8 Character Archetypes to Build Your Story Around

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

Many creators often confuse archetypes with stereotypes. While stereotypes confine who a character is, archetypes open up characters and cause us to relate to them on a deeply psychological level. They reinforce the mythic connection between an audience and the characters in a story. We see ourselves in archetypes. Author Jonah Sachs said that when we encounter stories based on mythic patterns, it feels more like we are remembering something we’ve forgotten, as opposed to hearing something we never knew. Carl Jung suggested there were likely as many archetypes as there were people in the world.

While the definition of what makes a character archetypal may vary, most agree that they have a certain combination of traits we recognize and identify with on some level, even if we can’t put our finger on exactly where we’ve seen them played out before. Here are eight archetypes that can act as skeletons for designing a character. What sort of flesh, clothing, and rings you put on their fingers is up to you.

The Tenacious Woman

With both implicit and explicit challenges railing against her, the Tenacious Woman soldiers on, overcoming chauvinism, doubt, and her own insecurities. Women portraying this archetype often are silent about their struggles until an event forces a reaction or the character decides she has had enough and decides to externally challenge her circumstances. Billy Jean King in Battle of the Sexes and Molly Carter in Insecure are examples of archetypally Tenacious Women.

The Man with a Code

Right or wrong, the Man with a Code sticks to his guns. He does not allow the opinions or pressure of others to sway his methods or the justice he feels is due. Mike Ehrmantraut in Better Call Saul and Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men are both Men with a Code.

The Regretful Old Man

Haunted by the event(s) that caused him to make poor decisions, the Regretful Old Man is a mirror of wisdom for other characters, as well as the audience. The Green Mile and Saving Private Ryan both center around Regretful Old Men.

The Wise Old Woman

While a legendary archetype in Japanese culture, the Wise Old Woman is often sadly absent from Western stories. While she may not always get the starring role, she is sometimes found saving the protagonist from costly mistakes in cinematic narratives. Gil is given the secret to overcoming his inner demons when his Grandmother shares an anecdote about why she prefers the rollercoaster to the merry-go-round in Parenthood—a classic example of the Wise Old Woman.

The Triumphant Fool

Story guru Blake Snyder named an entire genre of films after this humorous and often inspiring archetype – the fool triumphant. Though unaware of it, the triumphant fool is a catalyst for change in the characters that she or he comes in contact with. Forrest Gump and Being There are both stories where the “fool” triumphs in the end, much to the delight of the audience.

The Underestimated Exceptional

Overlooked by those around them, these archetypal characters often have an Achilles Heel that tends to get all the attention, until someone notices the brilliance hidden dormant inside of them. The Soloist and Good Will Hunting are both stories centered around the Underestimated Exceptional.

The Arrogant Youngster

This archetype is familiar to anyone who ever thought they knew everything, but eventually learned how little they actually knew. Many times, stories that revolve around Arrogant Youngsters are about their maturing over the course of the narrative, but not always. Kingsman: Golden Circle and American Assassin both offer Arrogant Youngsters who must face their own limitations.

The Bitter Loner

Burned by society, those they love, or both, Bitter Loners tend to exist as warnings to the audience of the consequences of deep pain, poor decisions, or unhealthy choices.  Finding ForresterGrand Torino, and Up all feature Bitter Loners forced to confront what their bitterness has actually achieved them.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S.  Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.

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