Archetypes: What vs. Why

A few years ago, I went to a seminar with one of the authors of that book I keep referencing, and there were some group activities where we were supposed to create characters based on archetypes. I found the exercises somewhat confusing, because the whole seminar was supposedly about how it was the motivation that mattered, and yet the exercises seemed to encourage stereotyping. For instance, we were supposed to come up with what the Bad Boy might look like, and most of the answers seemed to involve the standard — jeans and leather, hair a little too long, unshaven, maybe some tattoos and piercings. My argument was that you can’t know what a Bad Boy might look like until you know his environment. The archetype is all about resentment and rebellion, questioning authority and the status quo, but more on a personal level and what it means to him than on a societal level. Society can stay the way it is, as far as he’s concerned. He just doesn’t want those rules to have to apply to him. So, while you might have this rebel looking the usual way, what if he’s in a rebellious type society? Then he might rebel by looking totally clean cut. Really, though, a true Bad Boy isn’t going to look a certain way because he doesn’t care what people think of him, and the last thing he wants to do is live up to anyone’s expectations of him. Anyone who really lives up to that stereotypical Bad Boy uniform is probably a poseur and not a real Bad Boy (he’s likely a Charmer trying to pick up the chicks who dig bad boys).

Meanwhile, there are reasons for the other archetypes to have that scruffy Bad Boy look. The Chief might own a construction company and be out in the field. The Best Friend could be the tough guy from a bad neighborhood who manages to have a heart of gold under that scruffy exterior. The Charmer may be aware of the effect the Bad Boy has on women and deliberately cultivates that look. The Lost Soul may not be able to afford new clothes or a good haircut or may have given up on his appearance since nobody seems to care about him anyway. The Professor may have been too sidetracked by his latest project to worry about grooming. The Swashbuckler may wear the sturdy clothes because they hold up well during his adventures and if he’s been off in the jungle he wouldn’t have shaved or had a haircut, and the Warrior has other priorities than worrying about his appearance, since he’s got a world to save.

The example I often use in workshops to show how it’s WHY people do things that matters rather than WHAT they do is the reasons each type might become a doctor. They’re all doing the same thing, but they have different reasons for it. The Chief might want the power, control and status. The Bad Boy might come from a family of medical malpractice attorneys and becoming a doctor is his way of rebelling. The Best Friend might want to help people. The Charmer knows that chicks dig doctors. The Lost Soul might think that being a doctor is a sure way to win his father’s approval. The Professor might be drawn to the science and knowledge. The Swashbuckler might like the rush of having to make life-and-death decisions. The Warrior might be on a personal mission to wipe out disease, perhaps in a kind of revenge after losing a loved one.

To make it more concrete, the cast of House is a good example because all of those characters are doctors and four of the characters are pursuing the same sub-speciality, but they’re all driven by different things.

House himself is the Professor. His driving motivation is finding the answer and being right. It’s not really about helping the patient because he doesn’t seem to care much whether the patient lives or dies, as long as he knows what was wrong with the patient. He has some Bad Boy traits because he does rebel against authority, but that seems to be the way he measures his genius — his genius is what allows him to get away with things, so the more he gets away with, the more of a genius he must be. He sometimes tries to play the Lost Soul card, but he’s a loner because he finds people illogical and annoying rather than because he’s truly an outcast.

Dr. Wilson is the Best Friend, and a very non-stereotypical application of that archetype, almost a dark side, because his loyalty has such a negative impact on him, and his support of people in need is almost pathological. He’s in medicine to help people, and he’s drawn to the hardest cases of need, both as a doctor (he’s an oncologist) and as a friend (he’s House’s best friend).

Dr. Cuddy is the Nurturer, again in a non-stereotypical way because she’s not really about family, except in the sense that the hospital itself and the people in it are her family. She can be the tough, cool administrator, but she reacts emotionally and protectively when her hospital is at risk. She also tends to mother people, treating House like a toddler. Oddly, she’s not that effective as a doctor working one-on-one with a patient because that nurturing, protective instinct gets in the way of her judgment, but that same instinct does help her be the kind of administrator who thinks about people in the big picture.

Dr. Foreman is the Chief, who’s mostly driven by a desire for status. He wants power and prestige. People have to respect him and listen to him when he’s wearing that white coat.

Dr. Chase is the Lost Soul, who got into medicine largely because he thought it was the only way to get his distant father to approve of him.

Dr. Cameron is a difficult one because I don’t think they’ve written her as a very well-defined character, but I think I’d call her a Librarian. She’s seen to be very caring, but I think she’s operating out of a mental rule book and she knows she’s supposed to be caring. Going into medicine seems to be something she felt she “should” do, and she’s all about the “shoulds.” She loves rules and order and gets very confused when the world doesn’t work according to her list of “shoulds” or when people violate her rules.

I hope that makes the difference between the WHAT and the WHY a little clearer than mud. When you really dig into that WHY as the important part of the archetype, then you have the basis for an interesting character because you then know what the character’s core need is and you can keep that center of the character consistent. Then you can throw in all the other detail to flesh out the character.