Writing Believable Characters – 4. Avoiding Archetypes

Archetypes are often taught in conjunction with creative writing but when writing characters I tend to avoid them. Here’s why I would advise not to think in archetypes when creating characters:

First of all what exactly is an archetype?

An archetype when dealing with characters is basically a type of character such as Hero, Villain, Love Interest. Many come from fairy tales such as The Prince, The Mother etc. Now of course if you look hard enough you will be able to find archetypes in almost all, if not all literature. However there are reasons why I don’t think it’s useful for writers to think this way when writing.

1. Characters as People vs. Characters as Objects

Reducing a character to an archetype makes them feel less like a well-rounded character. Characters are expressions of humanity and even though they are literary reducing them to an archetype somehow makes them feel objectified rather than allowing them to be a whole character. An archetype label is one facet of a character and represents only one side of them. After all the archetype The Mother, is very limited. Mothers are mothers, daughters, friends, cousins, aunties etc. Mothers can be artists, heroes, villains, leaders, victims… They are not just defined by the role of mother, or at least they shouldn’t be just as The Father archetype is not just The Father but a whole person. Similarly the archetype of The Child is limiting. A child is an emerging person. Don’t assume they are a knowledge-less creature that just exists as something helpless in a story. Children, as many will tell you can be very observant and very clever, often seeing what an adult does not. It’s for this reason that I feel reducing your character to an archetype limits them. Treat them as a whole person with complications and different relationships with different people.

2. It’s Gender Limited

Many of these archetypes are reflective of traditional gender stereotypes such as The Maiden, The Fairy Godmother and The Old Wise Man. While I am not saying that the necessarily don’t exist in real life, again they limit the person often to their role and their gender. A lot of writers query how to write as another gender. In truth I mainly write female-lead roles because it feels most natural to me but the trick if you do want to write other genders is just to write them as people. Think of them as people not of them as a gender. While aspects of their gender may always affect how you write them because all of us have ideas about gender, try to focus on who they are not what gender they are and what their personal struggles are.

3. It’s Structural not Creative.

Looking at characters as archetypes is a great analytical tool but it’s not necessarily a great creative tool. Creativity is expressed through structures and patterns but should not be limited by structural thinking. That is for analysis not for creating. Creative writing is more about thinking, feeling and dreaming. That’s its source. It’s about humanity and the world and humans are complex creatures not just labels based upon their roles.

My advice when it comes to archetypes is just not to think of your writing in that way but I understand that many people find that it works for them. A lot of articles I’ve read over the years focusses on using archetypes so I wanted to share an alternative opinion on their value in creative writing. As always, I leave you by stressing that what works for me doesn’t always work for everyone and to follow your own path.


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