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Character by any other name: Subverting character archetypes

Over the last few months, I’ve been watching a lot of anime. And by a lot, I mean hours and hours as I pre-screen shows for my ten-year-old son. He’s at that awkward age where many of the Y-7 shows are too immature for him (boring and stupid according to him), but the Y-14 contain themes that he’s not quite ready for.

There have been moments over the last few months where I roll my eyes at the similar plot lines and story tropes, the campy drama and teenage romance. But, there have also been times when I’ve been blown away by the exploration of complex themes in a unique and beautiful way. The main thing that has caught my interest is the characters. Anime has a definite stock set of character types depending on the genre. The stock characters have similar features or characteristics that distinguish them from the other stock characters. Eye color, hair type, clothing, accessories all have a deeper meaning and provide a visual clue to the type of character.

How does this apply to writing?

Archetypes are the foundation that writers use to build a story. When we understand archetypes, both story, and character, we can design something that speaks to the reader. But there is a danger to using character archetypes. The character can come across as flat and boring if you never move beyond the basic characteristics of that archetype.

Going back to anime, there are a few character types that stood out that I also see used in literary archetypes. The names I’ve given them are not what is typically used in anime or literary analysis, but are rather the names I’ve given them to reflect their personality types.

The Happy-Go-Luck Golden Lab: This character always seems to be happy, bouncing from one problem to the next with a smile. But, often the smile disguises the lack of confidence in themselves or their abilities. They are fun-loving, and at times give off the appearance of being unintelligent.

The Prince/Princess: This character is often the main character. They tend to start out spoiled or naive and end up learning about the way the world really works through their interactions with the side characters. If the Prince/Princess isn’t present then the Hero/Heroine is.

Hero/Heroine: This is character is similar to the Prince/Princess character. They tend to be from a humble background and are called on because of tragic circumstances to take up “the quest.” There is a wide range of Hero/Heroine types from reluctant to over-the-top arrogant.

Mr./Miss Smarty Pants: This character is an intellectual. Often seen wearing glasses in anime, they are cold, logical, and methodical. They can appear heartless at times when they throw their companions into danger to meet their own goals.

The Silent/Stoic Support: This character rarely utters more than two or three words, but often comes to the rescue when things get tough. When they do finally speak, it’s often to impart some bit of wisdom or advice that the Main Character needs to move forward.

The Prankster: This character is often playing jokes on the other characters. Sometimes the jokes are a bit of harmless fun, sometimes they are more serious and cause problems. They tend to be misunderstood and use their pranks as a defense mechanism to keep people at arm's length.

The Misunderstood Baddie: This character often appears to be the antagonist, but over the course of the story becomes a close friend and confidant/love interest for the protagonist. Their tragic past leads them to commit serious crimes, but they are really a caring and kind individual at heart. Sometimes they will switch sides. Sometimes they remain firmly in the antagonist spot.

This is by no means a comprehensive list. It is just a basic break down of what I’ve seen so far.

The trouble with character archetypes is that often times, less-experienced writers won’t go deeper into developing the character beyond the archetype’s basic traits. Archetypes are a jumping off point and aren’t meant to be the final product. There are lots of ways to subvert an archetype to fit the needs of your story. A heroine who has experience and training, but finds herself in trouble when her magic goes out-of-control. A prankster who tries to cheer up the terminally ill only to be diagnosed with a terminal illness. A Mr. Smarty Pants who wields cold logic to get the best outcome only to lose the love of his life because of his choices. These are a basic twist, but the idea is to take the archetypes and expand on their strengths and weaknesses.

They need more to make them fully realized and developed characters. Breaking characters down into their basic archetypes helps you see where they fit into the story and how to develop a premise and theme that works for the character. It is easier to judge the inherent problems that you will face as you write, and the stumbling blocks that could potentially hinder the story. Can our heroine overcome the loss of control or does her character design make that loss a fatal flaw?

What is needed to flesh these archetypes out? One of my earlier blog posts goes into more detail on character design, but I’ll include the basics here.

1. Strengths

Strengths are the traits that will help the character achieve their goals. These are attributes that are favorable and work to help the character achieve their goals. Cunning, intelligence, witty, friendly. These can all be strengths. They can also be weaknesses depending on how they are used.

2. Weaknesses

Weaknesses should ultimately play against the character's strengths. They are the traits that most often lead a character to failure. Characters need to experience failure within a story. Failure drives up tension and conflict which helps to move the story forward and creates motivation for the character to step up their game.

3. Desires

Think of this as your character's personal theme. What is it that they want? What drives them? What is their ultimate goal? Knowing this ahead of time helps you avoid a character that feels inconsistent or waffles when opportunities are placed in front of them.

Desire is different than need. A character's desire is the big picture goal. A character’s desire isn’t an “in the moment” sort of thing. This is the BIG thing they want. The underlying motivation to every decision, every action, and reaction. Revenge for the death of a loved one. Social justice. Acceptance by peers. Love and safety. This is the one thing they are always aiming to achieve. It plays in the background like a personal theme song for the character. It is the goal that makes them reach outside their comfort zone and move toward a new reality.

4. Need

Need is what the character has to change within themselves to achieve their goals. Need is different than desire. Need is the mental changes that must occur for the character to reach their ultimate goal.

5. Moral Choice

This is the key choice that character will need to make to get what they want. This will be the choice that ultimately completes their arc. Stick to their beliefs or compromise them to achieve the goal. The idea is boil down the character’s storyline to this key choice. When you know what that choice is going to be, then you as a writer can design a character that will inherently make the choice you want them to make.

6. Action

Action is what the character does to reach their desire. What they give up or do to make their goal a reality. Understanding the action a character has to take to reach their goal will help you better orchestrate the events of the story.

7. Changed character

Where does the character end up? Knowing what the end of the character arc is before you start gives you a target to aim for. It allows you to shape events that allow your character to grow or fail depending on their arc. It helps you to steer the story in a believable direction.

What archetypes are you using in your stories and how do you subvert them to make them more interesting?

Happy Writing!

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