How I Write #3 – Characters and Archetypes

You’re such a character! ~ Words every goofy seven-year-old has heard

I tend to experience my book ideas in cinematic snippets, which I later try to stitch into a plot with compelling characters. This is a bit like seeing a movie on your neighbor’s screen on an airplane. Whenever he moves his elbow, you manage to catch a glimpse of…a woman flying through the air shooting dual machine guns…a little girl squeezing a tongue-lolling puppy…a gritty guy with a scar over one eye sneering at his hostages…and then a train blows up.

Without sound or context, trying to figure out who the protagonists are and what they want – or even what the book idea is actually about – occupies about 90% of my brainstorming time.

A tool that has really helped me shortcut this process is The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes and Heroines: Sixteen Master Archetypes by Tami D. Cowden, Carolyn LaFever, and Sue Viders. Based on what I know so far, which archetype most fits my characters? Reading about some of their potential character traits gives me new ideas for what my characters want and which shortcomings might create interesting complications.

My favorite hero archetype is the “lost soul” who wants to be redeemed, such as Gabriel Byrne’s character in Stigmata or Smilla’s Sense of Snow, and most recently Channing Tatum in Jupiter Ascending. My favorite heroine archetype is almost anything, from “crusader”/”librarian” Trinity in The Matrix to “nurturer” Danielle in Ever After. And how to categorize my three favorite action heroines, Leeloo (Milla Jovovich in The Fifth Element), Lara Croft (Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider), and Violet (Milla Jovovich again in Ultraviolet)?

This book doesn’t pretend to be a definitive guide to constructing three-dimensional characters. It gives great examples of archetypes as portrayed in cinema, ideas of how to combine or evolve archetypes, and the most useful section for a romance writer, how archetypes might interact. In Liberation’s Desire, for example, I pit an ultra-logical professor against a super emotional nurturer. It helped to imagine that he might find her irrational, illogical, and irresistible, while she finds him cold, calculating, and incredibly cute.

Who are your favorite characters? Does any one archetype stand out?

Posted in writing life