Archetypal Characters – Avoiding the Stereotype

Characters.  It seems like every other month, the discussion moves to characters; how to make them believable, how to make the reader like them, how to give them personality.  You know what never comes up in those conversations?

How to ensure our characters fill all the necessary dramatic roles for a good story.

It’s one thing to have a character that’s fun or tough or snarky.  A lovable character only takes up space if they aren’t moving the story (which is why my biography would be a total snooze-fest).

To quote Glen C. Strathy:

The process of creating archetypal characters who perform specific dramatic functions in your novel is the least understood aspect of characterization. Fortunately, it is also an area where Dramatica Theory offers the most profound help.

So what are “archetypal” characters?  Archetypal characters are those characters that fill specific functions that are common and vital to most stories.  I have to emphasize that archetypal characters are NOT just characters to support your main character or group of main characters.

You see, many stories actually start with a character or group of characters and then the story is built to fit the characters or a concept around them.  The problem with this is that the characters are normally never developed to fill the necessary functions of moving the story along.  They are images in our minds, actors playing out a few scenes.  But they are not ready to fill the roles necessary to tell a great story.

Therefore, we start with the Grand Argument.  Archetypal characters are a MUST for exploring the Grand Argument.  They give the story mind the vehicle to explore the various options and pathways, alleys and streets, tunnels and dungeons of the Grand Argument.

Before I go a little further into character archetypes and complex character formation, I want to take a little aside.  Just because a character fills an archetypal role doesn’t mean they are stolid, dusty and boring.  All of the normal rules for making good characters apply, just this time your characters will actually fill another layer in the story.  They will now give your story the depth it was lacking.

To avoid sounding like a broken record, following are the archetypes and their functions:

  1. Protagonist.  Ever heard of this one?  To keep it simple, the protagonist is the main driver of the plot.  The protagonist is the one trying to achieve the goal of the story.  This does NOT mean they are always the main character, just the main driving force.
  2. Antagonist.  Yup, the character dimet . . . dimimetric . . . trying to stop the protagonist from achieving the story goal.
  3. Impact Character.  Now here’s a new one.  Since the story mind is trying to solve the Grand Argument, it would make sense that you would want to present two points of view.  That’s the function of the impact character.  The impact character may or may not have the same goal as the protagonist, but their main function is to present an alternative view for the protagonist.
  4. Reason.  The reason character is that character is believes in the logic and can sometimes be cold.  The easiest way to picture this character?  Think of Dr. Spock.
  5. Emotion.  The emotion character is the opposite of the reason character.  This character is the spaz, the one that runs on pure emotion.
  6. Sidekick.  No, not Robin . . . well, actually . . . You see, the sidekick is the faith and confidence in the story mind.  The sidekick is the character with unwavering confidence that the story goal can be reached and that the decisions of the protagonist is the one that can get there.
  7. Skeptic.  The skeptic is the balance for the sidekick.  They are the one that doesn’t think the protagonist can achieve the story goal.
  8. Guardian.  Anyone ever see Warf or Obi Wan Kenobi?  Nuff said.
  9. Contagonist.  Con . . . contag . . . WHAAAAT?  Yep, here’s another new one.  The contagonist is the the temptation for the story mind.  They do not function to oppose the protagonist, but do function to hinder their progress.

Boy, this sounds stodgy, dusty and boring doesn’t it?  Nobody would ever be interested in such a dull concept would they?  Would they?

  1. Luke Skywalker – Protagonist
  2. The Empire – Antagonist
  3. Obi Wan Kenobi – Guardian
  4. Sidekick – R2D2 & C3PO
  5. Skeptic – Han Solo
  6. Reason – Princess Leia
  7. Emotion – Chewbacca
  8. Contagonist – Darth Vader

Just watch the Spike channel some time if you don’t believe me.  (Seriously, one of Star Wars movies is on constantly.)  Quite possibly the most successful franchise in the history of movies is filled with archetypal characters.  Of course the story writing tempers some of the Sidekick (due to subplot) and Reason functions, but it’s pretty much tit-for-tat.

Maybe you don’t want your characters to be so easily defined though.  Well, that’s good because next time I’ll be talking about complex characters.  Time to give our characters some good dimension.  I’ll even show how this happened in The Seraphim Protocol:

  1. Jacob – Protagonist / Emotion / Guardian
  2. Draghixa – Impact Character / Reason / Guardian

Whaaa?  How can they both fill the guardian role?  We’ll see next time.

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About Webgoji

I am a member of the Kansas Writers Association and Wichita Writers Guild. I have successfully completed National Novel Writing Month and have completed 3 different novels. My first novel "The Fay Dragon Chronicles" unfortunately wasn't published, but I am currently trying to get my second book "The Seraphim Protocol" published. View all posts by Webgoji

4 responses to “Archetypal Characters – Avoiding the Stereotype

  • Brian Johnson (@WeatherViking)

    Also a big fan of Archetypes in “The Writer’s Journey” by Christopher Vogler. Goes into a lot of discussion on many character types for the protagonist and antagonist side. Plus several discussions of well known movies and characters. As for sidekicks, didn’t use them in “Hell to Pay”, maybe would have lightened up the book a little.

    • webgoji

      Thanks for the comment Brian and good information there.

      Keep in mind, that a sidekick traditionally does lighten the mood, but dramatically the sidekick is the aspect that has faith in the protagonist. They won’t necessarily be funny. In “The Seraphim Protocol”, Jacob actually fills the role of sidekick at times and he is the protagonist. And believe me, “The Seraphim Protocol” is a very dark, depressing story.

      Complex characters (next time) discusses how archetypal characters can become very complex (and even switch roles).

  • Martinay Sulta

    Thanks for the sensible critique. Me and my neighbor were just preparing to do some research on this. We got a grab a book from our area library but I think I learned more clear from this post. I’m very glad to see such great info being shared freely out there.

  • google.com

    Admiring the dedication you put into your blog and in depth information you provide. It’s great to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same unwanted rehashed information. Wonderful read! I’ve bookmarked your site and I’m adding your RSS feeds to my Google account.

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