Brad Pitt, from the movie Troy
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:
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.
This checklist can be used during both planning and editing stages.
- Does your protagonist have a personality beyond being heroic and nice?
- Does your protagonist have agency?
- Does your protagonist’s personality change?
- Did your protagonist have a…