Guest post by Tami Nantz
There’s no way around it:
If you want to write a story that pulls in readers, you must include compelling characters.
They need to feel:
But that’s difficult to pull off—one reason most stories are unpublishable.
Maybe you’re feeling this tension right now.
Maybe you’ve created a character with an amazing backstory that includes everything from where he was born to his hair and eye color, where he works, who his best friends are, and what hobbies he enjoys.
Yet it’s obvious something is still missing. And you can’t put your finger on what that is.
That’s why I wrote this character archetype guide: to give you a shortcut to giving your characters a set of desires, fears, and struggles that feel familiar—and because of that, believable.
For a character to be believable, he needs to be realistic.
[I use male pronouns inclusively here to represent both genders to avoid the awkward he/she or him/her, fully recognizing that many lead characters are female, as are a majority of readers.]
For him to be realistic, he needs to fit a certain psychological profile. Within that profile, there’s lots of wiggle room—things like motivation, his reaction to the variety of circumstances you’ll plunge him into, his background are all important—but who is he?
- What does he fear?
- What motivates him?
- What does he care about most?
In other words, what makes your character tick? Figure that out, and your character’s archetype will jump off the screen and give your readers a character they’ll love.
What Is a Character Archetype?
Merriam-Webster defines archetype as “the original pattern or model of which all things of the same type are representations or copies.”
A character archetype is a pattern of behavior inherent in a vast number of people.
If you think this method will make your writing too predictable, remember: you’re in control of the story. A character archetype is merely a pattern—and, just like real human beings, every character has his own quirks and idiosyncrasies that make him unique.
So then, how do you take a character archetype and use it as a starting place to create a unique character?
How to Use Character Archetypes
While the study of character archetypes can be helpful for character development, be careful not to let it influence you too much.
Educate yourself, read stories that feature the kind of characters you wish to create, then set everything aside and let your imagination take over.
Create unique characters that make sense and tell your story.
12 Common Types of Character Archetypes (with Examples)
There are hundreds of character archetypes with their own categories and subcategories—far too many to list in one post. All can be useful tools in creating believable characters.
A few of the most common (based on personality tests like the Enneagram):
1. The Reformer
Always a leader. He has a deep desire to do right, to feel useful and valuable.
He’s rational, idealistic, principled, and at his best has self-control.
At his worst, he’s a perfectionist. He fears failure.
Conflict comes easily. Others must see things his way, or he becomes critical and cutting.
Examples: Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird and Lady Isobel Crawley in Downton Abbey
2. The Helper
Always focused on improving the lives of others, he truly feels privileged that others choose him to be a part of their lives.
He does everything to keep people from harm. He’s humble, thoughtful, compassionate, generous, and loyal.
He has a tendency to be overprotective and loyal to a fault. He’s a people pleaser. He wants to be loved and will bend over backwards to make that happen. He manipulates people with his good nature.
The helper wants to avoid conflict, to the point that he often plays the martyr.
Example: Robert McCall in The Equalizer
3. The Individualist
By definition, he likes to be alone but doesn’t necessarily always prefer it.
He’s a creative visionary who hates restrictions. I’m sure it won’t shock you to learn that he’s also an independent thinker.
At his worst, he’s fragile. He cares deeply about what others think of him.
While he wants to be loved, he feels no one knows him well enough to love him fully—so, he usually ends up alone, or just aloof when he’s with people.
The individualist is a bear when it comes to conflict, because he loves to dredge up the past.
Example: Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire
4. The Achiever
An ambitious, successful individual usually seen as a role model. He’s success-oriented: practical, flexible, and driven.
But he’s very concerned about how others see him.
He needs to feel important and valuable to those he loves. One of his worst fears is becoming irrelevant or useless. In conflict, he needs to be right and will go to great lengths to prove he is.
Example: Frasier Crane in Frasier
5. The Investigator
By definition, he enjoys discovering why things work the way they do. Problem solving is what he does best.
He’s brave, determined, intelligent, and creative. He loves exploring the unknown.
At his worst, the investigator is a loner. To his credit, he’s also an observer. He feels it best to take things in from a distance and contemplate, keeping his information close to the vest. He trusts only a very few people.
In conflict, the investigator is usually the calm, rational one because, remember, he’s the problem solver. He’ll ask lots of questions and get to the bottom of it one way or another.
Examples: Fox Mulder in X-Files, Sherlock Holmes
6. The Peacemaker
More than anything, he wants everyone to get along. He’s content, easy going, modest, and unassuming. He trusts easily and is emotionally stable.
At his worst, he’s complacent. He’s a worrier. He’s not someone who enjoys being assertive, unless he has to be. He avoids conflict and often will go along just to get along.
Example: Mr. Rogers in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood
7. The Challenger
A strong leader who takes charge, he’s protective of himself and those he loves.
He’s self-assured and makes decisions quickly. Friends of a challenger never wonder where they stand.
He fears losing control. Because of this, in conflict, he’s going to win one way or another.
Example: Tony Soprano in The Sopranos
8. The Loyalist
That solid friend everyone wants in their corner, he can be trusted for the long haul, always the responsible one.
He needs loyal friends who trust and support him. He deals with stress by getting defensive and anxious.
The loyalist doesn’t deal well with conflict and easily believes he’s the persecuted one. He wants, more than anything, to feel secure.
Examples: George Costanza in Seinfeld, Frodo Baggins in Lord of the Rings
9. The Enthusiast
A fun person, he’s always the happiest in the room.
He’s uninhibited, flexible, and excitable. He’s always on the go and acts on impulse. He’s usually independent, smart, and productive.
At his worst, an enthusiast is scattered. He tends to take on too many things at once, because he never wants to miss a thing. Boredom is not acceptable.
In conflict, he’ll do anything to avoid pain, so he often becomes combative.
Example: Ace Ventura in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective
10. The Sage
That wise, intelligent guy who always knows the right thing to do, he’s a mentor, a solid friend, and usually there to assist the hero in his quest for what’s right.
The sage is constantly studying to discover truth. He’s often a pastor, a teacher, sometimes an investigator, and always an observer.
At his worst, he can be prideful. Procrastination is his middle name. In conflict, he can tend to be a know-it-all.
Examples: Gandalf from Lord of the Rings, Professor Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter
11. The Protector
Great at both working alone and with people, he tends to accomplish more alone.
He leads by doing. He’s a warrior, an excellent teacher, compassionate, and honorable.
Watch out, though. The protector can often have a stubborn streak, and he gets impatient if he can’t help fix a problem. After a conflict, he struggles to forgive and forget.
Example: William Wallace in Braveheart
12. The Villain
Opposite the hero, this guy creates the need for a hero in the first place.
He has many likeable qualities—he’s a kind, worthy opponent, but something terrible in his past influenced who he has become—vengeful, proud, power hungry, merciless, and a guy who will stop at nothing to get what he wants.
Examples: White Witch in Chronicles of Narnia, Joker in Batman.
Use these Character Archetypes to Develop Your Own Characters
Learn to recognize character archetypes in people you know, in magazine advertisements and television commercials, or in television shows and movies.
But remember, as you write, let your imagination take over.
Trust your gut.
Tell a story that makes sense, with realistic characters who possess real emotions. Be careful not to create cookie-cutter characters—instead, create unique characters your readers long to know more about.
That’ll keep them coming back for more.
Tami Nantz is a freelance writer. She lives with her family near Washington, D.C. More of her work can be found at TamiNantz.com.