Handy Archetypes: A different approach to character development

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Freewriting Prompt: The Three Stooges/The Three Musketeers

As writers we’re often used to nurturing characters from a seed idea and fleshing them out as they go along, getting to know them with each new situation we throw at them and beefing them up whenever they start to look weedy.

LOKI [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

LOKI [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This is all very well, but in their first stages, when the character’s personality is a mere sprout with one puny leaf, this can mean that characters tend to look pretty one-dimensional.

We’re already familiar with some methods for developing our existing characters (such as Julia’s Proust Interview), which really get to the roots of what makes our character tick and elevates them to the blossoming glory that they will eventually be with a drenching of personality fertilizing questions.

However, in some cases we might not have the time to wade through the entanglement of our characters’ troubled childhoods. We need interesting characters, and quickly! Not only that, we need characters who will bounce off each other, and not just bumble around like a train full of door-to-door salesmen.

Let’s say that we have just discovered a competition deadline which is coming up in… Two Weeks! We haven’t got any story to hand which we could just polish up and send out. We need something quick! There ain’t no time for a whole course of psychotherapy for several characters. We have a vague idea of the storyline or setup, but nobody to act it out.

This is an exercise I’ve developed over the 8 different 48 hour film projects I’ve been involved in, of which I’ve written 5. One of the many things I’ve learned over the years is that it’s damn difficult to write several well-rounded characters between midnight and 4am if you haven’t done any preparation. In practice this means having some “ready made” characters to hand.

To avoid, for example, having to shoehorn a well pre-developed cowboy into a serious science fiction film (possible, but not a very general-purpose approach) one way is to develop some character archetypes.

It goes like this:

Developing Archetypes

Exercise 1a

Pick 3 “character archetypes” (it’ll work with any number, I just used 3 because I had 3 actors, and it’s quite a manageable number).

Try to pick them so that they are complementary, to form a kind of triangle of personalities.

They should be:

  • General (no names, jobs, ages, etc)
  • Suggestive of a whole group of character traits
  • Probably preceded by the word “The”

Here are some examples:

  • The Depressive
  • The Obsessive
  • The Know-it-all
  • The Ecstatic
  • The Painfully Shy
  • The Brainbox
  • The Thug
  • The Empath
  • The Hippy

The three I used were:

  1. The Brain
  2. The Brawn
  3. The Lit Fuse

 

Exercise 1b

Once you have them, flesh them out with a sentence.

e.g.

The Brain: They are clever, controlling and cunning.

The Brawn: They are dumb, kind, well-meaning and strong.

The Lit Fuse:  They are always on the edge and likely to go off at any time.

 

Chucking them in situations 

Next you write a selection of possibilities for different situations. Don’t go into detail here. The point is to get used to sticking the characters in a variety of situations. If you’re having trouble, perhaps your archetypes are too specific, or your situation is too prescriptive. Loosen it up at this stage.

This is the point that you would start when you’ve got your “remit” – our imaginary competition deadline in this case. Say the competition has a theme of “Ancient Rome”, you can write a load of situations (e.g. gladiators before a fight, someone’s chariot wheel has fallen off, etc) and we can chuck in our characters, which we have developed previously having done similar exercises with them before.

Exercise 2a

Quickly come up with a list of situations. Try for at least 5. One sentence only.

Examples:

  • A person’s dog falls down a drain.
  • A fried egg tastes unbelievably good.
  • Someone has been shot.
  • There is turbulence in an aeroplane.
  • A piano has fallen out of the sky.

Exercise 2b

Now briefly stick your characters in all the situations. Even though you might be tempted to elaborate at this point, don’t. It’s all about mentally getting used to placing the archetypes in many situations, so let the ideas float around your head, but don’t try to put it all on paper.

 

Situation The Brain The Brawn The Lit Fuse
A fried egg tastes unbelievably good. Eater of the ham and eggs. Can’t believe it. Cafe owner. Confused. Doesn’t like eggs. Man at the next table waiting impatiently for food.
A man’s wife’s dog has fallen down a drain. Cornered passer-by. A dentist. Street sweeper. Opened the drain for cleaning. Owner of the dog. Increasingly madder as his wife approaches.
Someone has been shot. Forensics geek. Incredibly interested by the wound. Passing traffic cop who’s not sure if murder is in his job description. The shot person. Pissed off because had a meeting to go to.
Turbulence on an aeroplane. Businesswoman trying to get work done. Enjoys the bouncing of the aeroplane like a rollercoaster. Scared of flying and irritated by The Brawn.

