Using Archetypes Effectively in Your Writing

Part 1 of 2: Two Ways Writers can use Archetype Effectively in their Writing

First, the definition of Archetype: a very typical example of a certain person or thing. (Oxford Dictionary) It derives from the Greek prefix, arcke, which means primitive and the root, topos, which means a model. So ‘a primitive model.’ So it is like the rough sketch of a character. 

Archetype sounds a lot like stereotype and I think the two words often get confused, so many think an archetype is a bad thing. The stereotype definition is: a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing. (Oxford Dictionary)  The definitions are very similar, but the difference is the oversimplification and generalization. Plus, stereotypes are often offensive or demeaning in nature. For example, all boys love sports and girls love dolls. Today people love to stereotype millennials as spoiled, whiny, entitled brats. 

The good news is that it seems many writers love to turn stereotypes on their heads and push people out of those preconceived notions. As writers, we have immense power to influence how people think and what to highlight about our society. “With great power comes great responsibility” (Uncle Ben, Spiderman) So choose wisely what and how you write.     

Done right, an archetype is a good starting place. The problem comes when a writer doesn’t add layers. Those layers of personality add depth and prevent the oversimplification of the character.  

To illustrate this, look at The Joker. They simplify cartoons for the younger crowd (so I’m not dissing the cartoon), but compare that to Heath Ledger’s performance of that character in The Dark Knight.  This comparison is like the difference between just a basic character and a well developed one.

In the cartoon, The Joker was never serious, he laughed a lot like the joker in a deck of cards. The cartoon Joker character develops a plan, executes it, and is thwarted by Batman, story over.  

Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight

In The Dark Knight, Ledger’s Joker was more of an insane joker. He not only gave an origin story for the scars he carried, he had a different origin story each time he told it, which added credibility to the idea he was insane. This character creates chaos and uses that to his advantage in an intelligent (if mad) way. 

Another way to make sure an archetype is not a stereotype is through the growth of a character. For every main character, I like to have an arc of some kind. KM Weiland identifies 3 types of change arcs: positive, negative, and flat arcs. 

Change and growth are ways to make sure your archetype character doesn’t fall flat. In the cartoon, we see Joker again and again with no change, which makes him a flat character. 

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So what are some different ways you can use Archetypes. 

  1. The base for main characters. You must add depth, though.
  2. For background characters. With very few words, you can hint at a character.

1 The Base for Main Characters

Let us look at Six of Crows for this. This story is one of my top ten all-time favorites because of the way Bardugo weaves this story together. You have 6 main characters on a heist mission. With heist stories, each person plays a role in the heist. I like a good heist story because there is comfort in that predictability. But with this story it gets complicated. Each person on the mission has a different motivation and some even have a different goal. So nothing goes as planned. It is glorious!!

You start off with Nina the orphan, Mattias the good looking seducer, Jesper has a kind of jester role, Inej the little but strong (I’m making up roles now), and Kaz the gang leader. If Leigh Bardugo had left it at that, the story would have been predictable and boring. She took those roles and added layers with gripping backstory and hidden motivations. (Ugh! Now I want to go back and reread this story all over again because it has been a few years!) The characters try to hide who they really are under their tough exterior, but their thoughts and actions betray them. This is a fantastic example of how people say one thing and do or think another. Have you noticed that about people? Probably…when they have betrayed you and your trust. But people do it all the time in tiny little things every day. 

“How are you?”

No…No, you are not fine. But maybe the person who is asking is not your confidant. Maybe they are asking to be polite, but don’t really care if you are fine or not. 

Anyhow, I’m off topic. Archetypes adding details and nuance to characters, that’s what makes them come alive. 

2 Leveraging Minor Characters

Now look at the opening pages of Six of Crows. We meet a young man named Joost and within 2 sentences we know he is a star-crossed lover.  

Joost had two problems: the moon and his mustache.
He was supposed to be making his rounds at the Hoede house, but for the last fifteen minutes, he’d been hovering around the southeast wall of the gardens, trying to think of something clever and romantic to say to Anya. 

Six of Crows, Pg 1

Because we are familiar with the archetype, we immediately know a little bit of what to expect from this person. (Well, at least until our author does something unexpected!  Let me tell you, Leigh Bardugo does not disappoint in that area.) The point is, an author using an archetype for a minor role in the story does not have to describe in great detail about a person because we are already familiar with the archetype. This ultimately helps tighten the prose by speaking volumes with only a few words.

This post has already gone long, so next week I’ll dig into the specific archetypes.

What is your favorite archetype to write? Leave a comment!

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