Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Character Archetypes I Love

A dirty word in the writing world is "stock character." Editors fear these intrepid characters because of their familiarity, but readers often embrace them for the same reason. Stories, especially fantastical ones, need a sense of home cooking to put readers at ease. If something is too outlandish, most readers may not want to spend too much time in the world the writer has created.

Archetypes and stock characters exist for a very simple reason: they're familiar and easy to identify. Sure, some of them may end up being eye-rollingly terrible or downright laughable, but a skilled writer knows how to freshen up these archetypes so the characters are not cliche or one-dimensional.

Here are a few of my favorites...and keep in mind this is not intended to be an unbridged list of every single character archetype.

Sage Old Geezer Who's Gonna Die. You've seen this one dozens of times; an old man or woman who possesses otherworldly knowledge or insight that must be imparted to a worthy successor. And while their knowledge lives on, the Sage Old Geezer Who's Gonna Die won't. There is usually some element of self-sacrifice in this noble character who gives him or herself up to the forces of evil in order to help others understand a great truth. Or something. This character can be gratingly stereotypical in the wrong hands.

His Dad Was Awesome, But He's a Schmuck. This character is the product of a broken home. His father invented something terrific, changed the world in a significant way, or was filthy-stinking rich. Yet, while Daddy was out making the big bucks, he kind of ignored Junior and made some powerful enemies who decided the world would be a better place without him. The son has either coasted through life or been swept away from his privileged life. Others expect great things from him, but he's a total screw up who drinks too much and can't do anything right until The Moment It Really Matters.

I Like Shadows and Snapping Your Neck. Nothing's better than the strong, silent type obsessed with stalking his prey. While others are having the time of their lives, this character roams the shadowy underworld looking for ways to profit from their mistakes. This character could be an assassin or a bounty hunter...in the end, he always gets his man. Unless, of course, he's aboard Jabba's Sail Barge and happens to, oh I don't know, get bested by a blind guy.

I'm New, Enthusiastic, and Willing to Do Whatever It Takes to Succeed. Ah, the overwhelmed intern. The new employee. The girl fresh from college who's ready to collate, brainstorm, and work, work, work until she nearly collapses from exhaustion. You can taunt her, deprive her of food and sleep, sabotage her projects, or make her look bad in front of the boss, yet somehow she manages to come out on top because she's new, enthusiastic, and willing to do whatever it takes to succeed. Some readers will love her, but most will loathe her because Nobody. Can. Be. That. Good.

His Face May Be Stubbly, But Underneath It All He's a Really Good Guy. This character pretends not to like anybody and hangs out with the wrong crowd. He appears to be obsessed with things like money, fast cars, and awesome technologies, but all he really needs is a friend. Just when you think he's deserted you forever, he dashes in at the last minute and saves the day, reminding everyone that His Face May Be Stubbly, But Underneath It All He's a Really Good Guy.

Tremble at My Feet, I Am Lord of This Realm and You Shall Bow to Me. Also known simply as "the dark lord," this character is a man or woman who appears to be in complete control of everything. They're super-powerful, super-smart, and super-arrogant. Their true weakness is their lust for power...an unfortunate trait that allows them to overlook minor details like oddly-placed thermal exhaust ports or Hobbits IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD who possess YOUR MAGICAL RING.

He'll Follow You Through Hell Because, You Know, You're Buddies. Ah, the loyal friend. There's nothing you can do that will make him go away. You can steal his girlfriend, beat him with a chair, and routinely swipe the last piece of pizza and his loyalty will never waver. Even though you'll have that rough patch where you argue and appear to go your separate ways, he always comes back. Because, you know, you're buddies.

The Line Between Good and Evil Is a Tightrope...And I Walk the Line. Sadistic or dedicated? It's really hard to decide in this case. This type of character has a strong moral code...it just so happens that this moral code is kinda screwed up. He or she is always looking for some great truth and is often suspicious of the status quo. They're so dedicated to their cause that they'll risk anything to prove their point, even if that means their own death. Good guy, bad guy, or nutjob? It's a question without a true answer.

Women Should Vote and Be Put in Places of Power and You're Going to Accept It or I Will Kick You. This is your hard-driving, tough-talking, high-strung leader-type. She could be a princess or a senator or a top diplomat. Most people say it's a man's world, but she throws her head back, laughs, and reminds everyone that no man could stand the pain of childbirth. No one argues...because if they tried, she'd kick their butt with rhetoric (or her actual foot). Stay out of her way, people!

I'll Work Hard, I'll Commit to Your Cause, and I Promise I Won't Screw Up...Too Bad I'm Lousy at Life and Keeping Promises. This character is the butt of everyone's jokes. He's mind-bendingly awful at almost everything except for being committed to your cause. Sometimes he drinks too much and gives the enemy a detailed battle plan, sometimes he sells your magical sword for a shiny object, and sometimes he almost manages to be useful (but not often). Still, you admire his loyalty and (sometimes) courage, and hope for the day when he'll do something right...just don't cross your fingers.

I Have to Obey My Master Until You're Three-Fourths Through the Book and I Realize the Folly of My Ways. The main bad guy snaps his fingers, and this minion is here to do whatever is needed. He'll taunt you, torture you, deprive you of food, burn your village, and laugh at your constant pain. But somewhere along the line, he'll realize he's the one who's been tortured over the years and rebel against his dark master, allowing you to escape and asking you to take him with you. Given his track record, you should probably dump him off at the nearest restaurant and then speed away.

I Will Not Fight. I Cannot Fight. You Killed My Friend or Lover. I'm the Greatest Warrior Ever and You Will Die by My Sword! This character simply wants to be left alone. Years ago, he was his country's/world's/galaxy's greatest fighter, but strayed from that path long ago. He's pudgy now, his muscles more fit for a Jell-O mold than combat. Oh, what's that? His friend/lover/child is dead at the hands of the big bad? Oh, baby, it's personal! In a furious training montage, this reluctant warrior finds his swagger and gets reacquainted with his signature weapon, emerging as a ripped, revenge-fueled killing machine! Just make sure he has a plucky sidekick...this character is so filled with angst and rage that he's incapable of anything remotely resembling fun.

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