Yep, characters can also be objects, animals, symbols, or concepts. Nor does the antagonist have to be a person. It could be a moral or emotional conflict with which the protagonist is struggling.
Characters also vary in importance in the story — from hero to villain, bellhop to waitress — and purpose — to motivate the main character into taking the action that will move the story along…even if all that character does is drive the taxi.
Create Believable Characters
To pull your reader in, to involve them emotionally, to need to flip that next page in desperation, to make your characters — good or bad — make them believable, authentic, interesting, full, rounded.
Be inspired by someone you read about, get payback on someone you hate, emulate someone you admire, use yourself — the real you or the fantasy you, a dream, your imagination…go wild. But believable.
Now Make Them Work For You…
That’s the easy part about character. Now that character has to work for you. Determine an overall character arc with a starting point in which they have a purpose in this story. For the character (and the story) to be interesting, that character needs to struggle to overcome a conflict (internal or external), all with a motivation convincing enough that the reader buys it.
I’m reading Mark Dawson’s John Milton series right now, and his protagonist’s primary motivation is working the twelve steps of AA. He figures he can’t go back and atone to all the people he’s killed, so he’s paying it forward and helping others instead. Think Jack Reacher, only John is a former assassin.
Your character must be able to defend themselves. There must be hope somehow. Part of their struggle may be to gather up the courage, the will, to do something, to fix something in their lives whether it’s an internal goal or an external purpose. They must start the story with a problem, encounter struggles and conflicts along the way with the resolution causing change in or for them at the end.
…Then Work Harder
The character’s traits should play into the goal they must reach in the story. Perhaps the character represents certain values, an idea, a belief that you want to emphasize. Do you want your reader to judge your character?
Also known as the character profile, character bible, character reference sheet, character backstory, or character sketch, it’s an essential record of your character. Not only does it provide a quick referral for you as a writer but it also keeps your character’s “facts” consistent. So s/he always has the same name (and spelling), the same physical appearance, personality quirks, motivations, emotional status/reactions, marital status, interests, talents, those revealing details, etc. It’s amazing how often a character changes their name (or sex) in a story. The changes in eye color or hair without their having, ahem, stopped off to get contacts or hair dye.
Do create a descriptive profile on your secondary characters as well with their own character arcs.
That profile that’s created for each character will make it easier to ensure you hit all the beats. Start with your protagonist and antagonist, and progress from there right down to the maid in the hotel.
Keep in mind that readers like to escape, and that means interesting characters. Not the ordinary everyday kind of people we see every day at the store, school, work, etc. In J.D. Robb’s In Death series, EDD Detective Ian McNab is eye-searingly colorful in his wardrobe while his detective girlfriend, DeeDee, is a Free Ager who loves her sweets and obsesses about the size of her derrière. Eve’s father figure, Captain Ryan Feeney, is always rumpled and is never seen without his bag of candied almonds. Just be sure the quirkiness fits in with the character and their role in the story.
Also keep in mind that while your character sketch may be very detailed, it’s simply their backstory helping you create a believable character with depth.
It helps to include graphic(s) of how you see the character, as it helps you maintain consistency — and serves as a reminder of what they look like, makes it easier to describe the character. Consider including frontal, profile, and back views. And nothing says you can’t include ideas of their wardrobes…
|Motivations & Goals:||For there to be a story, the protagonist needs a challenge, a motivation to act, that will cause change in that character over the course of the story.|
|External Conflicts:||Determine the conflict your character has with another character, against Fate, battling God or the supernatural, nature, society, and/or technology.|
|Internal Conflict:||Determine the:
|Character Traits:||Eccentricities, emotions or temperament, mannerisms, intelligence level, morals, phobias, fears, fantasies, etc.|
|Dialogue:||Diction, syntax, speech patterns, accents, etc.||Photo|
|Physical Description:||What they look like — hair, eyes, height, age, skin color, etc.; what they feel, taste, sound like; their health; what they wear, clothing styles, posture; body language, etc.|
|Social / Relationships:||Sexual activity, job, social class, where they live, relationships, hobbies, where they’re from, educational achievements, etc.|
|Flesh your character out with:||How the character deals with conflict and change.|
Archetypes are a Quick Profiling Start
Carl Jung first came up with the concept of the psychological archetype, a universal model of behavior or personality that can be recognized by anyone from any time period or culture. Think of the archetype as a “stock character”, a type of shorthand for the reader, providing them with all sorts of subconscious information and quickly creating a realistic character. There are also cultural archetypes that incorporate images, symbols, or patterns: the quest, the heavenly ascent, the apple, the snake, etc.
At the least, the archetype gives you a jumping-off point for your own character!
…a lot of work…yeah, you already know that one, lol. What the posts on “Writing” are intended to do is explore the various mechanics of writing from plots to points-of-view to structure to character development to genres to voice to target audience to book types to character or story arcs to back stories to plot devices to themes to diction to copyright to flashforwards to flashbacks to framing the story or devices to memes to tropes to pace to perspective to settings to show versus tell to social context to continuity to storyboards to style to language to style sheets to syntax to tone to tropes and more…
It’s an evolving conversation, and sometimes I run across an example that helps explain better or another “also known as”. Heck, there’s always a better way to explain it, so if it makes quicker and/or better sense, I would appreciate suggestions and comments from anyone on some aspect of writing with which you struggle or on which you can contribute more understanding.
|Credit to: Dave Hood’s “Elements of Fiction: Character“|
|Part of Speech: Literary Element|
|Definition: A person or other being in a narrative work of art — a novel, play, television series, or film. The character may be entirely fictional or based on a real-life person.
