Character Archetypes

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June 24, 2021

Story archetypes, such as The Quest, Rags to Riches, and Comedy, are fairly well known.  These are standard outline formats that stories with particular themes tend to follow. What you might not know is that there are character archetypes as well. Character archetypes serve a similar purpose, providing set behaviors and characteristics according to their role in your story.  Bear in mind that vairous character types may be associated with a specific type of story or a particular media format.

You can think of character archetypes as a sort of shorthand that can be used to quickly establish a character's purpose. Archetypes rely on a sense of familiarity, whether it's something cultural that your audience recognizes or behavior patterns your genre-savvy readers recognize. Every culture's literary traditions have their own set of character archetypes, and they might be completely different from a neighboring culture's archetypes. Similarly, a genre like horror will have a different set of character archetypes compared to fantasy or romance.

In stories where the story beats or plot drivers that are specific to that type; character archetypes can be identified by specific character traits. These traits might include personality, background, power levels (whether social or magical), or their purpose in the story. For example, the plot for a Quest story is unique to that format, so character archetypes are defined by abilities (magical or otherwise), social rank, and roles (the tavern keeper or the royal wizard). Generic story formats are associated more with character archetypes based on their position in your story; for example, the behavior of a protagonist versus the antagonist or the comic relief.  

Some character archetypes are common to many different story formats and genres, while others are only found in specific story types. For example, the Chosen One is an character type that appears in fantasy and some science fiction stories, while the idea of a single character who has been gifted a special destiny is less common in horror or might be expressed differently in a rags-to-riches story or comedy. 

You can play with archetypes in your writing, even if you don't directly draw from them. For example, you can use archetypes to help you evaluate your characters and think about how well they fit into your overall story. You can also use archetypes as a starting point when creating characters, helping you to identify your characters' roles and purpose in the story before fleshing them out into unique and interesting characters.

Common character archetypes are anti-heroes, femme fatales, the sidekick, and wise old mentors. There are dozens more. We'll dive into specific character archetypes and what they do in later posts. 


Think about your favorite character in any story format. What is their place and purpose in the story? What traits do they have in common and how do they interact with other characters? Can you think what archetype they may fit, if at all?

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