One Writer’s Journey

January 15, 2015

Character Archetypes: What They Are and How to Use Them

What you need in your story is a mentor . . . or a trickster . . . or a guardian.”

If you know the character archetypes, you immediately know what this critiquer means.  Archetypes are simply character types that are as old as the oldest oral stories.  They are the types of characters that appear again and again because they fill useful and needed roles.  Think about it — what would an epic be without a hero?  Or a mentor?  Or the character who appears to be the loyal sidekick until you realize that she has betrayed the hero to the villain and is actually a trickster.

When a story feels flat or a character isn’t working, you can turn to these archetypes for inspiration.  You want your character to be a hero, but somehow it just isnt’ working.  Then you read up on heroes and discover that a hero must sacrifice his own ambitions for the good of the group.  Not only has your character not done that, but his goals are too small to require any kind of sacrifice that would truly matter.  To make your character a true hero, you are going to have to increase what is at risk.

Everyone in the village is against your character but your critique group doesn’t think that will work.  If everyone has consistently belittled him, why will he believe the can do this?  The herbalist who gives him an encouraging word?  Expand on this character giving her a bigger part in motivating him either with her stories or the example she sets.  Turn her into a true mentor.

Archetypes can help us flesh out our stories.  To find out more about these age-old characters, you can read the work of Joseph Campbell, the folklorist who originally studied this or you can read The Writer’s Journey, an analysis of Campbell’s work as it applies to film writing.  Use these character types wisely and they will take your work to all new places.

–SueBE

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