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How to Use Character Archetypes in Your Fiction Writing | Literature & Latte

Archetypes are everywhere in fiction. Read on to discover some common literary archetypes and how to deploy them.

You may not even realize it when writing, because they are so ingrained in the way we think about character, but you are probably creating archetypal characters in everything you write. Examples of the most used archetypes include the hero, the wise father, the nurturing mother, the trickster, the sage, and the rebel. 

Literary archetypes are common. Just looking at Shakespeare, think of Hamlet (the rebel), Iago (the trickster), and Rosalind (a combination of hero, rebel, and trickster). But an archetype can be more than a character: it as also a theme or situation that occurs frequently enough in fiction that readers are familiar with it. This can be the classic hero's journey (from Ulysses in The Odyssey to Harry Potter, heroes are common); the "boy meets girl" situation, such as in Romeo and Juliet or You've Got Mail; or the "rags to riches" story, such as in David Copperfield and Slumdog Millionaire


What are archetypes?

Archetypes are ideas that are so ingrained in humanity that they can be represented simply. When you create a familiar archetype, the reader is able to fill in the blanks, knowing a lot about the character or situation. Some of these are as old as human experience, and have been repeated across the centuries, and across cultures. When you read one of Lee Child's Jack Reacher mysteries, you know the character: the knight errant, the do-gooder, the loner. As you discover the character, you feel that you know him, because he matches traits that you are instinctively familiar with. 

First elucidated by Plato, archetypes were codified by Carl Jung, notably in his book The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Jung suggested that these archetypes were known all throughout the world, and throughout history, and are part of our collective unconscious, or the shared mental concepts of all of humanity. 

Joseph Campbell went on to sketch out the "hero's journey" archetype in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, where he compared myths and legends across cultures and centuries to highlight how this specific archetypal character and situation was used in stories from thousands of years ago. George Lucas later used this book as a template for the first Star Wars movie, and many in Hollywood adopted Campbell's ideas. 

Archetypal characters

While you don't want all your characters to be copies of Jack Reacher or Luke Skywalker, it can be useful to examine your characters and see how they fit into the schemas of archetypes. As mentioned above, once you've discovered Jack Reacher, you know a lot more about him, because of his character archetype. Archetypal characters provide a scaffolding, in some ways, saving you from having to say too much about a character, but showing how they act in accord with their archetypes. Here are some common archetypal characters in literature that you can use for inspiration:

The Hero

It's common to mention the best-known male heroes, but don't forget the many woman who fit this archetype, such as Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games), Dorothy Gale (The Wizard of Oz), and even, perhaps, Bridget Jones. The hero or heroine is an archetypal character that sets out on a quest for something, then returns home, changed. 

Many novels and movies are based on the hero's journey, which has a number of stages the hero must pass through. The hero doesn't have to be Indiana Jones; everyone is the hero of their own story, and their quest, while not always in epic scale, is important to them. 

The Orphan

While not one of Jung's archetypes - he just looked at the child - the orphan is a powerful character in fiction, in part this is because this archetypal character is unmoored, has no attachments, and is free from maternal and paternal influence. There are many examples, such as Harry Potter, Pip in Great Expectations, or Cosette in Les Misérables

Orphans have to overcome traumatic experiences, which gives them - at least in fiction - more resilience and creativity, and allows them to adapt to situations. And everyone can identify with orphans, if only to imagine what life would have been like without their parents. 

The Trickster or Joker

The joker or trickster is a character whose role is to entertain and laugh at others, who is mischievous, yet who can speak truth to power. The trickster disobeys rules and flouts convention. The Fool in King Lear is the only character who tells the truth to the aging king; Han Solo in the Star Wars movies is a wiseacre who ends up being much more resourceful than expected; even Erin Brockovich, in the movie of the same name, uses her wiles to overcome a large corporation.

The Mother and Father

Two of the most potent archetypes are the mother and father. The mother archetype is seen as nurturing, and the father as wise and motivating. There is also the bad mother and bad father, such as the evil stepmother of fairy tales, and a character like Darth Vader in the Star Wars movies.  

The mother and father archetypes can also be people in positions of power, such as bosses or mentors, helping the hero achieve his or her goals.

Using character archetypes in Scrivener

When writing in Scrivener, you can use character sketches to record the traits of archetypes, along with other information about your characters, as you build them in your projects. You can create character sketches for archetypes you want to use, then change them to the names of your characters as your project develops. 

Some people like to name their characters to remind them, and readers, of their traits; Dickens did this all the time. If you want to use archetypal characters, you can use Scrivener's Name Generator to find names that resonate with you and that suggest a character's traits. 

Using character archetypes helps you create characters that readers instinctively understand. Take advantage of this as you work on your story, novel, or screenplay. 

Scrivener is writing software designed for you to get writing – and keep writing. Scrivener is the go-to program for writers of all genres, with best-selling novels, screenplays, nonfiction books, student essays, academic papers and more being written with it every day. Scrivener won’t tell you how to write; instead, it will give you everything you need to get started and keep writing, letting you mould the app to how you work best. Why not take a look?

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