A.k.a., fictional character
|Cast of Characters|
|Definition: The fictional beings who appear in a narrative.
|Main Characters||Definition: Two primary characters exist in every fictional story, no matter what.
A.k.a., MC, regular character, ongoing character, core character, primary character
|Protagonist||Definition: The hero/heroine, the story’s main character, who is usually up against an antagonist.|
|While the protagonist is usually someone the reader identifies with, s/he can also be someone the reader hates.
Lieutenant Eve Dallas in J.D. Robb’s In Death series
Harry Potter in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series
Alex Cross in James Patterson’s Alex Cross series
Kate Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang incorporates multiple protagonists.
|Antagonist||Definition: The character or force in conflict with the protagonist.|
|The antagonist may be evil or immoral, but can equally well be a well-meaning but domineering parent or even an individual who unintentionally stands in the way of the protagonist.
|Dr. Moriarty in the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories
Voldemort, Professor Snape, or Uncle Vernon in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series
|Secondary Character||Definition: Recurring characters who are of lesser importance, but play a direct role in progressing the plot, revealing key details about the story, the story world, or the protagonist, motivating or foiling the protagonist, and helping to define the story setting.|
|They almost always interact with the protagonist on some level, be it through dialogue or a memory that the protagonist has of this secondary character.
They may inspire the protagonist to do something heroic or stupid, drive them nuts, push their buttons, a micromanaging boss, a flirt, a secondary character with no respect for the protagonist, etc.
He may stand in opposition to the protagonist (while not necessarily being a bad guy), preventing the protagonist from completing a task.
They are the protagonist’s friends, coworkers, enemies, parents, siblings, extended family, pets…teacher, mentor.
Ideally, the best friend provides some contrast to the protagonist — physical, personality, family background, etc., but is never more interesting than the protagonist.
Can be a regular, core character.
A.k.a., sidekick, supporting character
New York City Book Editors’ “Your Guide to Creating Secondary Characters“
|Dr. Watson as the sidekick, the Scottish landlady Mrs. Hudson, Scotland Yard Inspector LeStrade as a foil for Holmes’ brilliance, the Baker Street Irregulars to ferret out information, and Mycroft Holmes for behind-the-scenes support in the Sherlock Holmes stories
Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series
Roarke, Mavis, Nadine, Peabody, Feeney, Galahad and more in J.D. Robb’s In Death series
|Lesser Secondary Character||Definition: They’re not important secondary characters and yet they’re not minor characters either. They have more personality and quirks, etc., than a minor character, but don’t have as large a role as secondaries.|
|Detectives Baxter and Trueheart are part of Dallas’ Homicide Division, Detective Callahan is the lone female in EDD, Crack is a huge black man who owns the Down and Dirty and is one of Eve and Roarke’s friends, and Detective Webster, an ex-lover who’s in IAB in J.D. Robb’s In Death series|
|Minor Character||Definition: Their whole purpose is to make the story more interesting and progress the plot.|
|Don’t spend a lot of time on them or give them too much depth; they provide a bit of action or dialogue, and that’s it.
Can be a regular, core character.
|Manny in P.D. James’ Devices and Desires makes an explosive entrance, cracks a few lines…and delivers an envelope that progresses the plot.|
|Background Character||Definition: Both character and setting element who interact with main and secondary characters but don’t overshadow the main action.|
|They can have a few quirks, especially if it contributes to the storyline, but don’t overdo it. Consider their importance in the story and give them just enough to get the job done.
A.k.a., walk-on, incidental character
|Some of your minor characters will be determined by setting — time, place, or situation:
|Cardboard Character||Definition: An uninteresting, flat simulacrum passing for a real character used when you don’t put yourself into the character — for whatever reason.
A.k.a., stereotype, mannequin, drone
|Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward is filled with right-thinking men and women of cardboard.
Definition and example courtesy of Ohio University.
|Confidante||Definition: A character in whom the central character confides, thus revealing their personality. That someone does not have to be a person.|
|The protagonist, Dan Davis, confides in his cat, Pete, in Robert Heinlein’s The Door Into Summer.
Definition and example courtesy of Ohio University.
|Narrator||Definition: The fictional storyteller, which may incorporate any one of a number of different points-of-view.|
|Viewpoint Character||Definition: The character through whom we “hear” the story.
See the post on “Point-of-View and Perspective are Intertwined Yet Distinct“.
|If you choose a first-person point-of-view character, how they tell the story will be an essential part of creating their character.
A.k.a., point-of-view character
|Spear-carriers||Definition: Flat minor characters who provide verisimilitude, rarely named or described in any detail.
Think cast of thousands.
| The population of Earth in C.M. Kornbluth’s The Marching Morons are spear-carriers.
Definition and example courtesy of Ohio University.
|Stock Character||Definition: Usually a flat stereotype easily recognized from literary tradition.|
|Their purpose is to move the story along, and as such, they tend to be easy targets for parody and to be criticized as clichés.
The presence of a particular array of stock characters is a key component of many genres.
|Reflects (clichéd) aspects of real people:
John Collier’s short story collection, Fancies and Goodnights, brings stock characters to life.
Definition and example courtesy of Ohio University.
|Sympathetic Character||Definition: A character whose motivations readers can understand and whose feelings they can comfortably share — I could identify with her.|
|Usually the protagonist, but not always.
The sympathetic character does not have to be a good person.
|Winston Smith is a sympathetic character even though he betrays Julia and his own values in George Orwell’s 1984.
