The Expected and the Unexpected in Archetypal Characters

Pomegranate - texture when splitAvoiding ‘cookie cutter characters’ is a sound policy for writers. At best, your stories will turn out to be predictable and boring if you fill them with characters your audience has seen before. At worst, you’ll be ridiculed for your laziness and branded as a plagiarist for the rest of your career.

However, there’s no need to panic if some of your main characters bear a strong resemblance to the main characters of another story. In fact, many well-crafted and popular works of fiction are built around characters that fit into a well-known mold. We refer to these characters, who have traits that make them unique but still conform to a common profile, as ‘archetypal characters.’

The psychologist Carl S. Jung discusses archetypes heavily in Man and His Symbols. Archetypes, Jung explains, function as symbolic representations of important elements of our personalities. The ‘lone wolf’ archetype, for example, represents our drive to be self-sufficient and free from depending on others who could prove unreliable or untrustworthy. Although John McClane, James Bond, and Batman have unique personalities and will never be confused with one another, they all fit into this same archetypal mold.

Audiences like reading about archetypal characters not just because we can all identify with them on some level, but also because they give us a set of expectations that the writer can play with for our amusement. Some of these expectations are essential to the archetypal character and should not be subverted too drastically, but others are less essential and can be played with more freely. For example, readers may feel a little disappointed if the stoic warrior breaks down and becomes a believer in the Power of Friendship ™ at the end of the book; however, they will be delighted to learn that he has a soft spot for soppy love ballads or a tendency to be extra-cruel to enemies who abuse animals. Subverting some of the elements of archetypal characters makes them unique, and it sends the hopeful message that we’re not as defined as we think we are by the roles we play in our own lives.

Archetypal characters make a writer’s job easier, but they are not as effortless to use as a character that’s simply been stolen from another work. When writing an archetypal character, writers should be observant of not only what the reader expects of these characters, but also what the reader does not expect.