Expansion Pack: Character Archetypes + a trick

Hi gang. Craig here with you again. Last year sometime, I wrote a series here about The Hero’s Journey. This is a link to PART ONE.

Then I went on to write several Expansion Packs. Those are easy enough to find by using the search function at the very bottom of our page. I’m not giving you a link, because they cover a broad spectrum of topics related to story structure. Just enter “Expansion Pack” and go.

Back when Joseph Campbell came up with all this, he included a repeating cast of characters from the most popular stories. These are a level above the stock characters I posted about this Fall. These character archetypes  are what we’re delving into today. I’m going to stay brief on them, because I promised you a trick. away we go…

The Hero: This is your main character. Choose well, because this person is going to take us through the entire story. This one is so common, I won’t even bother to give examples.

The Mentor: This is the person who takes your hero farther than he/she ever believed possible. The hero was good, but not good enough. This is the person who makes them good enough. Think Yoda, Mr. Miyagi, Merlin, etc.

The Ally: Every hero needs a friend. These can be as simple as a sidekick, but can be so much more. They are usually carrying the conscience of the hero/story. This could be Lassie or Robin, but I prefer someone like Samwise Gamgee.

The Herald: This one isn’t always used. We’ve all read stories where the hero is plopped right into the action. When the policeman knocks on the door and relays that the hero’s wife has been kidnapped, the policeman is the herald. It can also be as simple as an acceptance letter to Hogwarts.

The Trickster: This is a humorous character. Through that humor, they often bring big issues to the forefront. Dobby was helpful and funny, but he also made slavery an issue in the Potterverse. Merry & Pippin were trickster characters.

The Shapeshifter: Watch out for this one. He/she is helpful, but untrustworthy. This character usually has a secret agenda the hero, and readers, never saw coming. Think about Catwoman. Is she a hero or a villain? This character will usually push the hero into being more reckless.

The Guardian: Just as it sounds, the guardian blocks the path. This can be physical, like the Black Knight, “None shall pass.” It can also be a state of mind, or an improvement of some kind. Wizard’s Chess was a guardian in the Potterverse.

The Shadow: This is what you’re fighting against. The Dark Side of the Force is a shadow. It will usually mirror the hero in some dark way. It mirrors the Good Side of the Force. Daddy Darth Vader mirrors Luke, etc.

I plowed through all of this, so we could get to the trick. There is a lot more about each archetype available.

It is unusual for a story to march through these characters in order, or to even include them all. In fact, I recommend choosing carefully.

Here is the trick: Characters can be more than one of these things, and the best characters usually are.

Your hero can be his own worst enemy. In a way, he can be the shadow at the same time as the hero. His story is choosing a path and finding success. In many stories the main character spends the first half of the story as the ally to his/her mentor. Once the mentor is removed from the story, he forges ahead as the hero.

One of the greatest characters of all time was Hannibal Lecter. He was a mentor, a shapeshifter, a guardian, and a shadow all at the same time. He still helped Agent Starling, but he had his own agenda all along.

Golum had a split personality. He was an ally, a trickster, a shapeshifter, and a shadow.

Deadpool is both hero and trickster.

Merlin was a mentor for Arthur, but a gatekeeper for Morgana.

I write speculative fiction, so I used examples that I’m familiar with. Hopefully, most of you know these characters. This stuff works outside of Spec Fiction, too.

Think about a classic love triangle, something for The Hallmark Channel. One of these guys isn’t going to be right for her. He’s probably more charming, wealthier, and has more going for him. Could he be a shapeshifter with a secret agenda for her? Maybe he’s a guardian, and she cannot advance without going through him.

She has friends. One of those could be a trickster. Maybe even a herald when a game changing issue comes up.

Crime drama? What if the ally is also a shapeshifter? The junior detective is going to kill the SOB once the hero figures out who the murderer is.

Western? Your hero runs headlong into a gatekeeper in the form of Indian culture. There can be no peace treaty until he accepts and adopts who they are. Perhaps one of the elders is also a mentor.

These multifaceted characters are usually the ones we remember. Make your characters deeper than the purpose they serve in the story. A friend can be just that, but can they carry more of the story? Could the herald also become the mentor?

A side benefit is by fleshing these characters out more, you reduce the number of characters in your story. Readers get to spend more time with three diverse characters instead of seven who might be a little flat.

I think the trick is worth the price of admission today. Do you guys think you would ever use this? Can you combine some of your characters to make them more interesting and complicated? Do you find this kind of thing too formulaic? Am I crushing your groove here? Let me hear from you in the comments.

39 thoughts on “Expansion Pack: Character Archetypes + a trick

  1. Really enjoyed this post, Craig, and am saving the link my my Favorites folder. I want to ponder each one of these more closely. I never thought about categorizing my characters like this. Mostly, even the good ones are imperfect, with very few exceptions, but I like thinking about exactly how their imperfections line up in this list. And now I have to read the things I missed with your Expansion Packs, etc. (I’ve been behind for months but this is jumping to the head of the class). 🙂 Shared!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yeah, I’ve noticed that most characters who are memorable tend to have many sides. They can do many things. I think introducing them as an archetype is a great way of telling the readers who they are when they first show up. However, like real relationships, the more we get to know them, the more sides we start to see. When the trickster also shows that they can also be the guardian, that’s pretty impressive. This is random but even on the Golden Girls, Dorothy tends to be the funny jokester most times but also serves as the guardian in a number of situations, too. Adding extra wrinkles to a character can make them much more interesting. I always love it when a character appears to be bad but then a new side is shown and they’re actually not that bad and maybe even good but misunderstood, much like Severus Snape in Harry Potter. I love your in-depth posts!

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  3. I enjoyed your analysis of what is, but I’m a pantster, so I could no more plan out my characters this way than I could fly to the moon. For me, the hero has to be someone I can relate to. I guess that makes him/her imperfect and multifaceted. Discovering how that character deals with X reveals both the character /and/ the X.

    I think this is particularly true of sci-fi/fantasy where the X is as much a main character as the person – think Arrakis the planet in Dune. Or China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, a two fold journey of discovery. lol I’ll stop now. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nobody can provide all the answers. Things you discover on sites like this will click with some and not others. Sometimes you will discover a nugget that you can use in a future project. I think of pantsers as being similar to those who cook without recipes. Plenty of wonderful meals are prepared either way. Still, glancing at a cookbook won’t make a home cook worse at what they already do. It could inspire their next creation.

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      • lol – the cooking analogy is very apt! Making something conscious is not a bad thing. I started out as a tech writer. ‘Show don’t tell’ helped turn me into a proper storyteller. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I love the trickster- probably my favorite archetype. They relieve stress, whether it’s emotional or physical, with just a few humorous words. This is a great post, Craig. I’m adding it to my Pinterest board for future reference 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. When I start a book, I rarely think about what role each character will play. Instead, I try to flesh out who they are. That’s why I enjoy your posts so much. You make me think about things I’m not used to. I really enjoyed this.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I think a lot of my characters end up being a blend of types. I’ve also taken a few characters from Shadow to Ally.
    It’s cool to see all of these grouped together here in a neat layout. I always love your examples.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Great post, Craig. In one of my first novels, which has yet to be published, one of my characters went from antagonist to comforter to supporter to hero. I’m hoping to massively revise the story this year and publish it by year end. This post came at just the right time to motivate me. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

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