Definition and example courtesy of Ohio University.
|Unsympathetic Character||Definition: A character whose motivations are suspect and whose feelings make us uncomfortable.|
|The boundary between sympathetic and unsympathetic characterization is necessarily ill-defined.|
|In Terry Carr’s collection of short stories, Universe 14, Lucius Shepard’s protagonist in his short story, “Black Coral”, starts as an unsympathetic character whose punishment is to become sympathetic.
Definition and example courtesy of Ohio University.
|Definition: Charts a character’s internal growth or change over the course of a story, the character development.
At the beginning, he views himself and the world one way, but through growth and inner transformation, he comes to view his life on a deeper, more meaningful level.
The character must grow and change, struggling with weakness, inner demons, insecurity, addictions.
The protagonist must have a challenge, a motivation to act, for there to be a plot.
Why does the character do what they do?
|Four Basic Parts of a Character Arc|
|A good story with depth will include both outer and inner journeys; every outer/inner motivation has an outer/inner conflict. And every inner parallels the outer.
|Character Development||Definition: Uses a character’s characterization, their traits, as they react and/or change according to what happens along the storyline to create compelling and multidimensional stories.|
|A character’s hostility may be directed in anger toward another character or event.|
|Static versus Dynamic Development||Definition: The changes the character does (or does not) undergo. Keep in mind that the change(s) may be good or bad.|
|A character may have a “dynamic” personality or is “full of energy” with “an appetite for action”, for “getting things done”. Perhaps the character is a “great motivator”, able to inspire others to action. A character could be quite full of energy and burning to get things done, but a real put-off as an organizer and/or a miserable motivator of others…
If a character inherits a million dollars from a rich aunt in the course of a story:
In Craig Johnson’s short story, “eleven/twenty-nine“, Eddie Byers is very much the dynamic character.
Ivan Ilych, in Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych“, experiences a dynamic change in the course of his dying, but the change is not in his physical health, but in his spiritual growth.
Louis Sacchetti in Thomas M. Disch’s Camp Concentration is dynamic.
All of the characters (except Tessie Hutchinson) in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” are static.
Definition and examples are courtesy of KSU: Static vs Dynamic Characterization.
|Character Motivation Can Determine Plot||Definition: The primary character (protagonist or antagonist) needs a challenge — an internal or external motivation — for there to be a plot.
The reason(s) your character reacts as they do provides you with direction for your plot, a good starting point for the story.
|The challenge is what enables those change(s) to the character arc. Changes that can be used to raise issues and “tell” the reader why/if these issues are worth our attention. Changes that tell why you’re writing the story in the first place, the focus of your story.
Use the challenge to create a fascinating story that pulls in your reader, to slip in what you want your reader to take away from the story.
Determining the Motivation
How your character meets the challenge, what motivates the character into acting, tells a lot about the character: pessimistic or optimistic, straightforward or passive-aggressive, procrastinating or head-on, brave or cowardly, bold or shy, generous or selfish, etc.
Using External or Internal Change to Understand Focus
It may be a series of changes that lead to the ultimate transformation. It may be external or internal, and the motivation for the external “change” may be different from the internal one.
The important change is with your protagonist — and that does not prevent any of your other characters from also experiencing changes.
|Character Conflicts||Definition: Literary conflict is a major part of plot; it’s also at the core of character arc.|
|While conflict in literature can be complex, knowing the basics is key to understanding how conflict is built and how it affects the story.
There must be at least one conflict in the story; there can be more than one.
A.k.a., narrative conflict, internal/external conflict
|Character vs Character||Definition: Characters are in conflict with one another:
|The conflict could be dragon against knight, overbearing mother against beleaguered son, power-hungry boss, etc.
A.k.a., man vs man, person vs person, external conflict
|Hamlet in Shakespeare’s Hamlet is involved in a hostile conflict with his uncle, King Claudius, who seeks to have Hamlet killed.
In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the young murderer, Raskolnikov, and the police investigator, Porfiry, engage in a psychological conflict, a battle of wits.
Harry Potter vs. Voldemort in in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter
Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo
|Character vs Fate||Definition: Character is compelled to follow an unknown destiny, forcing a character to consciously, or subconsciously, act on their fate.|
|Sexual stereotyping is one example.
A.k.a., man vs fate, person vs fate, character vs destiny, external conflict
|Luke Skywalker in Star Wars is propelled into the life of a Jedi as his destiny, a destiny he is powerless to resist.
Callie/Cal in Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex is an hermaphrodite battling society’s expectations.
|Character vs God||Definition: Character is forced into conflict with a supernatural force that is outside the understanding of the protagonist, including monsters, aliens, or deities.|
|A.k.a., character vs supernatural, man vs supernatural, man vs God, person vs God|
|William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist
Natasha Rhodes’ Final Destination
Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
|Character vs Nature||Definition: Character is in conflict with their surroundings, some natural obstacle, or condition.
|The hero sometimes meets his goal, but sometimes is defeated.
A.k.a., man vs nature, person vs nature, external conflict
|The men in Stephen Crane’s The Open Boat must strive to reach land or perish at sea.
In Lois Lowry’s The Giver finds Jonas struggling to survive with Gabriel in the snow.
Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe
Herman Melville’s Moby Dick
|Character vs Self||Definition: Character is in conflict with themselves, aspects of his or her personality struggling for dominance:
It may be emotional, i.e., jealousy, loss of identity, overconfidence, intellectual, moral, etc.
Such conflicts typically leave the character indecisive and agitated.
When such conflicts are resolved, the resolution may be successful or unsuccessful.
They may, or may not, succeed.
