When you’re creating a character, the most important step is to figure out what they are like: their purpose, personality, quirks, and voice. The list can go on and on.
So, where do you start? I like to start with character archetypes because they give characters their purpose in the story, and they are also a really basic element of storytelling.
So…what is a character archetype?
An archetype is essentially a typical example of a type of person, and they appear over and over in stories and film. For example, there’s the hero archetype, the villain, the princess, the orphan etc. Virtually every character in a fairy tale is an example of an archetype. A quick internet search will reveal lists with all kinds of them, and you can even find quizzes to figure out which archetypes appear in your own life.
Today, I’m going to share and explore my favorites for use in telling a story and story structure.
I LOVE to read fantasy stories, and I have ever since I was a kid. I also love to teach the hero’s journey, so when I started looking at archetypes to help create characters, I instinctively went with those archetypes who appear in many fantasy and quest stories. In The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler describes seven archetypes specific to the hero’s journey: Hero, Mentor, Threshold guardian, Herald, Shapeshifter, Shadow, and Trickster.
This was super interesting, but while I love to read fantasy, I don’t love to write it. The thought of creating a world and magical systems completely overwhelms (terrifies) me. Instead, I like to write contemporary and historical fiction which doesn’t always include the archetypes found in the hero’s journey. So, I found Dramatica, by Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley. They expand on eight character archetypes: Protagonist, Antagonist, Reason, Emotion, Sidekick, Skeptic, Guardian, and Contagonist.
While there is quite a bit of overlap between these two “sets” of archetypes and some argument as to what the archetypes should be called, there are also some key differences. In this post, I’ll share a brief description of the ones I find most useful, plus two that aren’t found in either of the above lists. Check out either of these books for more information.
1) Protagonist – This is your main character, the one who moves the plot forward. In a story that follows the hero’s journey, this is the character who will embark on the quest, and in any story, this character will pursue some sort of goal. Your readers will get to know this character the best.
Examples of the hero/protagonist are Tris from Divergent, Harry Potter from Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, and Hazel from The Fault in Our Stars.
2) Antagonist – This character or force is the villain, the one who doesn’t want your protagonist to reach their goal. Or, they might have their own goal that the protagonist wants to stop them from reaching. Either way, the antagonist helps to drive the conflict in the story and creates obstacles that your protagonist must overcome. The antagonist is often a person, but it can also be some sort of force such as the government, disease, or even really bad weather.
Examples of the antagonist are Jeanine Matthews in Divergent, Voldemort in Harry Potter, President Snow who symbolizes the oppressive government in The Hunger Games, the ocean from The Old Man and the Sea, and cancer in The Fault in Our Stars.
3) The Mentor (hero’s journey)/Guardian (Dramatica) – This is the “guide” character (and one of my favorites to write). They might give your protagonist advice or gifts that they need to succeed in reaching their goal. They might teach the protagonist something they need to know, or even serve as the character’s conscience. In most cases, the mentor will help motivate and guide the protagonist.
Examples of the mentor are Tori from Divergent, Dumbledore from Harry Potter, the fairy godmother from “Cinderella,” or Haymitch from The Hunger Games.
4) Contagonist – The contagonist archetype only appears in Dramatica’s list of archetypes, but it’s a useful character type. This character delays the protagonist from reaching his goal. They might even be the protagonist’s friend, but they’re the annoying friend who keeps getting in the way. Or, they could be the character that does all the bad guy’s dirty work, like Draco Malfoy in Harry Potter.
Examples of the contagonist are Peter from Divergent or Kaede from Legend. In a YA novel, parents/teachers/adults might be considered contagonists.
5) Sidekick (Dramatica) – This character stands by the protagonist. They help them overcome obstacles and achieve their goals. However, an antagonist might have a sidekick too. This is another of my favorite archetypes to play with.
Examples of the sidekick are Christina from Divergent, Ron and Hermione from Harry Potter, and Rue from Hunger Games. A Fault in Our Stars doesn’t have the sidekick archetype.
6) Shapeshifter (hero’s journey)/Skeptic (Dramatica) –Where the sidekick is loyal to the protagonist or antagonist, the skeptic questions their every move. They are the ones who point out all the places the protagonist might fail. They will be critical and pessimistic, and they introduce the idea of doubt into the story. “Will the protagonist succeed?” is the question they continually remind the reader to ask.
Examples of the skeptic are Caleb from Divergent, Gale from The Hunger Games, and Peter Van Houten from A Fault in Our Stars (though some might argue that Peter Van Houten might also be a contagonist).
7) Love Interest – this archetype doesn’t appear in either the hero’s journey or the Dramatica list, however, it’s huge. I love a good love story, and this archetypal character is key. The love interest is the person with whom the protagonist falls in love. They may or may not return the protagonist’s interest, but they almost always somehow push the protagonist’s growth. Often, the love interest is a side plot and that’s okay.
Examples of the love interest are Four from Divergent, Augustus from A Fault in Our Stars, Peeta from The Hunger Games, and Ginny Weasley from the later Harry Potter novels. If you think about it, what would any of these books be without the love interest? I’d have to say, not nearly as great.
8) The Orphan – this character archetypes is also absent the hero’s journey and Dramatica, but it’s another of my favorites. The orphan is the “boy/girl next door,” the nice kid. All they want to do is find somewhere to belong. They want to fit in. Often, orphan archetypes can move to the hero/protagonist archetype. This archetype is super common in YA because so many teens are great people who just need to figure out where they fit, kind of like real life.
Examples of the orphan are Tris when she first joins Dauntless from Divergent, Harry Potter, and Quentin Jacobsen “Q” from Paper Towns.
This is a brief list of archetypes. An internet search can turn up hundreds of them, but they’re all not necessary for a solid story. Remember, that an archetype is NOT a fully developed character. You still need to do that work, but these archetypes give each character a purpose. You can use them to figure out how your cast fits together and why your character needs to be in the story. Once you’ve got that figured out, then you can start doing the deep work of developing their personality.