Character archetypes. Most of us know common examples of them, even if you aren’t initially familiar with the term: the untested but eager youth, the aging mentor, the shifting ally, or the comic relief. Character archetypes are essentially universal types of characters who appear over and over again in literature. In the hands of a skilled writer, they can be used masterfully. Yet, too often, in the hands of inexperienced writers, healthy archetypal characters turn into one-dimensional stereotypes, which can make it hard to distinguish an archetype from a stereotype.
In our latest video for Kingdom Cinema, we discussed many of the differences between an archetype and a stereotype . If you haven’t seen it yet, I’d encourage you to watch it HERE, but if you don’t have time, or if you just want a refresher, archetypes and stereotypes are similar in that they both appear over and over again in fiction, but whereas an archetype is just a general form for a character, a stereotype is a specific kind of character that doesn’t have much depth or personality to them. Another way of looking at it is that an archetype is a general description of a character that can be developed, and a stereotype is a character who never moves past that description to form any personality or depth of their own.
This of course leads to a question: given how grey the line can sometimes be between a character who’s an archetype and a character who’s become a stereotype, how as a writer do you write an archetype well, in a way that doesn’t become stereotypical? It may seem difficult at first. But follow these four simple steps, and you’ll be well on your way to writing interesting archetypal characters.
1. Know the Archetype Well in Its Basic Form
As with most literary tropes, the first thing necessary to pull it off well is knowledge. Archetypal characters are archetypal because they have a specific form to them. So if you’re going to write one of them, then it simply follows that you need to know their basic form.
For example, let’s say you’re writing a story with the classic fairytale prince. You know the kind. Dashing, charming *cough, cough*, brave, handsome, probably rich, and with a tendency to save the damsel in distress. “Isn’t this a stereotype?” you might be asking. Hold on a moment and hopefully by the time we go through these four steps you’ll see that he doesn’t have to be. The first step to writing a good classic fairytale prince into your story is to begin with an understanding of the essence of the character: namely, that he possesses all or most of the traits that I listed above.
This of course, requires research, so you’ll want to look up what common elements are associated with an archetype. A simple Google search will often pull up something, and chances are that tvtropes will have something about it. The first step to possessing skillful technique is knowledge, so begin by assembling a basic idea of what the archetype looks like.
2. Know How the Archetype Has Been Used in the Past
Those who don’t know their history are bound to repeat it. And so, before you dash off with your new understanding of a certain archetype, make sure you know how different authors have used this archetype in the past—and what’s trending currently. For example, if your first idea of how to handle your classic fairytale prince is to simply subvert him and make him evil, you may want to check out Shrek, Frozen, or The Princess Bride first, because all these movies have already done this basic version of the trope. That’s not to say that you can’t simply subvert him. But if you’re going to do it, you need to do it in a way that’s different from what’s been done before.
Connected with this is the importance of understanding reader expectations. Simply put, to be a good writer, you want to know what reader expectations will be. After all, on the one hand, you don’t want to give the reader something they were already expecting, but on the other hand, you don’t want to completely surprise reader expectations by pulling something completely out of the left field. To understand what the reader will expect of your archetypal character, you need to understand how that archetype has been used in the past. So look up examples of how the archetype has been used in the past in order to get a well-rounded view of what that archetype looks like.
3. Figure Out How the Archetype Fits Story-Wise
In other words—figure out what role your archetype not only plays as a character—but what role he or she also functions in the plot. This isn’t something that you might naturally think of—but it’s important nonetheless. After all, even if you have a great rendition of an archetype, if the character isn’t really necessary to the story, or if you’re giving him a larger role than he deserves, this will hurt him overall since he’ll be stealing more page-time than he deserves. The amount of work you need to put into an archetype depends on how large or small his role is in the story. So figure out what purpose this character serves in your story in order to figure out how to portray the archetype.
For our prince character, he’s likely going to be a central character to the story, so that tells us that we’ll need to spend a lot of time developing him to keep him from being stereotypical. He’s probably not going to be the protagonist, though, so we’ll want to keep that in mind when discerning his place in the story.
4. Make Your Character Unique or Deep to Avoid Stereotypes
There are two ways to practically avoid stereotypes. The first is to try and do something with the archetype that hasn’t been done before. Once, this was to subvert the character and make “Prince Charming” evil. That’s no longer a unique portrayal of the character, but there are other steps you could take. Maybe the prince isn’t really a prince after all—he’s only pretending to be one. Or maybe he’s skilled but struggles with being courageous. Think about ways that you could do something new with him while staying within genre/archetype conventions.
In the end, however, the one sure-fire way to keep an archetype from becoming a stereotype is to make him your own. Deepen your character’s personality and make it realistic, and it will be hard for him to remain stereotypical. If you think about it, no two people are ever like each other when you get to know them well enough. And so it is with characters. The more you flesh out someone’s personality, the less stereotypical she will become and the more realistic and interesting she will come.
So let’s take the basic stereotypical fairytale prince trope as-is. We don’t need to subvert anything about the character to make him interesting. Just think about who he is as a person. What does he think about? What does he love? What does he hate? What motivates him as a person? Who does he look up to? The more you develop him as a person, the less you’ll need gimmicks or tricks to make him unique and the more fresh a rendition of the archetype you’ll have created.
In the end, good writing is good writing. And so whether you completely subvert an archetypal character or go along with all the standard conventions, as long as you develop your character as a person and don’t simply leave him one-dimensional, you’ll be able to write an archetype without it becoming a stereotype. This, of course, will take some work. But all good things in life do. So get out there, move beyond the level of form to the level of personality, and watch as everything else fits into place.