A.k.a., man vs self, character vs themselves, person vs self, person vs character, internal conflict
Hubert Selby Jr.’s Requiem for a Dream
Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club
Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary
|Character vs Society||Definition: A protagonist is at odds with a particular social force or condition produced by society, such as poverty, political revolution, a social convention, or set of values and is compelled to act:
|Our hero may convince the others they are right, but they might be forced to flee town. They may even lose their lives.
External conflicts may be law, justice, corporate policy, etc.
A.k.a., man vs society, person vs society
|Nicholas Nickleby in Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby criticizes the hypocritical education system.
Charles Dickens’ Bleak House puts its protagonist up against the Chancery, charging that it is a corrupt legal system. Although lawyers and judges criticized Bleak House, it did trigger major judicial reforms.
Anne against the Nazis in Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl.
Society in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has restricted women to mere breeders.
Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 finds Guy Montag in conflict with a society that forbids books.
Wilbur the pig in E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web fights for his survival against a society that raises pigs for food.
|Character vs Technology||Definition: The protagonist must overcome a machine, technology, or man-made entities which may possess “artificial intelligence”.|
|Most often the encounter with the machine or technology is through the character’s own doing.
Over time the protagonist must overcome the technology, in some instances, even destroying it before it destroys them.
It may be technology or a machine that they created, purchased, or owned with the assumption that it would make their life easier.
A.k.a., man vs technology, person vs technology, man vs machine
|Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as two astronauts battle HAL
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451
George Orwell’s Brave New World
|Characterization, a.k.a., Building Character|
|Definition: Process of revealing your character through their actions, behavior, physical appearance, dialogue, thoughts and feelings, and the types of relationships they have.
Think of it as meeting a real person, encountering a new situation. How would that person react to a thug asking her to dance? To a gun in her face? To a plateful of fresh-baked cookies? To a sale on shoes?
Characterization sometimes runs parallel with character development, i.e., a character’s internal anger (characterization) is directed at another (character development).
|Flat versus Round Characterization||Definition: Uses a character’s traits, i.e., his/her actions, behavior, appearance, thoughts, or way of speaking:
CAUTION: It is not the richness of detail, but of the traits these details express.
|Richness in a character is details and can include:
A Mary Sue / Gary Stu (also a author surrogate POV) is generally considered a flat character, usually employed in fan fiction.
Michael Corleone was not jus’ a mafioso, but a family man. A man who walked the knife’s edge to preserve his sanity.
Gollum in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is flat with one obsession.
Almost all the characters in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol are flat.
Genly Ai in Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is one of many round characters.
|Show, Don’t Tell||Definition: Creates depth and pulls your reader into the story and the character(s), makes it come alive for the reader.|
|Tell the reader that Mary is a good and virtuous girl.
Show the reader through an anecdote (short story) or vignette (scenario) with the character’s actions, behavior, appearance, thoughts, or way of speaking, etc., that Mary is good and virtuous.
A.k.a., indirect versus direct
Examples courtesy of Rick Meyer’s “14 Tips for Building Character“.
|Revealing Details||Definition: Part of characterization is creating a unique individual and creating specific details that helps create that distinct character, one who has both good and bad sides.|
|Details that a reader remembers: Jamie’s long red hair and his brogue, Claire’s curling brown hair and whisky-colored eyes, the cleft in Eve Dallas’ chin, the face of an angel with the sound of Ireland in his voice, Alex Cross and his piano playing, Harry Potter fiddling with the hair that can cover his scar…
Show the reader these personal quirks, the unique characteristics that make this character different from everyone else, don’t just tell the reader. J.D. Robb does an excellent job of showing her characters in her In Death series as does Diana Gabaldon in her Outlander series.
We don’t need to know every detail about the character, just the ones that distinguish them from everyone else AND remember that no character is perfect. Be sure your character has positive and negative characteristics.
Ways to Build Your Character:
|You know Eve Dallas (J.D. Robb’s In Death series) doesn’t care about fashion with those battered boots, totally unconscious of what goes with what — it’s a shirt, what’s wrong with it?, their clothes, a person’s gotta wear clothes, her insistence on working past her endurance and hatred for any kind of medical professional or prescriptive aids
Ian McNab’s electrifying wardrobe
Nadine Furst slipping through the bullpen through bribery
Peabody’s need to constantly fuel up
Roarke’s teasing of Eve and taking care of her when she neglects to
Summerset’s needling Dallas, using it to bring her out of her funks
|Character Traits||Definition: A trait is something that defines a character and may be mental, emotional, moral, their thoughts, personality, their strengths and weaknesses.|
|Dialogue||Definition: What the character says and how they say it tells the reader a lot about them.|
|Your character’s communication style should be distinctive, unique with certain words or phrases they use continually. Decide on the sound of their voice.
Use dialogue to:
As with any action, scene, or character, dialogue must advance the plot.
You may want to explore the post on “Dialect“. Now Novel has two useful posts on using speech to incorporate their background, situations, and personality with gestures and character voice with their world point-of-view and creating effective dialogue.
|Diction (word choices):
Speech pattern (how they express themselves orally):
Syntax (how chosen words are used to form a sentence):
Definition and examples courtesy of Rick Meyer’s “14 Tips for Building Character“.
|Epithet||Definition: A literary device that uses an adjective, noun, or phase to express some characteristic quality of a person or thing or a descriptive name applied to a person.|
|It usually indicates some notable quality about the character, whether it’s a positive or a lack or a nickname.|
|Richard the Lion-Hearted
Charles the Bald
“Crash” Davis and “Nuke” LaLoosh
|Physical Description||Definition: Are not traits as they have nothing, in principle, to do with that person’s “character”, but with how they look.
