How do characters come to you? For me, each book can be different. I don’t have a set method, nor do I want to nail my process down. I’ve awakened in the middle of the night with a character speaking to me about his or her story. I leap from bed and rush to the bathroom with pen and paper in hand to jot down notes.
Sometimes from my preliminary research, I can meld 2-3 ideas together and a character might spring from that work. For example, I might realize I need an adventurer hero, a love interest and one of them might need a scientific background or have other special cognitive skills to pull off the plot that’s developing. Those characters come at me slowly and build, where I sometimes throw in fun hobbies or weirdness to keep the plot interesting.
Have you ever gone back into a novel you’ve already written and examined character archetypes?
You can also do this deep dive for themes you generally write about, even if it’s not a conscious awareness you have when you first start your project. I write from a gut level. Too much structure might inhibit my process, but I do find it interesting to take a closer look after I finish writing a book, especially if it sells well and the feedback is good from industry professionals. It’s helpful to dig into a plot I created organically to find threads of themes I love to explore.
Let’s take a closer look at character archetypes. In researching this post, I found a more comprehensive list of 99 Archetypes & Stock Characters that Screen Writers Can Mold that screenwriters might utilize in their craft. Archetypes are broader as a foundation to build on. Experienced editors and industry professionals can hear your book pitch and see the archetypes in their mind’s eye. From years of experience, it helps them see how your project might fit in their line or on a book shelf.
But to simplify this post and give it focus, I’ll narrow these character types down to Swiss Psychiatrist Carl Jung‘s 12-Archetypes. Listed below, Jung developed his 12-archetypes, as well as their potential goals and what they might fear. Goals and fears can be expanded, but think of this as a springboard to trigger ideas.
GOAL – Happiness
FEAR – Punishment
GOAL – Belonging
FEAR – Exclusion
GOAL – Change World
FEAR – Weakness
GOAL – Help Others
FEAR – Selfishness
GOAL – Freedom
FEAR – Entrapment
GOAL – Revolution
FEAR – No Power
GOAL – Connection
FEAR – Isolation
GOAL – Realize Vision
FEAR – Mediocrity
GOAL – Levity & Fun
FEAR – Boredom
GOAL – Knowledge
FEAR – Deception
GOAL – Alter Reality
FEAR – Unintended Results
GOAL – Prosperity
FEAR – Overthrown
I recently sold a series to The Wild Rose Press. Book 1 is called THE CURSE SHE WORE – A Trinity LeDoux novel.
TRINITY – When I looked back at my heroine, Trinity appeared to be a combination of two archetypes, until I gave her a closer look. On the surface, she’s an innocent AND an orphan, but when I examined her from the GOAL and FEAR angles, I saw her clearly as an ORPHAN. No family. She’s homeless and living on the streets of New Orleans. She hasn’t known much happiness and punishment would only make her more stubborn. Her soft underbelly lies in her own thoughts on where she belongs and what she deserves. She keeps her life at a distance from others–her self-imposed exclusion. She thinks she doesn’t need anyone until she meets Hayden, but what she has planned for him, there won’t be anything left to build on. Loyalty can be a double-edged sword.
HAYDEN – My hero Hayden Quinn doesn’t fall neatly into the HERO category. Because of his psychic ability, he’s become a CAREGIVER to a small needy Santeria community in New Orleans. But his gift didn’t help him when he needed it most. He’s drawn to help others, but his ability only reminds him of the worst day of his life.
CROSSED PATHS – As a child of the streets, Trinity exploits Hayden’s guilt and grief to get what she wants. He’s unable to say no because of his guilt. For an author, it’s not easy to walk a line of conflict that I wanted to sustain throughout the first novel in this series. Surprises and unexpected outcomes twist through the plot until the very last page of book 1. The roots of their conflict grow deeper and extend into book 2.
SUMMARY: Whether you use these 12-archetypes to analyze a completed manuscript or consider them when you begin framing a new story, these building blocks can sustain an effective character study and get you thinking. It helped me dive deeper into my characters and this will help me develop the series. Any series needs the stakes to escalate and it all springs from a foundation of knowing your characters well. You have to keep punishing them. Show the reader why your characters deserve star status.
Can you see how you might utilize a list if archetypes to infuse your creative process?
When you consider these basic types, imagine pitting them against one another for sustained conflict. In the case of Trinity and Hayden, she risks putting his life at risk out of her loyalty to a dead friend. Any hope she had for a future is snuffed out by her own decisions.
For him, the very gift that had been a blessing failed him at the worst time of his life. Now his gift might kill him, but he can’t resist protecting Trinity. It’s in his nature.
All Hayden and Trinity have in common is death.
1.) As an exercise, forge conflict between two archetypes of your choosing to create a one-liner plot pitch.
2.) Share your main character archetype from your current or latest WIP. Does the Carl Jung matrix above help you define your character?
Thanks for sharing, Jordan. Boxes scare me. I was a psych major, so learned of these archetypes, promptly forgot/ignored them once I finished the courses, and that was in the 60s. I never considered them when I started writing my characters, simply using Deb Dixon’s GMC method. Reviewing your list, most of my major characters fall into the hero category. They’re cops/covert ops agents and their goals normally revolve around helping/saving people. They have caregiver traits, but their “fears” don’t match the matrix.
