Character Differentiation: What Are Your Archetypes?

Wrapping your head around a large number of different kinds of people is generally difficult. There’s always a mindset you don’t understand, a kind of person you’ve never met before, or a set of traits that logically seem to go together. As a result, a lot of people find themselves writing variations on the same set of character archetypes. For some people, this can be a standard fantasy race/supernatural creature variety and its primary stereotype. Others tend to base their archetypes on characters they run into in fiction a lot, or traits they see occurring together regularly in the real world.

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This isn’t necessarily something to be ashamed of; even some of the better professional writers do it. (Consider Lloyd Alexander’s novels; in most of his young adult novels, if you run into a competent young woman who associates with the main character enough to have lead character status, no matter what the setting is, odds are she has at least four points of personality in common with Eilonwy from the Prydain Chronicles.) In fact, some people appreciate tendencies like this; if someone associates you with a kind of character that they like, they might come back to see more of that archetype from you.

The first thing you need to do to figure out how archetype prone you are is to figure out what your archetypes are. There are two ways to go about this; I recommend using both, just to be complete about it.

One way is to look for archetypes yourself; it’s a bit time-consuming, but watching the patterns emerge can be fun. Start listing off characters you’ve created or used at some point: make sure you’ve got most of your major ones and a decent sampling of your minor ones. If you work in multiple worlds, make sure you have at least a few from each world; archetyping may be more noticeable when it’s all in the same narrative, but people with enough information can and will notice even when the characters are spread out over five or six projects. For each of these characters, list off four or five major characteristics. Some of these things might be vital statistics—age, build, personality, skill set, powers, tone of backstory. Others might be more subtle, like hobbies, favored drinks, or balance between good luck and bad.

Another is to ask someone else who’s familiar with your work. Sometimes, characters are created vastly different, but since most of their differences are things that don’t actually show up on stage, they come out looking extremely similar. You might not notice those similarities yourself, since you know where the differences are, but other people probably will. Asking someone else “Are there patterns you notice between my characters?” will allow you to get an audience-eye view of your own habits.

I’ve recently found myself rather prone to archetype use, mostly with common combinations of personalities, age ranges and backstory types. So I’ll often have cunning manipulators who seem to take almost as much pleasure in their game as in the results; experts in whatever field they choose who show little emotion beyond determination and are driven almost to the point of monomania by one specific goal; individuals fiercely loyal to a person, ideal, or organization or combination of the above with some level of self-sacrificial tendencies (one of my best characters combined all of the above); young and rather confused lads tossed into worlds with which they aren’t familiar and looking for a guide; optimistic young ladies with childlike demeanors whose energy is rivaled only by their interest in a certain academic pursuit; and of course, familiars who are far more self-promoting and have bigger egos than the people to whom they are connected.

So take a turn and leave a comment! What are your favored archetypes?


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