They may, however, be used to emphasize an impression of their character.
|Now Novel.com has a number of posts on writing physical descriptions: faces, hands, eyes, and posture.
|What they look like:
What they smell like, personal hygiene:
What they sound like:
What they taste like:
|The Physical Can Enhance the Internal|
|Definition: Physical descriptions can enhance a character’s internal character.|
|Someone being handicapped visually, i.e., blind, may also be blind to the moral characters of those around him, blind to his/her own circumstances, or he may be more mindful of his circumstances, more acutely aware of truths behind the words.
A healthy person may have a well-rounded approach to life, his/her work or friends while an ill person may be grouchy toward others OR more compassionate because of his/her own problems.
A pimpled person may be more aware of another’s inner beauty while the beautiful person may be ugly on the inside OR it may be a case of like seeks out like, as in an ugly person may be ugly in nature, etc.
A spindly-legged person could indicate someone who pays heed to his/her health OR that they’re a stingy character while a stout person could be happy, greedy, stubborn, or piggish, etc.
|Social Environment and/or Relationships||Definition: People have interests and jobs, and with these interests and jobs comes environments and interaction with others. All part of what makes an individual singular.
|Archetype||Definition: Universally recognized models of people, behaviors, personalities, images, mythic characters, animals, or object types recognized within the collective unconscious of people all over the world, no matter the historical time period or culture.|
|The most common list of archetypes are the Pearson-Marr Archetype Indicator.
Others have expanded upon this list and a number of sites have created their own lists based on the same concepts: eWriter’s Coach’s “Big Bold List of 52 Character Types“, Caroline Myss notes “Appendix: A Gallery of Archetypes“, “Jill’s List of Character Archetypes“, Humble ISD has a list that includes images and more.
Why Use Archetypes
Basing your character on an archetype(s) helps the reader identify more readily with them, make them feel as if they know someone just like that.
Use the archetypes to create characters that conflict with each other, making it easier to create dramatic tension between them.
You don’t have to choose just one per character.
A.k.a., stock character
|Jungian Archetypes||Definition: Our modern archetypes are based on two different concepts of Carl Jung’s archetype: the three parts that make up the individual psyche and the individual archetypes that he splits into three categories: events, figures, and motifs1.
1 Jung notes that the categories are endless; these are simply a sampling.
|The Individual Psyche||Definition: Jung stated that the individual psyche holds a combination of Self, Shadow, and Soul archetypes.|
|Self||Definition: The identity we project to others, what we believe others expect, and which can lead to inner conflicts and repressions.|
|The resolution of these repressions and the reconciliation with their true self could be this character’s character arc.
A.k.a., ego, the conscious mind, persona
|A man may believe a father self is serious or disciplining
A person may believe an artist is supposed to be flamboyant
Believe that a prison guard is hard
|Shadow||Definition: A Jungian archetype of sex and life instincts, which exists as part of the unconscious mind (the darker side of the psyche) and is composed of repressed ideas, weaknesses, desires, instincts, and shortcomings — the black side of the self personality.|
|Shadow represents wildness, chaos, and the unknown.
Typically, the individual does not consciously acknowledge shadow, but projects their own blackness onto others. Because the character does not see this shadow as something within themselves, the blackness is seen as a moral issue coming from outside that they must battle. The character arc will evolve through encounter, battle, realization of it being an internal issue, and resolution.
If the character has to face this blackness alone, the challenge is huge.
If the character undergoes self-analysis, the shadow will be the first challenge.
Until the character acknowledges their shadow, it can appear in dreams or visions of bad women or witches, of women with personal high power and destructive impulses affecting man’s mind, the phallic mother, and eros. It may take a variety of forms. It might appear as a snake, a monster, a demon, the devil, demonic symbols, a dragon, or some other dark, wild, or exotic figure.
A.k.a., the black side, the black shadow, Freudian personal unconscious, personal unconscious, memories
|Often presented as a villainous character:|
|Soul||Definition: The true self, which is divided into anima and animus. It represents the opposite gender to a person’s self, the real person the character has repressed as they develop their gender identity.
The combined anima and animus is known as the syzygy, the divine couple, and represents completion, unification, and wholeness.
|The anima and animus represent those repressed idealized aspects.
A.k.a., collective unconscious
|Mr Darcey is the idealized anima archetype in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
A man may allow his empathy to show more after the development of his masculine persona
Men repress their feminine side, women repress their masculine side
|Pearson-Marr Archetype Indicator (PMAI)||Definition: A list of archetypes based on Jung’s concepts with heavy influences from Joseph Campbell and his description of the archetypal monomyth in his The Hero with a Thousand Faces and a derivative of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.|
A character will have one archetype that dominates their personality and usually have several archetypes within their personality. An aid in gaining personal insight into behaviors and motivations.
Joseph Campbell refined the concept of hero and the hero’s journey in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. (George Lucas used Campbell’s writings to formulate the Star Wars saga.
Other Archetype Types
Carl Golden’s “The 12 Common Archetypes“
|Caregiver||Definition: Their core desire is to protect and care for others with the goal and intent of helping others through their compassion and generosity — love your neighbor! Their weakness is martyrdom and being exploited by others, which is easily done through their greatest fears: selfishness and ingratitude.|
|They fulfill their ego type, their desire, through meeting the needs of others, a social orientation.
A.k.a., saint, altruist, parent, helper, supporter, nurturer
|Mary Poppins in P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins
Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird
Elinor Dashwood in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility
|Creator||Definition: Creative, imaginative — if you can imagine it, it can be done — their greatest desire is to create things of enduring value. To create culture and express their own vision, to realize their vision, they need artistic control, develop their skill(s), and have an inspired way of approaching truth. Their greatest fear is of having a mediocre vision and/or execution, which ties in directly with their weaknesses of perfectionism and/or bad solutions.|
|They fulfill their soul type, their desire, by producing their vision.
