Victoria Lynn Schmidt's 45 Master Characters inspired this article, and I highly recommend you check her work out!
Creating characters can be challenging (read, fun as FAK!), but, lucky for us, the literary Divine, in all her infinite wisdom, has generously given us a tool to help us along the way....also, Carl Jung chipped in! #GiveRespectWhereItsDue
Before we jump into the meaty bits, I want to quickly mention something that I believe to be true, but have met, even befriended, others that do not. (I know, right? Being besties with brilliant, civil minds that disagree with you; what's the world coming to? XP)
Character comes from plot, AND, plot comes from character.
There's a back-and-forth going on about which is more important/will dictate the success of your story. And, as far as I'm concerned, both can't stand without the other. Here's a rather simplistic example:
You have a character that is deathly afraid of fire because of past trauma (we'll discuss Wounds in a bit). Now, would it make sense to make his climactic obstacle (plot) one where he has to face off against sharks in water, or, is it more emotionally impactful, knowing what we know about the character's fear, to have him run into a burning building to save his baby?
The reverse approach (plot to character) is also true.
If you've designed a world with intricate foundations and wish to populate it with characters, said world/environments will establish the kinds of characters you place in it.
Certain characters will be powerful in the political arena but perhaps at a disadvantage in the ghettos/mean streets. Others could be capable corporate sharks but hapless when it comes to the fun-filled, always romantic night-life. The places and environments you've created will decide which characters are powerful and which are not.
When I think of world-building, my mind immediately goes to the great master...
George R. R. Martin.
Also, and this was a bit of a "eureka!" moment for yours truly, I realized that Archetypes fall into two camps: Structural (plot) and personality (character); and both must be considered in relation to the protagonist.
Let's say you decided to write a story in the Romance genre. That means your protag will inevitably have a Love Interest character (plot) that fulfills a very specific role. But, that Love Interest's personality (character) can range from being a pugnacious, fiercely independent Amazon Archetype to the blissfully naive and innocent Persephone Archetype. Which is to say that this single character has an Archetypal Coupling that roots it into both Plot and Character.
With that said, let's talk Archetypes.
Archetypes, as I define them, are the beams in your proverbial house. The skeleton in your body. The 'cone' in 'ice cream cone.' They're universal blue-prints that have existed across time and in every human culture since we were tickle-fighting sabertooths.
I think of an Archetype as a weave of values and beliefs that prompt specific and natural (to the character) reactions to conflict. This means that characters based on an Archetype will have varying views, values, reactions, attitudes towards other characters, motivations, fears and what they consider important.
So, let's see this concept of Archetypal Coupling in action, starting with Structural Archetypes.
We're sticking to the basics and discussing an Archetype that is found in every story: The Hero.
We're all familiar with this Archetype.
The Hero, regardless of gender, is:
- The main character and protagonist of the story.
- The character who is the main focus of the telling, and whose actions drive the plot.
- The character whose goal and outer motivation dictate what the story will be about. And,
- The character we, as the audience, most identify with.
Basically, there wouldn't be The Matrix without Neo. No Aladdin without Aladdin. No Wonder Woman without, uh, Wonder Woman.
Now, this character, whomever they may be, has been bestowed the Archetype of The Hero by you, the writer. But, that's just their structural role. Meaning, their personality has yet to be fleshed-out, and can be...well, anything!
Jumping over to Personality Archetypes and to Schmidt's 45 Master Characters.
The Archetypes that Schmidt shares are gender-specific; and I tend to agree with her for making this distinction. Why?
Yes, we all grow up as humans and there are similarities in our experiences; but, growing up as a woman can be/is very different from experiencing the world as a man.
The Archetype we'll address is one that I both love and have noticed becoming more popular in recent years. We're talking about the Amazon Archetype, girls and boys!
Here are some of the Amazon's potential positive traits, according to Schmidt:
- Fiercely independent.
- A feminist, even if it isn't spoken in the story.
- Is willing and able to fight to the death to defend herself.
- Stands up for her cause.
- "Prefers to live with a man instead of marrying him." I understand this as 'wants, but doesn't need.'
Some of the Amazon's potential negative traits can be:
- Too stubborn.
- Too goal-oriented/neglects other equally important aspects of life.
- Too arrogant.
- Too extreme in her approach, attitude and problem-solving.
For those of us that have seen Black Panther, the Amazon Archetype can be found in Nakia and Okoye most significantly, but can be seen throughout the rest of the female cast, to varying degrees, quite easily.
If you haven't seen Black Panther yet...dude...like, why not?!
So, in terms of Archetypal Coupling, our main character is now a Hero, from a structural/plot standpoint, and her personality is that of an Amazon, from a character standpoint.
You can have a near-infinite amount of couplings!
You can have an Anti-Hero with an Osiris/punisher personality Archetype. A Love Interest who's an Aphrodite/femme fatale Archetype. An Antagonist who's a Poseidon/artist Archetype. And so on.
SUPER IMPORTANT CAVEAT COMING AT YA!
It's important to remember that Archetypes are the basis of your characters, not your characters in their entirety. Meaning, you don't squeeze your beautiful, brilliant characters in an Archetypal box just cause the 'rules' say so. Archetypes are there for you to base said beautiful, brilliant characters on, and to allow them to evolve and grow organically.
