So, I talked a few weeks ago about character motivations and how they should influence and impact the shape of a story, and earlier than that I spoke on how you as the author give a character agency, but before you think about character agency and motivations you should… maybe… have characters?
Building a character is an incredibly difficult part of any writing experience, even if you are just rolling some dice to get some stats. In any narrative work, having believable characters can make or break a production. Even in Science-Fiction and Fantasy, where, by all accounts, your entire cast could be non-human, if they don’t act and behave in recognizably human ways, that puts off an audience. Now, that could be your intention, and we’ll get into that a bit today, but there should be at least one character that your audience should be able to relate to and recognize their own experiences in.
But your characters also need to serve a function. From a strictly Doylist view, all characters are just people that plot happens to. Their function within the story can be categorized, and this is where archetypes come in. A character archetype is simply a category of character which describes the role that the character plays within the story. And with any category there are sub-categories and exceptions, but as with any type of categories, these are broad strokes. There is also the mistake that some writers make in that they start with the archetype and then never go anywhere with it. An archetype isn’t a character, it’s simply their function within the story. You have to give your character a personality and motivation and agency beyond their archetype to make them interesting.
So why use archetypes? Well, because it’s a pattern that you can follow. It’s a way to build your story and your character before you have a clear idea as to what your story and your character is. I mean, you probably have a good guy and a bad guy, they have a fight, Triangle wins. Triangle man.
(Also this is part one because there are far more archetypes than I’m going to list here, but here are a few to start out with.)
The hero is (probably) your main character. It’s also one of the most generic archetypes– there’s a reason one of the most famous pieces of comparative mythology is titled The Hero with a Thousand Faces. There are different types of heroes, of course, and as many types as there are people, but the archetype of the hero is also historically very dynamic. The Greek heroes of Hercules and Odysseus and Prometheus and the like were more religious figures and mythologized histories who did things that would not necessarily be considered “heroic” today. And there are some stories that might have a protagonist, but not necessarily a “hero”. To get out of the hero archetype, you have to get out of the idea that a hero has to be any one thing.
While this also covers the literal most traditional type of hero, The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell actually talks about the plot that the hero functions within. The Call to Adventure, Supernatural Aid, Meeting with the Goddess– all of that is about plot as opposed to character. What you end up with, if it’s not done well, is a hero that feels flat and just going through the motions. The plot should also fuel character development (which I will eventually write a post about), and have a lasting effect on the character’s personality and not just their station or position in the world.
The Anti-Hero is one response to the idea of a hero. These characters don’t necessarily act in what we consider heroic actions– some might even be mistaken for a villain or act as an antagonistic force for the hero. There are as many types of anti-hero as there are hero, but there is sort of a trend over the past few decades toward the anti-hero and away from the traditional hero. And it’s even effecting the way we look at traditional heroes. The danger of the anti-hero is making someone that is essentially a villain and simply telling the audience “this is the person you should root for”. Even if you’re doing a reimagining of a public domain (or public domain-ish) villainous character, you have to consider the facts of the story and the actions of the character, and why a hero might resort to villainous acts. (This is why Wicked worked and Maleficent didn’t by the way.)
So the Byronic Hero is a specific type of anti-hero that is based around the personality of one particularly notorious British Romantic poet– George “I literally wrote a non-Byronic Don Juan how did I miss that” Gordon, Lord Byron. The archetype of the Byronic Hero was codified by two writers; John William Polidori, writer of The Vampyre and Byron’s physician; and Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus and Byron’s friend. While the archetype is closely tied to the genre of romantic vampire fiction (hence the three vampires in the example image), it describes any anti-hero who is characterized by excessive brooding, handsome features, and a dark secret.
While there’s no real gender assignment for heroic archetypes, there are certain stories that heroines specifically tend to go through. Stories where they have to prove themselves in spite of their gender (The Song of the Lioness, She’s the Man, Protector of the Small) and stories about being a secret princess or otherwise having to do with royalty (most Disney Princess movies, Sailor Moon, Winx Club) are particularly popular. That being said, there’s no limit to the types of stories that anyone can star in, and there are a wide range of stories for every demographic.