A.k.a., artist, inventor, innovator, musician, writer, dreamer, visionary
|Jo March in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women|
|Everyman||Definition: Believes that all men and women are created equal and want to connect with others. They have a need to belong with their greatest fear being left out or to stand out from the crowd, which plays into their weakness of losing their self through their effort to blend in or for the sake of superficial relationships; it may well be a mask and pretense we show others. The everyman develops ordinary solid virtues, is down to earth, and has the common touch through their own realism, empathy, and lack of pretense.|
|They fulfill their ego type, their desire, by being accepted by their fellow man.
A.k.a., the good old boy, the person next door, the realist, the working stiff, the solid citizen, the good neighbor, the silent majority, regular guy/gal, orphan, persona
|Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers
Frogo Baggins in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings
Harry Potter in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter
Jane Eyre in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre
Tarzan in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes
Drug addicts and alcoholics are common shadow traits of an Everyman.
|Explorer||Definition: Wants to experience a better, more authentic, more fulfilling life and desires the freedom to find out who they are through exploring the world. They intend to accomplish this by traveling on a journey, seeking out and experiencing new things. They fear boredom, conformity, inner emptiness, and or getting trapped. They are autonomous, ambitious, and are true to their soul — don’t fence me in! Their weakness is aimless wandering and/or becoming a misfit.|
|They fulfill their soul type, their desire, by having the freedom to find themselves by exploring the world.
The journey is a representation of the quest towards self-realization.
A.k.a., seeker, iconoclast, wanderer, individualist, pilgrim, self
Huckleberry Finn in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Zorro in Johnston McCulley’s The Mark of Zorro
|Hero||Definition: Aye, where there’s a will, there’s a way for the hero to prove his/her worth through courageous acts, pursue a quest to achieve their destiny. They intend to be as strong and competent as possible, and they intend to achieve expert mastery in a way that improves the world…fortunately, they are competent, perseverant, and courageous with boundless ambition. Their greatest fear is of being weak, vulnerable, or “chicken”, which leads to their weaknesses of arrogance and always needing another battle to fight.|
|They fulfill their ego type, their desire, through courageous action that proves self-worth.
A.k.a., warrior, crusader, rescuer, superhero, soldier, dragon slayer, the winner, team player, champion, defender
Rebecca McFarlan’s “Character, Setting, Plot, Point of View: Meat and Potatoes of Literary Analysis“
|Innocent||Definition: They are boring for all their naive innocence with a need to do things right, the Innocent wants to be happy with a fear of being punished for doing something bad or wrong. They want to be free to be themselves while their core desire is to get to paradise, and they have a great deal of faith and optimism. On the plus side, they are a breath of new life and fresh ideas with all their potential in front of them.|
|There is a longing for innocence, rebirth, and/or salvation.
They fulfill their ego type, their desire, by finally achieving nirvana or reaching paradise..
A.k.a., utopian, traditionalist, naive, mystic, saint, romantic, dreamer, innocent child, child
|Mary Poppins in P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins
Dorothy in Frank L. Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
Definition and examples courtesy of The Character Therapist’s “Character Archetypes 101: The Innocent“.
|Jester||Definition: They only live once and intend to live in the moment with full enjoyment. Joyous, they want to have a great time and lighten up the world through play, jokes, and being funny. This desire also leads to their greatest fear of being bored or boring others. Their need to live to the full also causes them to be frivolous and waste time.|
|They may be a rascal agent pushing us towards change.
They may wander off in confusion and with faulty directions.
They fulfill their self type, their desire, by having a good time..
A.k.a., fool, trickster, joker, practical joker, comedian, deceiver, liar, trouble-maker
|Puck in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The carpet in Aladdin
|Lover||Definition: They believe they’re the only one with a core desire for intimacy and experience, which they hope to achieve through being in a relationship with the people, work, and surroundings they love. They work at becoming more and more physically and emotionally attractive using their “talent” for passion, gratitude, appreciation, and commitment. Their fear of being alone, a wallflower, unwanted, unloved, can become an outward-directed desire to please others at the risk of losing their own identity.|
|They fulfill their soul type, their desire, through intimacy and experience.
A.k.a., partner, friend, intimate, enthusiast, sensualist, spouse, team-builder
|Marianne Dashwood in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet
Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby
|Magician||Definition: A mysterious character filled with intrigue, they have a strong desire to understand the fundamental laws of the universe and makes things happen, makes dreams come true with a talent for finding win-win solutions. They develop a vision and live by it, which leads to their greatest fear: unintended negative consequences. It’s a fear that leads to their becoming manipulative.|
|They are knowledgeable of the hidden and of the transformation needed.
They fulfill their self type, their desire, by understanding the fundamental laws of the universe.
A.k.a., visionary, catalyst, inventor, charismatic leader, shaman, healer, medicine man, wizard
|Merlin in the Arthurian legends
Gandalf in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings
|Rebel||Definition: Hah! Rules are made to be broken and they intend to overturn what isn’t working. Outrageous with a sense of radical freedom, they intend to disrupt, destroy, or shock to achieve revenge or revolution. They’re greatest fear is of being powerless or ineffectual, which can lead to the possibility of their crossing over to the dark side, of committing crime(s).|
|They fulfill their soul type, their desire, is revenge and revolution.
