, on top of that, quite a lot of tension: we’re rooting against him hurting humans, but we’re rooting for him to complete his victim arc and become victorious.

Kaylee, from Firefly/Serenity. Kaylee very much has a ‘between girl and womanhood’ archetype going for her — she’s young, she’s pretty, she’s soft, she’s sweet, she has an unrequited crush, she loves everyone. In another world, she might be a flower child. She’s also the ship engineer, and saves the ship on multiple occasions. She loves her ship and she knows all the bits and pieces to it, even admires other peoples’ work. We can believe she can save the ship, because when she looks at a mess of wires she understands what she’s seeing, because she wears greasy overalls: she has an engineer archetype.

Sam Witwicky from Transformers. He has both a geeky teenager archetype and a hero archetype, which continues throughout the three movies. These are fun to see together, because they’re nearly contradictory; we don’t expect our heroes to be geeky, awkward teenagers!

Now, archetypes with unusual traits.

Elle Woods, from Legally Blonde. This is my favorite example of putting an unexpected trait with an otherwise predictable archetype. Her archetype is dumb blond; into fashion, seems airheaded, prances around, oblivious to social norms, expects everything to go her way, interested only in her boyfriend. Then she shows she has a brain. This is introduced right at the beginning, before we’ve completely pigeonholed her into being dumb. Because her behavior so exactly fits the dumb blond archetype, if they had waited until later it would have seemed unbelievable and out of character. When introducing something this contradictory, do so early and keep up with it. They kept up with it through other characters — the people around her are constantly surprised that she got into Harvard, knew answers to questions, etc. “All blondes are dumb” is definitely a stereotype, which the writers broke.

Tiphaine D’Ath from the Emberverse series, by SM Sterling. Tiphaine, who first appears in Dies the Fire, is a warrior/knight, who kills for her queen and fights for her country and monarch. At various times she’s the princess’s body guard and the hero’s jailer, all fitting under the warrior/knight archetype. She’s also lesbian, and as the series progresses, dotes on her girlfriends (as much as she can, in a place rife with homophobia). This doesn’t fit the warrior archetype, or even the medieval-woman archetype.

Eliot, in Leverage. There’s an episode in Leverage where we discover that Eliot, in addition to his mercenary archetype, is also quite the chef. (We see this built further into his character when, in another episode, it’s revealed he had a girlfriend who was a chef: this plays into his ladies man archetype, and ties it in pretty cleanly.) We haven’t seen any sign of this before, but it’s not contradictory. It is surprising, though, and surprising can sometimes be felt as unbelievable; the writers address that when one character is surprised to learn it, and Eliot rolls his eyes, flips his knife along his arm and says something like, “Like this, you kill a man.” He flips it back and says, “Like this, you slice onions.”

Have you figured out how to combine archetypes and unexpected traits? Hope so! Next month we’re on to what happens when you break archetypes, and the difference between an archetype and an appearance.

JB McDonald is a many-times published author and former BNF fanfic author. You can see what shenanigans she’s up to at her website,

Posted on November 17, 2011 at 17:01 by JB McDonald · Permalink
In: Books, Columns, Columns, The Written Word · Tagged with: , , , ,