Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Day 1: Guest Blogger Vickie McDonough

Writing!photo © 2009 Markus more info (via: Wylio)

Developing Characters Using Archetypes - Part 1

Writers are often asked how they create characters. My response is generally, "That's a tough question."

It's tough, because a character will start as a tiny idea, then grow, and develop as I spend more time thinking about him or her. They sometimes develop because of the plot. Let's say I need a lawman for the hero, so I'll make him a sheriff - this is probably a good time to mention I write mostly historicals. A sheriff is brave, tough, not afraid to put his life on the line, so it's safe to assume he's probably an Alpha male. Tall, strong, self-reliant, and protector of the innocent.

Can you imagine a Beta male as a marshal? Think accountant with a gun. It reminds me of that old Don Knotts's movie called the Shakiest Gun in the West. I'm not saying you can't have a Beta male as a marshal, but that would be a whole different type of story, probably about a man learning to conquer his fears so he can protect the people he cares about.

Some writers use character sheets with a long list of questions to develop their characters, some writers interview their characters, while others use tests like the Myers-Briggs or The Four Temperatures to figure out the personality of their characters. What I've found that works best for me is a book called The Complete Writers Guide to Heroes and Heroines: Sixteen Master Archetypes by Tami D. Cowden, Caro LaFever, and Sue Viders.

Author Tami Cowden states, "These archetypes are not the inventions of my coauthors and me - they have existed for millennia. All we did was name and describe them, and then gather examples from an assortment of cultural media."

Heroes and Heroines describes 8 male and 8 female archetypes.

The Chief
The Bad Boy
The Best Friend
The Charmer
The Lost Soul
The Professor
The Swashbuckler
The Warrior

The book gives a complete description of each archetype, including their strengths and weaknesses, which I've found extremely helpful in developing 3-D characters. The Warrior is an archetype I've used for several of my heroes, such as Lucas Reed, the hero in the latest Heartsong book, Mutiny of the Heart. Here's a brief description of the Warrior archetype:

The WARRIOR: a noble champion, he acts with honor. This man is the reluctant rescuer or the knight in shining armor. He's noble, tenacious, relentless, and he always sticks up for the underdog. If you need a protector, he's your guy. He doesn't buckle under the rules and he doesn't go along just to get along. Think Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, Russell Crowe in Gladiator, Mel Gibson in Braveheart.

You can see how this type of archetype would work well for a marshal, a determined rancher or a detective - or an ex-privateer, like Lucas reed.

The Boss
The Seductress
The Spunky Kid
The Waif
The Free Spirit
The Librarian
The Crusader
The Nurturer

An archetype I often use for a heroine is the Spunky Kid:

She's gutsy and true, she is loyal to the end. She is a favorite of many writers, and for good reason. You can't help but root for her. She's the girl with the moxie. She's not looking to be at the top of the heap; she just wants to be in her own little niche. She's the team player, the one who is always ready to lend a hand. Think Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle, Melanie Griffith in Working Girl, Mary Tyler Moore in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act, and Fiona in Shrek.

So, after I've thought about my storyline and obstacles and events my characters will be facing during the journey, their character beings to take shape. I begin to see what kind of person they will be, and I determine which archetype they are. Knowing the archetype, gives me a skeleton for my characters, and helps me to know how they'd react to different situations, to know what they value, and how they view themselves and others. It's a great starting point for creating 3-D characters.

Tomorrow, I'll tell you more about using archetypes to create characters.

For you writers, do you have a favorite book or have a system to create characters?

For your readers, what do you like to see in a hero or heroine?


  1. That book has been on my Amazon Wishlist. I think you've just convinced me to finally buy it! Great post!

  2. I'm going to have to check that book out. I usually don't have too much trouble coming up with a character and their strengths, it's the weaknesses that I want to work on, making them logical and realistic.

    Thank you for this fun and informative post!

  3. Great post, Vickie! Thanks for sharing this, and now I'm eager to read that book too! When writing, my biggest problem with my characters is giving them weaknesses--I tend to be "too nice" with them and go easy on them, LOL. Maybe I can get some pointers from this book.
    Blessings, Patti Jo :)

  4. I don't think you'd be disappointed if you bought this book. It has a wealth of info in it.

    And Patti Jo, don't be too nice to your characters. That kills conflict if all the characters are sweet. It's okay to be a little mean to your characters--they'll forgive you in the end.

  5. Both articles are well written, thank you Vickie! I use this book as well and now because of your articles it will be easier than ever to use.