Saturday, July 13, 2013

Character Sketch Part 1: Creating the Archetype.

Young Ladies Looking at Japanese Objects - James Tissot

Pause a moment and think on one of your favorite books, what about it made it your favorite book? Odds are it's probably the characters. It's not the plot that makes people fall in love with novels, it's the characters. They're the faces that we associate the novel with. The reason we read a novel in the first place. As one write puts it, good characters can support a bad plot, but a good plot cannot support bad characters

So how do we make good characters? The answer is actually rather simple. Simple, but not easy in the slightest. Writing good characters requires empathy. You have to get inside your characters head and find out how they think. Every character has a different thought pattern, the trick is finding out what it is. So how does one doe this?

Well, one starts with an archetype. What's an archetype? It's a short, vivid description of a character that can be reduced to a one colorful sentence. For example "a flirtatious criminal vampress" or "A sarcastic first lieutenant" would both examples of archetype. It's basically the 'big picture' of your character. More specifically this is about the role your character plays in the story. It's not about his tragic backstory, or extraneous fear of tapioca pudding that plays no part in the plot. It's a short summary of what your character is in the story.

Now... that seems a bit odd doesn't it. I told you we had to empathize with the character more, to learn how they think and now I basically just gave you the equivalent of character stereotyping. How does putting a character is a box such as 'the abusive farmhand' or 'the reluctant teenage assassin' help you think up a well rounded character? Wouldn't applying labels limit their development?

Yes and no. Limits are good things within moderation. Writing involves a balance of logic and creativity. A good archetype creates a good foundation for the characters development, it imposes certain limits. It sets the stage for organic development and allows you to proceed from there. 

Now I might note that not all Archetypes are created equal. Some are very intriguing "a perpetually drunk seamstress' and ' a banker transformed into a kitten' are very interesting archetypes while 'a young farm lad' or 'a girl champion roller-skater' are not. The first two are intriguing because it shows you hints of the way the character thinks while the latter two only show the character's occupation and station in life. The archetype should give a glimpse at the way your character thinks.

As a final note, getting archetypes down is very important when writing secondary characters. Since you secondary and tertiary characters don't get as much development, the archetype will be most of what the reader will see. The more unimportant the character the more important it is that you give it a interesting archetype.

So now we have the foundation. The Archetype, in part 2 we're going to go into how to develop your character. 


  1. When I grow up, I want to be an abusive farmhand. :D

  2. Great post. :D I can see how archetypes would really help me...'cause they demand some definition of what the character is, and demand that it be interesting (like, something more than 'middle-aged man with black hair', which is impressively about as far as I get with character development in many cases :roll: ).

  3. Good post, Brendan. I have trouble labeling my characters, as I am often more involved in the plot I'm writing that the characters. But this is good stuff to write by.