Understanding Character Archetypes

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The ancient Greeks were onto something when they divided all of fiction’s heroes into just 12 archetypes. Their system may seem simple, but it’s an undeniably useful way to organize character development in a way that will always make you ask yourself the right questions when you’re writing. Understanding the archetypes will help you create characters that readers can’t help but empathize with and love.


Know your archetypes

To look at archetypes as writers, there are six common character types that you can use to guide you through your writing. One of the most familiar character archetypes is a stock character with a name like “Villain,” “Hero,” or “Protagonist,” but these labels don’t tell you much. When you examine major characters more closely, it turns out that almost all of them exhibit different mixes of the defining traits of each character type in almost every story. What gives these characters their appeal is how they struggle to develop and overcome their flaws.

To lessen reader expectations of stock characters, learning the names of the major characters in your genre can help you structure your story. A more realistic, emotionally complex character will be easier to write, so try to give the more layered ones a name that labels them by the traits a more typical character in your genre will show. These names don’t have to matter in the story itself, but noticing which are extremes and which are sat somewhere in the middle can help you contrast your main character with the archetype. A “prince” is a pretty extreme archetype — he’s a perfect hero who is strong, selfless, and confident, and he always gets what he wants. On one end of the spectrum, Prince Edward of Wales, one of fourteen potential heirs to the throne, is multi talented but blond and uses his charm and charisma to get what he wants, and he knows he’s beautiful. On the other end of the genre spectrum, Prince Khemri, a tattooed orc warrior in the Shadowrun game, has an orcish name and is exiled for disobeying the dwarf king, after he started his own trading company in order to run a slave ring. The audience naturally expects him to betray the others for his own benefit as they go on an adventure to overthrow the king, but what happens when he turns out to care deeply about his friends?

Know your myth

When you’re ready to begin writing your readers in earnest, you need to understand how characters function in the confines of your chosen genre. Because the myths of the modern reader are as real as the older myths of the Greeks, it makes sense to tap into those for inspiration. In the Odyssey, for example, Odysseus is an underdog hero whose triumph relies on his intelligence and proficiencies, both physical and mental. Dante is a monster who overcomes his violent traits to find salvation. King Arthur and his knights are famous for their budding friendship and their individual adventures. While writing your own characters, it’s often useful to try fitting them into archetypes you haven’t seen before. Doing so will engage your readers’ imagination and likely make your characters surprisingly complex. Just remember to make an archetype adjustment here or there if a particular archetype seems at odds with your character’s independence and originality.

Once you’ve identified your character’s archetypes, it’s time to start to think about which you want them to embody. Each archetype appeals to different readers, depending on mood and circumstance, giving you a chance to best accommodate them in your writing. You may think that main protagonists should be static, since they should focus on learning about themselves or society, but when you dig in to the minor characters, and the heroes or villains they face, you may find yourself moving them through the archetypes as they grow and change. As a writer, sometimes it may also be easier to write a single character as one archetype, acknowledging, appropriate, and leveraging the less desirable traits in your character rather than flipping them 180 degrees.

Understand the function of characters

Understanding character archetypes means knowing what each archetype does. The hero serves as an avatar for your audience. The trickster offers a humorous or cynical perspective on the story. The goddess gives meaning and purpose to the hero, or sometimes allows him to escape the role. The villain represents a dark underbelly of the hero. The pious one is wise but rigid, sometimes playing the hand of the goddess or god. The sidekick often has an attitude that is super quirky and fun but they can provide selfless commentary and moral support. The mentee plays a mirror role to the mentor, allowing the mentor to recap information to the audience. The devil is your temptation, your root of evil, and you want the reader to both relate to him but also fear him/her/it. In most cases, your writer-self is fine to write your characters with clear character arcs. The only times it is helpful to consider if your character is an archetype is when you’re wondering if the relationships are clear and interesting enough to reflect archetypes.

Practicing archetypes includes figuring out who is playing all of them? What is their arc? Who starts as a weak god or goddess, but ultimately learns how to really through the help of a mentor/sidekick/student character? What about a character who begins as a hero but ultimately takes down the hero and rises to the villain? By creating different relationships that reflect archetypes good character arcs will begin to reflect collisions of dramatic tension in natural ways. Knowing what each archetype does is also important for creating secondary characters. Knowing what each archetype does will also help you write your main character who should be a hero, since your hero is your avatar for the reader and most likely represented through first person narration.

Be extreme

One of the most difficult things about coming up with a character is coming up with a cohesive character identity and story line, while also being realistic. It’s easy, as an author, to start being wishy-washy and thinking that Who Would John Doe Really Be? The Accidental Libertarian Mogul is too predictable, so you should start him out as a Diehard Liberal Fountain of Blind Faith, Really But is it too much? So on and so forth until you write yourself into a characterless corner. Of course, the problem is that if you deliberately try to dismantle stereotypes into nothing, you’ll end up with something even less identifiable. To avoid being either extreme or wishy-washy, however, it’s important to be conscious.