There are just as many different kinds of villains as there are heroes. And while it’s just as easy to have a boring villain as it is to have a boring hero, it’s a lot easier to make your villain interesting in some respects. Take John Milton’s classic epic poem Paradise Lost. The epic is about the creation of heaven and earth and the fall of Man as described in the first three chapters of Genesis, so you’d think Satan– the one who tricks Adam and Eve into eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge dooming mankind to suffering and death?– would be the villain, right? Well… remember George “Somehow a national hero of Greece” Gordon, Lord Byron? He and his circle of friends (the Shelleys, John Keats, John Polidori, etc.) were called the Satanic School because of their belief that Satan was in fact the protagonist because he’s just a more interesting character than Adam, Eve, or God. Disney, meanwhile, has an entire franchise based around their villains, which is not limited to just the villains of the Princesses, but includes fan favorites such as Captain Hook, Hades, and the Queen of Hearts.
The Anti-Villain is not the same thing as the Anti-Hero. While the anti-hero is a hero that uses questionable methods, but is probably in the right, the anti-villain is a villain that has a sympathetic motive, but is ultimately in the wrong. For example, I specified Lust from the 2003 version of Fullmetal Alchemist because the way the the 2003 anime handles the homunculi is ultimately far more tragic and sympathetic than the manga or Brotherhood. Spoilers for a 15-year-old anime, but in the 2003 anime the homunculi are created from failed attempts at human transmutation, and are golemized versions of the people that the alchemist was trying to ressurect. Lust in particular deals with trying to reconcile her life as Lust with her life as an Ishvalan woman (who, it turns out, was in love with Scar’s brother, the alchemist that tried to bring her back). 2003’s versions of Wrath and Sloth have similar portrayals, with Wrath having been created from Izumi Curtus’ attempt at human transmutation, and Sloth… well, I won’t spoil everything.
The Bigger Bad
Sometimes there’s an even larger villain behind the villains that the heroes face day-to-day. This type of villain is most popular in serialized fiction, where the entire arc of the story is building up to a final confrontation with this bigger bad, but often it can be a villain behind the evil thing that the hero is fighting, especially if the hero doesn’t win. These are the kinds of villains that are the easiest to become boring, because it can become clear that the motivations of this bigger bad haven’t entirely been thought out by the writers. A great bigger bad to study to try and avoid this is the Shadows from Babylon 5. While the day-to-day crises of the station are playing out throughout the war with the Shadows, they are always a clear and present danger and also have clearly planned motivations that JMS thought about beforehand. It helped to have planned out the entire show’s run before it went to air.
The Villain as the Hero
Sometimes your villain is so interesting and compelling that you just end up writing the story about them instead of the hero. The villain as a protagonist is when you have a character that is not doing the right thing, and at some point, they understand that what they’re doing is wrong, but you still root for them anyways– or at least take great pleasure in seeing them defeated. It can range from as sympathetic as Dr. Horrible who says he wants to rule the world, but really just wants to be able to talk to the pretty girl at the laundromat, to as horrific as Hannibal Lecter who literally cooks and eats people but who is just so charismatic as he does it. Then there’s arcs into and out of villainy– Light Yagami starts off just killing serial killers with his magical notebook that kills people whose names are written in it, until he starts killing more people, and then there’s Artemis Fowl, who starts off kidnapping fairies and extorting them for money and favors, and ends up saving the world through time travel at one point? I stopped reading in the middle of The Time Paradox because it just got weird.
These are, of course, just some of the heroes and villains– and there are archetypes for characters even beyond this. Deciding on your protagonistic and antagonistic forces go hand in hand with creating conflict, but these character archetypes are just archetypes. You have to supply the character.
What archetypes would you like to see me cover in a future post? Who are some of your favorite heroes and villains? Do you like the Beach Boys song “Heroes and Villains”? Let me know in the comments. Also, like if you can, and subscribe– or follow us on Facebook!— so you don’t miss any new content.