An archetype is an ancient pattern describing a type of character that exists across different cultures and eras of human history. In ancient times, we had no communication with other cultures. Yet, our myths and legends share these familiar, recognizable characters we call archetypes.
The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers, by Christopher Vogler, details the various traditional archetypes that form the basis of most characters in our modern mythology (or literary canon). I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in learning more about archetypes and how they fit into the story.
The following is the list of character archetypes as described by Vogler:
- Hero: someone who is willing to sacrifice his own needs on behalf of others
- Mentor: all the characters who teach and protect heroes and give them gifts.
- Threshold Guardian: a menacing face to the hero, but if understood, they can be overcome.
- Herald: a force that brings a new challenge to the hero.
- Shapeshifter: characters who constantly change from the hero’s point of view.
- Shadow: a character who represents the energy of the dark side
- Ally: someone who travels with the hero through the journey, serving a variety of functions.
- Trickster: embodies the energies of mischief and desire for change.
Now let’s look at Allies, friends and supporters, side characters who enable the protagonist to achieve their goal. Side characters are essential, especially characters with secrets, because they are a mystery. Readers love to work out puzzles.
One thing I do recommend is that you keep the number of allies limited. Too many named characters can lead to confusion in the reader.
It’s sometimes challenging to decide who should go and who should stay. What is the optimal number of primary characters for a book? Be kind to the reader. Introduce however many characters it takes to tell the story but use common sense.
When you give a character a name, you imply they are a memorable part of the story instead of a walk-on. Even if a walk-on character offers information the protagonist and reader must know, it doesn’t necessarily mean they need to be named.
Does the character return later in the story? When you introduce a named character, ask yourself if it is someone the reader should remember. Also, never name two characters in the same narrative so that the first and last letters of their names are the same.
For instance, having a Darnell and a Darrell with prominent roles in the same book could be confusing.
Make their names unique and give them a name only if they have a memorable role later. Also, as audiobooks come more and more into the publishing rainbow, spelling and ease of pronounceability are critical.
How easy is it to read, and how will that name be pronounced when it is read aloud?
Certain tricks of plotting function well across all genres, from sci-fi to romance, no matter the setting. In most novels, one or more characters is a “fish out of water,” in that they are immediately thrust into an unknown and possibly dangerous environment.
Every core character that the protagonists are surrounded by should project an unmistakable surface persona, characteristics that are identifiably “them” from the outset.
From the moment they enter the story, we should see glimpses of weaknesses and fears. We should see hints of the sorrows and guilts that lie beneath their exterior personas. Remember, they aren’t the protagonist, so their story must emerge as a side note, a justification for their inclusion in the core group.
Old friends have long histories, and the protagonist knows most of their secrets at the outset. We don’t engage in info-dumping. Their backstory should emerge only at critical points, if and when it provides the reader with information they must know.
If these friends are new to the protagonist, their stories should emerge in the form of information the protagonist must have to complete their quest. However, it should come out only when the reader must know it too.
In real life, everyone has emotions and thoughts they conceal from others. Perhaps they are angry and afraid, or jealous, or any number of emotions we are embarrassed to acknowledge. Maybe they hope to gain something on a personal level—if so, what? Small hints revealing those unspoken motives are crucial to raising the tension in the narrative.
As writers, our task is to ensure that each character’s individual story intersects smoothly and doesn’t jar the reader out of the story.
To do that, the motivations of the side characters must be clearly defined. You must know how the person thinks and reacts as an individual.
Ask yourself what desires push this character? What lengths will they go to in the effort to achieve their goal? Conversely, what will they NOT do?
Just as you have done with the hero of your story, ask yourself what the side characters’ moral boundaries are and what actions would be out of character for them?
Mood is a large word serving several purposes. It is created by the setting (atmosphere), by the exchanges of dialogue (conversation), and the tone of the narrative (word choices, descriptions). It is also affected by (and refers to) the emotional state of all the characters—their personal mood.
Dialogue gives shape to the story, turning what could be a wall of words into something personal. We meet and get to know our protagonists and the people they will travel with through the conversations they engage in.
Write nothing that seems out of character unless there is a good, justified reason for that behavior or comment.
We want to create empathy in the reader for the group as a whole, but the pacing of the story remains central.
For all characters, whether they are the protagonist or their allies, personal revelations should only come out when they are necessary to propel the plot to its conclusion.
CREDITS AND ATTRIBUTIONS:
Twilight Confidences, Cecilia Beaux, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons