Have you ever completely tuned out of a book because the characters all seemed dull or fake? Or can you think of a movie where you just couldn’t feel attached to the main character because they weren’t relatable enough?
A recurrent problem story writers often face is coming up with “real” enough characters that can play important roles in the plot. Writing a solid story begins with having a solid cast of characters, and if your characters aren’t relatable enough to the audience, chances are people won’t be so interested in the story.
Most of the time, characters also affect vital areas of the plot, such as having distinguishable traits or characteristics that have a key role in the story. For example, consider the character Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is memorable because of his extraordinary observation skills, deduction powers and problem-solving techniques, which makes the entire mystery series possible. If he was not a great detective and was instead just an ordinary person, the stories about him probably would not have been so impactful, and the mysteries may have gone unsolved.
You may have heard of the term “character archetypes” tossed around among storytellers and writers, but what exactly are character archetypes and why are they important in stories?
An archetype is a character that represents certain recurring traits, behaviors and themes that are universal and recognizable across the human race, regardless of culture or region. In fact, character archetypes do not only exist in fiction – we can usually think of people we personally know that resemble some of these archetypes. Carl Jung suggested that character archetypes exist in the human collective unconscious, making up a great part of our storytelling ability when we draw on this “bank” of pre-made characters.
Simply put, character archetypes are the personalities that we find in different people throughout our everyday lives. They are the people we’re most likely to admire, bump into, work with or despise. Basing your character on such archetypes tends to result in a more relatable cast. Additionally, since most of the archetypes have both positive and negative traits, you can avoid making your characters too one-dimensional.
While many character archetypes are not explicitly good or evil, some are more suitable for a certain moral compass than others. This list of archetypes may suit a “good”-aligned character well.
The hero is probably an archetype that we are all familiar with. From fairy tales to novels or movies, nearly every story has a hero, and the hero is almost always the protagonist. (However, the protagonist does not necessarily have to be a hero.) The hero is usually morally good and will need to overcome trials that challenge that goodness throughout the story. They tend to be responsible for saving the day through the completion of their quests.
A cliché example of a hero can be seen in many folk stories and fables, where the main character embarks on a journey to save their hometown. The simplest renditions of children’s superhero stories usually include heroes as protagonists as well, following the stereotypical “good guy saves the day” storyline.
However, that doesn’t mean your hero has to be the stereotypical do-gooder. You can create more interesting and realistic characters by picking a mold and adding various imperfections to your character. What if your hero had to scale a tower to save a princess, but he was afraid of heights? Or how about a renowned teacher that is hot-tempered and irate?
More recent examples of heroes include Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen, both of which have their weaknesses, challenges, and quirks that don’t necessarily fall under “good”.
The mentor has a wise word to offer when your characters are facing their challenges. A mentor character is usually old, senior or otherwise experienced in their field. This archetype is most commonly seen as a supporting character, with their primary purpose being to offer advice to the protagonist. Although they usually have the answer, the mentor may not always speak, both allowing for the other characters to rough out the obstacles themselves and also maintaining a sense of mystery so that the plot isn’t spoiled for the audience.
Additionally, mentors can play an important role in advising the protagonist, thereby providing crucial information to the protagonist and also the audience. Allowing a character to discuss information the audience needs to know tends to be more natural instead of having a narrator simply tell the audience the context of the story.
In folklore, the mentor is usually portrayed as the wise old man that the protagonist has to speak to in order to progress in their quest. Examples from movies and novels include Gandalf from Lord of the Rings and Yoda from Star Wars. The mentor archetype may also resemble real-life counsellors and teachers.
Innocent characters are pure and unmarred despite possibly being around dark circumstances. They tend to be cheerful and can be oblivious to the more negative aspects around them, although sometimes they simply choose to ignore these factors and focus on being optimistic. The innocent may seem naïve to others, but they aren’t necessarily stupid – they are often just focused on altruistic beliefs.
In an innocent character arc, the character typically becomes changed after their challenges and ends up having a slightly more realistic view of the world around them.
This archetype is stereotypically a woman or a child, perhaps due to social constructs making it easier and more believable to portray them as such. A number of Disney princesses fall under this archetype, including Giselle from Enchanted, Ariel from The Little Mermaid and Anna from Frozen.
Similar to the mentor, the caregiver is more commonly seen as a supporting character although they can also be a protagonist. While the mentor provides information and advice, the caregiver exhibits selflessness in their desire to protect those under their wing. They can be the one other characters turn to for emotional support, a shoulder to cry on, a voice of reason, reassurance or encouragement. However, the caregiver may run into trouble when their selflessness is exploited.
Parents or caretakers make good real-life examples of the caregiver. Fictional examples include Samwise Gamgee from Lord of the Rings and Hermione Granger from Harry Potter.
The orphan makes for a great protagonist because they have the most to benefit from of all the protagonist archetypes. While an orphan character need not be an actual orphan, this archetype symbolizes a person in search of a new place to belong. Having the orphan as a protagonist makes their quest clear: to find a new home. However, orphans can also be supporting characters in a story.
Orphans tend to garner a great deal of sympathy from the audience especially if they are protagonists, because the audience is then privy to the struggles they are going through and their desire to connect with others.
Identify an example not mentioned in this article for each character archetype described above.
Can a mentor be a protagonist? Why or why not?
Which archetype do you think is most suitable to be the protagonist of an adventure story? What about a horror story?