There are hardly any characters in media (as far as I could tell) that fit their foundational Archetype down to the letter. These characters are simply based on the Archetype.
Choosing An Archetype
Here's a list that always helps me decide on an Archetypal Coupling. The list isn't in any particular order, so feel free to jump around *jump, jump!* when deciding on where to start.
- Physical Traits:
Simply put, your character's appearance is their history in visual form.
Check out this article for a lil' more deets: https://www.patreon.com/posts/thoughts-on-16964885
This is the character-defining event/trauma that forms both the character's personality and the daily struggles that come with it.
For example, Jessica Jones's Wound is her fucked-up, year-long rape by Kilgrave.
Check out this article for more info on character Wounds: https://www.patreon.com/posts/thoughts-on-17074586
This is the stage where I pretend to be this character's best friend. I ask myself questions like:
How is this character different from others in my life?
Why do I like them?
Why are they so quirky?
Are they an unapologetic kid at heart?
Do they only solves problems with her fists?
Can they control the wind/are able to fly/value freedom above all else?
Are they super comfortable in their sexuality? Are they asexual?
Do I, and other characters, respect/fear/disregard this character?
Have fun with this one. Play. Take this character out to the beach or a movie. How would they act?
I'll start with giving you the question you should ask at this stage, then I will tell you why it's important.
Question: What is the most important thing/person/etc...in the world to this character?
Why knowing the answer to this question is important: Because it will dictate plot.
Knowing things she can't live without and won't risk losing will help you establish raising stakes and character-defining moments and decisions. Do they care about their family? If so, would they risk their fame and fortune to make sure their family is happy?
A great example of this is in Nolan's The Dark Knight, when (spoiler) the Joker forces Batman to choose between Rachel (love) and Dent (Gotham).
If you haven't seen The Dark Knight yet...dude...like, whyyyyyyyy?!
Also, knowing what this character values and is after will help you establish their external goal for the story. Do they want to win a dance competition? Do they want to escape prison? Do they want to eat the world's biggest pizza in one sitting!?
What would paralyze them?
Makes them take pause, even if the person they value most is in jeopardy?
This will be most effective when combined with the character's Wound/past trauma. It's far more dramatic to watch a cripplingly shy introvert confront her bullies than seeing Chuck Norris beat on a bunch of douchbags.
The shy introvert has to overcome an incredible amount of emotional and psychological crap to stand up for herself--which is both hard and impressive-- while Chuck Norris just gotta roundhouse a few skulls.
Life-altering Side-note: The only one that can bully Chuck Norris is, in fact, Chuck Norris. #TrueStory
- Relation to Protag:
This is crucial, because it not only addresses the relationship from a structural standpoint (plot), but a personality standpoint as well.
If you're deciding on an Archetype for your main character, then your Structural Archetype will probably be The Hero or Anti-Hero. Usually.
But if your deciding on an Archetype for secondary character, you need to consider their structural role first.
Are they a Sidekick that's there to aid the Hero and be their voice of reason and moral compass? (Sam from Lord of the Rings)
Are they a Mentor that's trying to guide and impart knowledge on the Hero? (Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid).
Figure out how they're supposed to help or hinder the main character first, then choose an Archetype that best suits and amplifies their abilities and qualities.
Once you have a sense of your character after considering the elements above, time to leaf through the many Archetypes and see which one you want/think fits your character most. There are far too many Archetypes to list in this article, so, check out Schmidt's 45 Master Characters, or, if you're a fellow starving college kid, hit up tvtropes.org for some inspiration.
Fair warning, though: You know how you (royal 'you') can sometimes get caught in a porn-nado?
Okay. Well, my point is: tvtropes.org is FULL of amazing literary insight, so, try not to get lost in the sauce and get caught up in a literary tornado....a lit-nado!
Before I let you besties go, here's a final tip on how to generate plot through Archetypes; for if/when you get stuck in your writing.
Fish Out of Water
This is a basic writing technique that both screenplay and prose writers employ consistently. It's called the Fish Out of Water technique. If you haven't heard about this before, don't worry, I got you, fam!
The Fish Out of Water technique, young grasshopper, is when you put a character in an environment where they have almost no power, don't know how to act, are all-around incompetent and, most importantly, where they are incredibly uncomfortable.
For example, picture a football linebacker with all his power and bulging biceps...
finding himself having to win a salsa dancing competition.
The linebacker is most at home on the field, where he can crash and power through his problems. On the dance floor, that approach won't really bring him much success, just an assault charge.
The reason the Fish Out of Water works so well is because it forces your character to grow and change.
The linebacker will have to be patient, learn how to be humble, respect those around him and the discipline of dance, and, most importantly, learn how to Beso like a boss-o!
So, take whatever Archetypal Coupling combo that you wanna play with and put them in situations where they're extremely uncomfortable and where they must learn a specific lesson.
Once you find a combo you're happy with, start expanding and crafting a story around it!
Hope that helps, gang!
P.S. I really wanna thank Ashok Allu for being my very FIRST patron! Ashok, if you're reading this: you a real one! :D