Archetypes and Character Complexity

Characters are not real people. This kind of classification system only works on fictional characters. It doesn’t really apply to real people. Yeah, you may notice some traits or even patterns of traits in real people, but it’s nearly impossible to truly classify a real person according to archetype because real people are more complex than fictional characters. The deepest, most complex character ever written is still not nearly as deep as the most shallow, simple person who ever lived. This is mostly out of sheer practicality since we don’t have a lot of time with fictional people in which to not only understand who they are as people and also tell a story. Think of it this way: If you have the standard 40-hours-a-week full-time job, you spend about as much time with your co-workers in one month as you do with the characters of a television series that runs for eight years — in the entire run of the series. When you start a new job, how well do you feel you know your co-workers after one month? You probably feel like you know those TV characters much better after eight seasons, and that’s because they’re easier to understand. With your average movie, you spend two hours with those people, up to six or more if it’s a series. In books, you may spend six to twelve hours or so with them, depending on the book and your reading speed. Things have to be simplified in order for you to understand them well enough to care about them and make sense of their actions in that short a time of acquaintance.

Then there’s the issue of creating the characters. The writer spends a lot more time with the characters than the audience does, since there’s all the planning, and then the writing time, and there’s probably a lot more the author knows about the character that doesn’t go on the page — backstory that’s relevant to the author for building the character but that doesn’t matter for the plot. But even then, it’s probably a few hundred hours spent creating the character. To grow a real person, it takes years, minute-by-minute, every little experience in life building, nudging, changing. The most complex and detailed character backstory still only hits the high points of a life, while a real life hits every single moment along the way.

Finally, there’s the fact that fiction is expected to make more sense than real life (well, commercial or genre fiction — some literary fiction is all about being meaningless). Human beings are wired to look for meaning and patterns even in things without meaning. We want things to make sense, and that’s one of the impulses that even led to the creation of storytelling in the first place, to make sense of the universe and give everything meaning. We expect fictional characters to make more sense than real people do. We expect to be able to understand exactly what makes them tick. In fiction, even psycho serial killers have to make sense — we want to understand exactly how and why they became killers and how and why they choose their victims. In real life, the pattern usually only makes sense in the internal reality of the killer, and while some killers do come from troubled backgrounds, just as many come from very ordinary upbringings. The only explanation is mixed-up chemicals in the brain, and that explanation isn’t good enough for fiction.

And that’s where archetypes can be so powerful. Because we are a species of storytellers and story consumers, we’ve absorbed enough stories to recognize the common types, and that makes archetypes a sort of shorthand. If the archetype is strong and comes through in the story, then the audience automatically has a kind of understanding of who the character is. That then frees the author up to devote that precious time the audience has with the character to adding on things to make the character more complex. If you’re a clever writer, it also allows you to build in some surprises by going against audience expectations about types, but then even that surprise will still make sense because using the archetype means it’s still consistent to the character. The archetype serves as a sort of framework, a spine, a core. I like to think of that inner drive as the soul of the character.

Because of this, you don’t make a character more complex by adding on multiple archetypes. That just gives you an unfocused character who’s difficult for the audience to understand and relate to. You can layer two archetypes, but that’s a very advanced skill and the subject of an entirely different post (I haven’t even tried it, but I do have a good example of it working well from someone else’s work). Most of the time, though, saying your character fits two archetypes is a sign that you haven’t really figured out who your character is. The character may still do the same things, whichever archetype you decide to go with. What changes is why the character is doing them, what drives the character in the decisions he/she makes, and there you’re usually going to have a more compelling, relatable character that the audience can latch onto if you pick one archetype and really work with it.

The thing to remember is that the archetype only determines WHY a character does something, not WHAT they do. Any type may do anything, or may exhibit traits of any other type under certain circumstances. And there are some things that are just part of being human. For instance, humans in general love their families, whether they’re birth families or created families. Regardless of archetype, they’re going to show caring and nurturing to the people they love. That doesn’t mean they’re necessarily a Nurturer archetype.