A.k.a., outlaw, revolutionary, wild man, misfit, iconoclast
Lord Voldemort in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is the shadow rebel
|Ruler||Definition: Authoritarian, unable to delegate, believing that power isn’t everything, it’s the only thing, the ruler needs to control and exercise power to create a prosperous and successful family or community. While they do have a sense of responsibility and are good leaders, their greatest fear is of being overthrown, of chaos. Others may fear him/her as that authority figure.|
|They are stern, powerful.
They fulfill their self type, their desire, by being the keeper of order and sanity in a chaotic world.
A.k.a., boss, leader, aristocrat, king, queen, politician, role model, manager, administrator, great father, father, authority figure
|Don Vito Corleone and Michael Corelone in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather are both shadow rulers
Aragon in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings
Katherine in Shakespeare’s The Taming of The Shrew
Fitzgerald Darcy in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
|Sage||Definition: Intelligent, stoic, contemplative, they’re wise and can study details forever and never act. Their core desire is to find the truth and believe that the truth will set you free. They seek out information and knowledge, understand thought processes, provide guidance, and engage in self-reflection with the goal of using their intelligence to understand the world. Their greatest fear is of being duped or misled — or to be ignorant.|
|They fulfill their self type, their desire, by finding the truth.
A.k.a., expert, scholar, detective, advisor, thinker, philosopher, academic, researcher, thinker, planner, professional, mentor, teacher, contemplative, wise old man
|Gandalf in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings
Professor Dumbledore in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter
Professor Henry Higgins in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion
|Types of Archetypal Journeys||Definition: The archetypal journey sends the protagonist in search for some truth of information necessary to restore fertility, justice, and/or harmony to the kingdom.|
|The journey includes the series of trials and tribulations the protagonist faces along the way.
Usually the protagonist descends into a real or psychological hell and is forced to discover the blackest truths, quite often concerning their faults.
Once the protagonist is at this lowest level, they must accept personal responsibility to return to the world of the living.
Types of Journeys include:
|Epic Journey to Find the Promised Land||Definition: Journey to the promised land or the founding of a great city.|
Frank L. Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
|Fool’s Errand||Definition: A simple-minded person saves the land or the princess just because of their own unawareness to their foolishness.|
|In Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, it’s Huck or Tom off to find adventure.
David Newbatt’s Parzival: The Quest for the Holy Grail is one example of Parsifal’s quest
William Goldman’s The Princess Bride sees Westley off to seek his fortune and win the hand of the princess.
|Grail Quest||Definition: The quest for human perfection.|
Justine Korman Fontes’ The Lion King
Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King
|Journey in Search of Knowledge||Definition: Character tries to gain insight or knowledge about something.|
|Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories
Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew series
Deborah Bee’s The Last Thing I Remember
|Quest for Identity||Definition: The character goes on a journey to discover who they are and what makes them.|
|Veronica Roth’s Divergent
Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity
|Quest for Vengeance||Definition: The character want to enact revenge on another.|
|Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo|
|Quest to Rid the Land of Danger||Definition: The character must save a land from an evil force.|
|C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia
J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings
Elizabeth George Speare’s The Bronze Bow
Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games
|Search for Love||Definition: To rescue the princess or damsel in distress.|
|Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
Jessica Martinez’s The Vow
|Tragic Quest: Penance or Self-Denial||Definition: The character is trying to make things right again either with themselves emotionally or with someone else no matter how hard it is and whether or not they have to suffer.|
|Mark Dawson’s John Milton series in which a former assassin roams the world, making amends for his former profession.
Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey as he holds that torch for Harriet.
|Warrior’s Journey to Save Their People||Definition: The character must destroy a threat to their people.|
|Pittacus Lore’s I Am Number Four
Timothy Zahn’s Quadrail sends Frank Compton on a desperate journey to stop the aliens
Timothy Zahn’s Cobra universe consists of a series of subseries as the Moreau-Broom family must battle against aliens and their own kind to save their worlds.
|Literary Devices Used|
|Assorted literary device are used to bring characters to life.|
|Foil||Definition: Usually a secondary character whose qualities contrast with the qualities of the major character with the objective to enhance the importance of the major character.|
|It’s very handy in fiction for character development, as it helps readers understand their personalities AND comprehend the importance of their roles.
Foil may also be used for any comparison that is drawn to portray a difference between two things.
|God versus Satan
Harry Potter and Ron Weasley in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series
Kurt Austin and Joe Zavala in the NUMA Files
Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Cassius vs Antony vs Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar
Katie Powell is the foil to the protagonist, David McCombe, in Connie Willis’ “The Last of the Winnebagos“.
|Juxtaposition||Definition: A literary device in which the author places a person, concept, place, idea, or theme “next to” another to compare them or to highlight the contrast between the two.|
|It’s useful in portraying characters in great detail, creating suspense or lending a rhetorical effect.
It is a human quality to comprehend one thing easily by comparing it to another. It can surprise readers, evoking their interest with the added vividness given to an image, controlling the pacing of a poem or a narrative, and providing a logical connection between two various vague concepts.
A writer can make readers sense “goodness” in a particular character by placing him or her side by side [with] a character who is predominantly “evil”. Consequently, goodness in one character is highlighted by evil in the other character.
Useful in the development of characters.
|“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…” – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Milton’s Paradise Lost uses juxtaposition to draw a parallel between the two protagonists, Satan and God, who he discusses by placing their traits in comparison with one another to highlight their differences.
|Personification||A figure of speech, it uses comparative metaphors and similes to give human qualities, attributes, or abilities to an animal, an object, or an idea to create imagery.|
|It can also refer to “a person who is considered a representative type of a particular quality or concept”.|
|The angry wind knocked over the chair and slammed the shutters.
