Use Archetypes to Create Literary Characters

By Mark Nichol

In essence, any literary character is drawn from one or more archetypes. An archetype is basically the pattern for a character, associated with a trait or a concept. Archetypes are most easily recognized in genre fiction — science fiction, fantasy, horror, thriller — but they are applicable to any fiction, whether of high or low literary aspiration. The key is to select one or more archetypes as just the first step in character building.

But there are many types of archetypes from various belief systems and other sources. Try, for example, associating a character with one of the figures from the Chinese zodiac — boar, dog, dragon, horse, goat, monkey, ox, rabbit, rat, rooster, snake, and tiger — each of which is endowed with a complex array of both positive and negative traits (which I’ll let you research for yourself). For that matter, what’s your character’s (Western) astrological sign? (You don’t have to believe in astrology or any other belief system to derive characters from it.)

Alternatively, draw on mythology, legends, fairy tales, or folklore, or existing literature, including Shakespearean characters, or on Tarot cards, for that matter. (The noncharacter cards can inspire you to develop the plot, too.)

Here are some classic archetypes, including some based on Jungian psychology, to get you started:

  • Child
  • Guardian
  • Herald
  • Hermit
  • Hero
  • Hunter
  • Judge
  • Mentor
  • Sage
  • Shadow
  • Shaman
  • Sidekick
  • Trickster
  • Wanderer

Note that there are often multiple subtypes. Heroes are especially variable: They can be loners, or collaborators, they can be willing, or unwilling, they can be comic, serious, or tragic, they can be cheerful, or cynical. Combinations of archetypes are easily achieved, too; a mentor can be a guardian, a hermit, a judge, a sage, a shaman, a trickster, or a wanderer as well, or two or more of the above.

The personality enneagram, a nine-pointed array of personality types, might also be a useful reference for character building. The nine types follow:

  • Achiever
  • Enthusiast
  • Helper
  • Leader
  • Loyalist
  • Mediator
  • Observer
  • Reformer
  • Romantic

You can research enneagrammatic types further to identify their typical desires and fears, virtues and vices, and the like.

Consider these psychological types based on the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator psychometric assessment: introversion/extroversion, sensing/intuition, thinking/feeling, and judgment/perception. (Everyone is a combination of both types in each pair, but in different ratios.)

Also, evaluate your character on their relative affinity for other people, for things, and for information. Again, everyone has an aptitude for interpersonal relationships, for working with objects or devices, and for receiving, processing, and sending data, but they possess these talents to differing extents. What does your character’s people/things/information pie chart look like? Marketers, mechanics, and mathematicians are primarily people, things, and information oriented respectively, but their personalities include amounts of the other two elements as well.

Have you employed any of these strategies to create characters? What are some others you can think of?

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5 Responses to “Use Archetypes to Create Literary Characters”

  • Rebecca

    Great advice! Most screenwriters could use this list of archetypes when they create their characters.

  • mohammed Abbakar

    To create literary characters is very important for every writer to
    attract your cleint need to be very fantasic because once you attempt to create a good fantasay by no means to romantic and this may
    be linked with many literary characters such as wiliam shakespear the ever literary character.

  • Amber Polo

    I love the enneagram. It helps create characters with flaws and strengths that are unusual and believable.

  • Beth

    I once used the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator to help me flesh out each of my main characters. When I felt one wasn’t working with the original type I’d set them in, I changed either the character or the type. It really helped me develop complex, and more human characters.

    And yet some characters develop so easily that it’s a matter of discovering what types they are as I go, rather than using types to craft them.

    I absolutely love the list of other archetypes as well, and I definitely intend on using them in the future. 🙂

  • Terry A McNeil

    These are great ideas for personifying words or verse in poetry too. Creating scenes where words have human personality triats adds a robust spark to the language. Endlessexciting possibilties.

    Assign character traits to a word. Then presto
    … a pesonality.

    “The evil selfish nown coldly betrayed a soft gentle verb who saught simple wisdom and the warmth of a kind heart.”

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