I can think of a couple of examples of very non-Nurturing archetypes who are still big brothers who show nurturing toward their younger brothers. There’s Dean Winchester on Supernatural, who is a Swashbuckler. He’s driven by a desire for action. This character type doesn’t take well to sitting still or to responsibility. But circumstances have forced him into a role of being responsible for his younger brother. He’s practically been a surrogate parent since he was four years old, and he’d move heaven and hell (sometimes literally) for his brother. We saw in flashbacks that this was a role he struggled with as a kid. It forced him to go against type, but because he loves his brother, he did it and it’s become part of who he is. But he’s still not a Nurturer. Aside from his brother, he doesn’t take to this naturally. In spite of his experience with his own brother, he’s not particularly good with other people’s kids. I’m sure he’s changed a few diapers in his time, but can you imagine him jumping in to do that with someone they run into on the road? Another non-Nurturer big brother is Nathan Petrelli on Heroes, who is very much a Chief. He’s driven and ambitious, and he gets very annoyed when his little brother gets wacky notions about flying that might harm his election campaign. But when his brother is in trouble, he rushes right there, and when his brother is hospitalized, he stays by his side. He puts himself on the line for his brother. But he never really stops being a Chief, even while kissing his unconscious brother on the forehead and smoothing his hair back in a gentle way.

It’s actually a good idea to put your characters in situations where they’re forced to act against their archetypes because that means you’re avoiding stereotyping. As long as you remember what their core drive is, you can keep them consistent. It seems obvious to make the Chief a CEO, but that’s kind of a stereotype. You have a more interesting story if your Chief archetype is slaving away in the mailroom. Then you have conflict because that’s not where he wants to be, and every fiber of his being wants to be in charge. But that really only makes sense if your character is right out of school — or didn’t go to school — and this is the only job he can get. A Chief isn’t going to be content spending his whole career in the mailroom. He’s going to be ambitious enough to work his way out. He may do that by being charming to the people on the executive floor he delivers mail to (but without becoming a Charmer), he may be a loyal friend to the other workers in the trenches so they’ll support him in his rise to the top (but that doesn’t make him a Best Friend). He might occasionally be reckless and take risks he thinks will move him up a notch (but that doesn’t mean he’s now a Swashbuckler). He may spend his off hours doing intense research on the company, its people and its industry (but that doesn’t mean he’s become a Professor). He may even rebel against the current authority if he thinks he can do a better job (though that doesn’t mean he’s a Bad Boy). He’s still a Chief because he’s doing all of these things in support of his drive to move up in the world.

Another example of the WHAT vs. the WHY may be in the Best Friend vs. Charmer. Both of them may do exactly the same things, but their inner drive is what determines who they are. A Best Friend can be very charming because he’s a good listener, he often knows just what to say to make someone feel better, and he’ll step in to help out when someone needs it. That could totally sweep a woman off her feet because it gets past her guard. And a Charmer is well aware of that, so he, too, can do all these things. The difference is that the Best Friend is just acting on his natural instincts with no hidden agenda, while the Charmer is deliberately doing this in a calculated way to get what he wants. For example, Dr. Wilson on House is a Best Friend who can be charming. Based on what we’ve seen of him in relationships and what his ex-wife said, it seems like he manages to sweep all these women off their feet without even trying, just by being a supportive friend when they need one, and then it ends up turning into a romantic or sexual relationship because he doesn’t really have the strength (or desire) to deflect it when she reads his actions the wrong way. He’s not setting out to seduce women. He’s just being a nice guy, and then they fall for him, and he doesn’t say no. His main problem is that he seems drawn to weakness and neediness, so the women he befriends are more likely to be needy enough to read his intentions the wrong way. That’s what makes him an interesting character, that his Best Friend impulses aren’t entirely benign.

How do you tell whether or not a character’s actions reflect archetype? Here are some questions to consider:

  • Is the action a pattern, or is it situational?
  • What are the circumstances behind the action? (people, place, situation)
  • Was the action a natural impulse, or was it planned and calculated?
  • Was the character comfortable in the action?
  • Why did he/she do it?

So, a character who is only nurturing toward family members is probably not a Nurturer. Even the toughest Bad Boy may comfort someone in an extreme situation, but it might not be entirely comfortable for him (the movie cliche of the weeping woman throwing herself on the tough guy to cry her eyes out while he stands there, frozen, until he manages to awkwardly pat her on the back). You get the idea.

The character also isn’t necessarily defined by backstory, either. You can end up with any type given the same backstory. Not all orphaned kids end up being Lost Souls, for instance. It all depends on how the character reacts to the event. You do get a Lost Soul if being orphaned means the kid ends up feeling alone and unloved in a cold, uncaring world where he feels like the only person he can truly count on is himself. But you could get a Chief who’s determined never to let anyone have any control over his life again. Or a Professor who’s driven to solve the mystery of their deaths. Or a Bad Boy who resents his parents for abandoning him and therefore doesn’t take authority from anyone. Or a Warrior who’s out to avenge their deaths by taking on whatever killed them (by becoming Batman, by becoming a cancer researcher, by becoming an anti-drunk-driving activist). Or he could become a Best Friend who provides love and support to all the other kids in the foster home and creates his own family. Again, you get the idea.