One of the best ways to examine your original view of your character is to think about extreme versions of each of your perceived aspects. For example, let’s say you want to create a shy character whose major weakness is his terrible fear of loud noises. How would an extreme version of that character be? You could have him be an extrovert, but an extrovert with his own annoying personality quirks, of course. But instead, it could be interesting to play on the idea of the nerd so common in contemporary media. Pair him with a sharp sense of fashion, a skilled computer hacker, a stoic, take-charge attitude, but also shy. The extreme end of his shyness could be replaced with anger management issues, sent him to a boarding school that wasn’t designed for his specific learning disability, and always have him surrounded by friends so involved in clandestine activities that he never has time to talk to someone new.

Build each character individually

If you’re looking to make your characters distinctively archetypal, you’re likely incorporating them into a story whose genre you already know. Whether you’re writing a loose variation on Romeo and Juliet or a full-on science fiction novel, you know the genre you’re working in. If you’re not already working within a genre, then you’re not ready to write a specific character type. In that case, start by thinking about the characters in your main cast individually. Then, think of the stereotypes about people who are like them, and what kind of person you think would act opposite them. In other words, instead of going for the cookie-cutter version of the jock, consider the person in your main cast who would act like a jock against the person who isn’t like them at all.

Write detailed descriptions of your main cast and what each of them wants. Then, identify all the kinds of people who would be interested in them and what conflicts would end up growing out of this dramatic set-up. Then, identify some archetypal characters from your favorite works of fiction who would support the needs of your main cast versus the people/supports-of-the-main-cast-who-are-opposites, and finally, put the two groups in opposition to each other. The real situation you’re creating will just be between one main character and one support-character, but by creating a template for a fully-developed world that characters occupy, you’ll feel naturally compelled to develop that background further. You can use this guide to make more compelling characters.

Define your character 

Once you have your list of possible archetypes, look for a character who has close ties to someone on the list. This way, your character becomes a more sharply-defined version of the archetype. This can help you flesh out your character’s personality and situation beyond simple naming or physical description, which might make your character more believable. Once you’ve done some more iterating and research, ask yourself what the point of the character is, both in the story and to the plot. Make sure it’s something that the audience will think is cool and something that fits with the Archetype’s values and motivations.

 Finally, it’s also important to consider the value of placing your character in dialogue with one or more archetypes. This will help you truly define his or her personality. For example, if you place a character like Spider-Man in dialogue with another, say the flagship Mythic Hero, you’ll come away with a much clearer sense of who he is and what he represents. By contrasting Spider-Man and the Mythic Hero on their approach to power, you might even come up with insights on what Spider-Man stands for. If he respects going around the rules, he resonates even more with the audience. Understanding character archetypes can help you crystallize your character’s personality and identity. Doing so should make it easier to motivate your characters and create action for them, and in turn make your story richer, deeper, and evocative for the audience.

Set up dynamic character relationships

In order to be considered a protagonist, a character must struggle against adversity and rise above it in the eyes of the reader. In this way, a protagonist competes with the antagonist for the interest of the reader. Once your readers are interested in your novel, you want to keep them engaged. One way to do that is to create strong relationships between your characters. But how do you add the necessary spark to every relationship your protagonist has?

We can learn a great deal about relationships from mythology. The most important relationships in mythology, those between the gods and the mortals, are generally either those of parent-child, husband-wife, or love — sometimes all three. There are clear roles in each of these types of relationships. For instance, Zeus, the ruler of the gods, like every father, wished to teach his children the rules of morality through punishment or persuasion, but also cared deeply about those he loved — hence his fascination with mortals. The archetypes we see in Zeus’ familial relationships are reflected again at the other end of the spectrum with a couple archetypes of the time. Zeus’ wife, Hera, loved him deeply, and he her — but she grew jealous if he interacted with favoring any of his mortal lovers.

Be an artist

The journey to becoming a well-rounded writer is an ongoing one, but in some ways, there’s an element of the writer’s journey that’s every bit as important, a foundation as central as English 101 or your high school creative writing club. It’s the pursuit of writing formally, of taking your natural flair for character and story, and applying it to the specific lessons in poetry or fiction or screenwriting or novel-writing craft. Just as an artist learns to draw, and then to paint, and then to sculpt, and then — and this is the important part — to identify her voice and to work deliberately to perfect it, so too with writing. At the end of it all, though, you will know if the story you’ve plumbed the depths of your heart to tell is one worth telling — and that’s more than an artistic endeavor, that’s a life endeavor.

Creativity, from the standpoint of the artistic endeavor, is like magic — it takes lots of hard work and practice to get to know your muse well enough to release her gifts onto the world, but it’s worth it to get to the place where any writing that you do benefits from your personal touch.Write prompts and slush that draw on nearly every known and unknown trope of speculative fiction. Some will fit your voice perfectly. Others won’t, and as you grow as a writer, you’ll find that while some terms like romance and general and Young Adult will adhere loosely to your style, you’ll come up with others that are more specific, and more reflective of your individual talent. Be meticulous in your revision process to tell the difference — and to tell which are worth keeping and which have no place in your body of work.

Any character that you find interesting or unnerving, cheers for or against, or that you find yourself discussing at the dinner table, is a character worth exploring. Hopefully, this will become a powerful writing exercise that will make asking yourself who your main character is, what they’re like, and where they’re going a daily ritual. Whether it takes the form of a detailed character chart or an easy flow chart, what’s important is that you’ve done the work. After that, let the story take on a life of its own! Good luck!

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