This reminded me of Deb Dixon’s GMC book. I love that book. Maybe because I was familiar with her boxes on Goals, Motivation & Conflict, I saw ways to combine & layer nuances into my characters using Jung’s psychiatric understanding.
With my hero, I never would’ve considered him as a caregiver until I saw the goal & fear of that archetype. We all write about heroes & heroines as central players, but breaking that role down into a main archetype helped me to see Hayden through a different lens. Thanks for your comment, Terry.
Fascinating post, Jordan. Congratulations on your new pub deal!!! Super excited for you!
Thanks, Sue. I’ve heard good things about TWRP. So far, very professional & thorough, With a new series, I’ll be busy for awhile.
FWIW, I was TWRP’s first outside contracted author. They are one of the original e-publishers, and one of the very few who are still around from that time. Say hi to Rhonda for me!
Will do. Nice to see they’ve had good taste in authors from the start. TWRP has developed into quite the boutique operation. They’re an approved publisher for MWA, ITW & other author organizations. That’ll help in promotion. Thanks, Terry.
It would be an interesting story building technique to figuratively invite some of these archetypes to Thanksgiving dinner and see what happens. Hopefully, a food fight. Great article to help get into the minds of our characters and think about how they’d react in certain situations.
That teaser is exactly what can kickstart a new book or series, Barbara. Matching up archetypes for maximum & sustained conflict can turn into good fiction.
It would be fun to put different yet conflicting personalities together but give them one impossible goal. One of them could decide that the only way to win is sabotage that leaves only one character standing, like the underdog Jester. I like it.
Congratulations, Jordan!!! Eager to read your new series.
My characters start as skeletons. Each draft they get another layer of muscle, flesh, and sinew. After feedback from beta readers, I examine where they need to be tweaked so they come across the way I visualize them. Sometimes those tweaks are as small as one sentence or a particular telling gesture.
Both my series leads are orphans. The female is a caregiver/sage, the male is rebel/caregiver with some ruler thrown in. Thanks for prompting me to analyze them through this lens.
Love Barbara’s idea about inviting everyone to Thanksgiving dinner!
Another great resource about archetypes is Christopher Vogler”s The Writer’s Journey.
The ghost of Jung must have been whispering in our ears this week.
After reading your series and loving your characters, Debbie, I can totally see your Jung analysis in them. Perfect.
Thanks for the Vogler reference. I thought about making a post of nothing but good links for archetype character development-a one-stop bookmark for resources. Next time.
I love your posts, always thorough and wonderfully useful.
PS: the novel I am currently finishing has a character named Hayden.
HA! I love that name. We have good taste in men…apparently.
This last month, on another writers’ blog I read, we were given a list of character-stereotypes-you-should-avoid-and-what’s-wrong-with-your-story-if-you-use-them.
As I read the article, I was disturbed. It nailed one of my heroines virtually point-for-point.
I spent the day disturbed. I watched TV and read that evening disturbed. I wrestled with sleep disturbed. I woke up the next morning, disturbed. She wouldn’t like my characters, and she would hate me.
A whole day-and-a-half later, I realized: this gal had taken it upon herself to damnify Joseph Campbell’s entire hero archetype model. I had worried a whole 36 hours about someone who either knowingly or unknowingly had taken on one of America’s great writers. And now, in my opinion, I know she had met Mr. Campbell at the bridgehead and had failed in the fight to cross it.
You, on the other hand, have given us additional resource and nurture on which to build character. Sorry for the pun. But I do appreciate the reminder of the Jung hero archetype model.
When I was a psychology major in college, I changed majors largely because of Jung (and a few others). But your advice gives me the first reason to apply his thinking in any practical way since I walked into Dr. Betty Beck’s office (she was head of the English department), and said, “I’d like to be a writer instead of a nut.”
Bless you, Jordan.
A writer instead of a nut? One and the same, my fine friend. Potato potaato.
I started my love of reading and writing because I fell in love with Westerns. Believe me when I say that I would NOT want anyone to reinvent the genre, just to be different. It’s a comfort read that I love to sink into. Having said that, any author still wants to stand out in a wide field. I’m a believer in tweaking a trope or cliche to make it memorable.
A friend of mine got the eyes and ears of one of my top editors, but she got push back because her alcoholic private detective read as cliche. My friend went into a tailspin, not knowing how to fix it. I suggested that rather than reinvent the whole story and do a massive overhaul, she might consider giving her main character a hobby or obsession that would outweigh the cliche. Her detective was grieving over his dead wife who made wind chimes. I suggested she have him become obsessed with making wind chimes to honor her and calm him. The sound of the chimes become a portal to demons he releases and tied into her plot better. Her alcoholic detective became a guy dabbling in the dark arts for all the wrong reasons, making it a more compelling plot.
I like the idea of plots as puzzles to solve. Naysayers are a dime a dozen, but find a solution person, and you have something. Thanks, Jim.
You know, I read this post several hours and started to make a reply but then stopped and had to think about where my characters come from, and to be honest I have no idea.
I cannot think of a character that I actually created intentionally from nothing to fully fleshed. Whether it is tough guy characters like in my thrillers or leprechauns and oddball faerie creatures in my comedies, the characters all came from … well, I think they just live in my head.
I guess I am lucky that we all get along.
I don’t know, Basil. It might be interesting to look deeper…or just donate your brain to science whenever you’re done with it.
Thanks for the chuckle. You always bring a smile, my fine friend.
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