 

Fleshing out the characters

The next step is to flesh out your characters even more by describing their “Wants”, “Loves”, “Hates” and “Needs”. The more you practice Exercises 2-3 the better you will come to know your archetypes and will be able to apply them to any situation.

Exercise 3

Take one or two of your situations from the previous exercise and write one or two things for each of the three characters under the following headings:

  • (S)he wants….
  • (S)he loves….
  • (S)he hates….
  • (S)he needs….
“What does my character need?”
It’s important to make a distinction between what your character wants and what they need. What they need is what you as a writer thinks that they need, not what the character thinks they need for themselves. As with other character development, what the character thinks they need and what they actually need are often completely opposite. What they want is usually concerned with who they are at the beginning of the story, and what they need with who they are at the end.

For example, we’ll use the situation “Turbulence on an aeroplane”

Character: The Brain The Brawn The Lit Fuse
(S)he wants…. Some peace to be able to work on her laptop. The other people around him to be able to enjoy the turbulence like he does. To get off the plane quick and never fly again.
(S)he loves…. Being right and being the one in charge. The feeling of bouncing around of the plane. The feeling of being on solid ground and not being 30,000ft in the air.
(S)he hates…. Having her elbow room taken up by someone else on a plane. Pickles on sandwiches and lukewarm tea. It when someone tells him to calm down and breathe.
(S)he needs…. To loosen up and learn to enjoy the moment, like The Brawn does. To learn to pick up on social cues of the people around him. A slap in the face.

 

“How do I avoid my “archetype” turning into a “stereotype”?”
This question, which Paul asked during the group, is an important one, so I’ll finish up with it. It basically boils down to “How do I avoid my characters being one-dimensional?
The answer is that every time you practice using your archetypes, you should take each stage as an opportunity to introduce something more about that character. So if you find yourself writing “He wants.. a fast car. He loves .. fast cars. He hates .. not having a fast car. He needs .. a fast car.” you’re not going to learn anything more about the character than that one bit of information. Each box should teach us something new about the character, e.g “He wants.. a fast car. He loves.. the feeling of the wind blowing through his hair and the roar of the engine. He hates.. standing in lifts/elevators because they move so slowly. He needs.. to chill out and learn to stay still.” then we get to know our characters better… and by learning more about the characters we learn more about the archetypes behind them.

Writing the story 

The above exercises don’t take long when you’ve got the hang of it. You can quickly explore the possibilities of many situations for your characters even when you’ve only got 10 minutes waiting for a bus. After doing this several times, you’re going to know your character archetypes pretty well. You’ll find that the final characters come out pretty differently each time, but you’ll be able to recognise the archetypes behind the characters even if nobody else will.

Exercise 4

Now do whichever of the following you prefer:

  1. Get to know your archetypes better by doing more of Exercises 2-3.
  2. Take one set of developed characters from Exercise 3 and start writing it into a story.
  3. It can be a good idea to do some rough plotting to propel the story beyond your initial setup. Write a couple of sentences to describe the Start, End and Middle (in that order) of the story before you begin writing.

About Alex Owen-Hill

Alex is a freelance writer of non-fiction articles on various subjects, including gastronomy, technology, science, language learning and creativity. He joined the Madrid Writer's Club right back when it was born, and is thrilled how it's grown. In his spare time he is a short film maker, amateur cook and musician. He also has a PhD in robotics, but we don't talk about that.

3 comments for “Handy Archetypes: A different approach to character development

  1. March 14, 2014 at 11:59 am

    Great stuff, Alex. Sorry I missed it, very glad it’s here!

  2. March 13, 2014 at 3:10 pm

    Yeah it seemed to go pretty well. Loads of people too!

  3. March 13, 2014 at 2:57 pm

    Sounds like this was a fantastic meeting!

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