“And the meeting-house windows, blank and bare,
Gaze at him with a spectral glare
As if they already stood aghast
At the bloody work they would look upon.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Paul Revere’s Ride”
“When it comes, the landscape listens,
Shadows hold their breath,” – Emily Dickinson, “There’s a certain slant of light”
“She sweeps with many-colored Brooms
And leaves the Shreds behind
Oh Housewife in the Evening West
Come back, and dust the Pond!” – Emily Dickinson, “She sweeps with many-colored Brooms”
|Anthropomorphism||Definition: Gives animals, objects, deities, or other non-human beings human characteristics, enabling them to behave and appear as if they are human beings.|
|Used in fairy tales, fables, satire, artistic purposes, animations, comic books, etc.|
|Pinocchio, the famous wooden doll was given the ability to talk, walk, think, and feel like a real boy.
a talking rock – think Terry Pratchett’s Discworld
Ents from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings
George Orwell’s Animal Farm
The Cowardly Lion in L. Frank Baum’s Land of Oz
C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia
|Doppelgänger||Definition: Refers to a character in the story who is actually a counterfeit or a copy of a genuine character and usually seen as a harbinger of bad luck, frequently seen as an evil twin.|
|Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in Robert Louis’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Steven Bannion and the Incredible Hulk
|Hubris||Definition: An extreme pride and arrogance shown by a character who believes he’s better than others, crosses normal human limits, and violates moral codes because he believes he has the right. This flaw eventually brings about his downfall.|
|Making use of hubris is one way to achieve a moralistic end with the character being punished and readers wondering if this punishment will happen to them if they do the same horrible things.
|Found in major characters of tragic plays.
Young men and the rich are hubristic because they think they are better than other people.
People indulge in crimes like sexual misconduct and maltreating others only to fulfill their basic desire to make themselves feel superior to others.
The mad scientist, Victor, in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein exhibits Hubris in his endeavor to show them all what a great scientist he and creates a “monster” which brings about his downfall.
In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the main character is overfilled with ambition and arrogance, allows his hubris to think he would be able to kill the valiant Duncan without penalty so he can claim the throne of Scotland for himself.
|Hamartia||Definition: A tragic flaw in an initially rich and powerful hero that leads to his tragic downfall.|
|It is commonly understood to refer to the protagonist’s error or flaw that leads to a chain of plot actions culminating in a reversal from their good fortune to bad.
What qualifies as the error or flaw can include an error resulting from ignorance, an error of judgement, a flaw in character, or sin.
|Oedipus in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex killing his own father because he doesn’t understand his true parentage.|
|Pathetic Fallacy||Definition: A type of personification in which human feelings are attributed to nonhuman objects or nature or phenomena.|
|It’s more accidental than purposeful.
Two Types of Pathetic Fallacy
|The softly whistling teapot informed him it was time for breakfast.
Encouraged by the smiling skies, Mary skipped off to school.
The somber clouds, the angry storm, and the bitter winter winds brought Jenny’s spirits down.
Air hates to be crowded, and, when compressed, it will try to escape to an area of lower pressure.
The cruel, crawling foam rose up over the sides of the boat.
|Prosopopeia||Definition: A powerful form of personification in which an inanimate object gains the ability to speak.
|The Anglo-Saxon poem, “Dream of the Rood“, has the wooden cross verbally describe the death of Christ from its own viewpoint.
Eco-critical writers might describe clear-cutting from the viewpoint of the tree.
Used car salesmen might write an advertisement from a car’s viewpoint.
Cars with Owen Wilson
Resources for Character
Michael Hauge’s Writing Screenplays That Sell: The Complete, Step-By-Step Guide for Writing and Selling to the Movies and TV, from Story Concept to Development Deal and Michael Hauge and Christopher Vogler’s The Hero’s 2 Journeys as a seminar on CD/DVD are recommended for character arc and how it fits into story structure.
Victoria Schmidt’s 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters and John Trub y’s The Anatomy of a Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller are both useful. Have some fun with Archetypes.com; it’s so easy to get lost in their site!
The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism (ARAS) is an “archive [that] contains about 17,000 photographic images, each cross-indexed, individually mounted, and accompanied by scholarly commentary”, which includes “its modern psychological and symbolic meaning, as well as a bibliography for related reading and a glossary of technical terms”. ARAS has also published The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images, which includes 800 images from all over the world and from all eras of history. On Google Docs, there’s a completely different list of archetypes. Dictionary.com has a different perspective on Archetype Examples that includes situation, symbolic, setting, and a different list of character archetypes. The protagonist’s journey is bulleted out in stages in Venngage’s infographic “What Your 6 Favorite Movies Have in Common“.
Wikipedia has lists of stock characters or archetypes which include Stock Characters, Chinese Opera, Strong Female Characters, Ancient Rome, Plautus who has his own variation on the ancient Roman list, and Ancient Greek. You’ll have to dig a bit for the list in Japanese Comic Characters in Kyōgen and Commedia dell’arte.
Nancy Lamb’s The Art and Craft of Storytelling.
Sarah Blake Johnson’s article, “The Prism of Roles“, is excellent with ideas on how to create a developed character. You’ll want to dive right in and start working up their histories. Jack Hodgins’s A Passion for Narrative: A Guide to Writing Fiction.
Create your own character map or storyboard through Storyboard That. Faye Kirwin at Writerology.net suggests taking a personality test from the POV of the character to help build them up. She also suggests you click the button that requests they hold the data private. Fiction Writer’s Mentor.com has a single-word List of Character Traits” that may inspire.