One of the biggest pitfalls for writers is falling into cliché, and some of the biggest clichés happen with our characters. While the common archetypes work and are typically necessary, there are others that can be utilized to add interest, uniqueness, and dimension to our stories. Jonathan Vars is here today to talk about some of these characters and how they might be of use to you.
Every story contains certain character archetypes—custom molds, if you will, that carry with them certain recognizable traits. These types are instantly recognizable, the most famous being the hero and villain matchup. Other favorites are the sidekick, the mentor, and the love interest.
While these archetypes are perfectly acceptable, writers should be aware that there are literally dozens of others, all of which contain valuable assets to thicken the plot of a story. Here are three lesser-known archetypes that writers should become familiar with and consider adding to their toolbox:
The waif is best described as that innocent character caught up in a situation which is potentially threatening due to the character’s vulnerability. 99 times out of 100, the waif is represented as a child. In fact, the literal definition of “waif” is a homeless and helpless person, especially a neglected or abandoned child. A classic example of the waif is Oliver Twist, arguably the most famous fictional orphan of all time.
The waif can add to the plot of a story in several ways. The most notable benefit is the empathy this character garners from the audience; even the most heartless soul will root for a homeless child to be brought into a loving environment, and readers will continue reading a story to the very end to make sure it happens. The other benefit of including the waif archetype is that the presence of a helpless child intensifies danger tenfold. Sure, the special ops agent can protect himself in a shootout, but throw a wandering child into the mix and the stakes rise exponentially. This character is best added to a story that needs more intimacy with the audience. Consider using a waif to represent the “inner child” of the main character.
The analyst is that reserved and often quiet character who processes life and reality solely through cold reason. When presented with any situation, rather than react emotionally, the analyst will gather facts and figures to cope with the matter at hand. Sherlock Holmes is an obvious example of this kind of character.
The analyst can add to a story through two distinct scenarios: success and failure. In the first situation, the analyst becomes an incredible problem solving weapon, able to untangle seemingly inexplicable dilemmas through his/her purely logical approach. On the flip side of the coin, when the analyst fails, we, the audience, get a glimpse into the character’s psyche. When the analyst is confronted with a problem he/she cannot comprehend (such as a particularly emotional dilemma), the resulting “program shutdown” reveals the character’s humanity, allowing the audience to empathize with his/her truly human side. One thing to keep in mind when using the analyst archetype: don’t be afraid to let them say “I don’t know.” Remember, even Sherlock Holmes gets it wrong occasionally.
This character has been saved until last for one specific reason: it’s one of the most overlooked yet invaluable archetypes. The cloudcuckoolander is that very unusual character who seems to live in an entirely different reality than everyone else. While the other characters are trying to figure out how to escape the booby-trapped mansion, the cloudcuckoolander is talking about the price of nachos in Switzerland. One of the more entertaining examples of cloudcuckoolander in modern fiction is Dory from Finding Nemo, the forgetful fish who prattles on about “P. Sherman 42 Wallaby Way Sydney” while evading sharks, jellyfish, and other ocean perils.
The cloudcuckoolander has many uses in writing, but two stand out in particular. Firstly, the cloudcuckoolander often adds comic relief to tense situations. Because of their skewed and quirky personalities, these characters frequently amuse the audience with their off-color observations and strange perceptions of events and circumstances. The second, and crucial, advantage this archetype offers to the story is unexpected salvation. When everyone else fails, it is often the cloudcuckoolander who conceives the idea so crazy that it works. Returning to our Finding Nemo example, though Dory views the world through a different lens than most, it is often she who arrives at the solution to the given problem. In fact, one of the attributes that makes her different from other fish (her ability to read) proves to be invaluable to the rescue of Nemo. The cloudcuckoolander reminds us that our differences often prove to be strengths—a message that resonates deeply with audiences.
It can be easy to fall into the habit of cooking “easy recipes with easy ingredients.” As a valuable writing exercise, in your next work, try including archetypes with which you are not familiar; you can start with these or one of the countless other available archetypes. You will find that your writing improves as you explore different characters with different mindsets and motivations. When exploring these character archetypes, here are a few questions to keep in mind:
What is the motivation of the character?
What value or hindrance does the character provide to the plot?
What is this character’s relationship to the protagonist?
How should the audience respond to this archetype?
Make it a point to develop these archetypes to the best of your ability. Make it a point to try to write like you’ve never written before. And as always, make it a point to love every minute of it.
Jonathan Vars is a Christian fiction writer from New England, founder of the writing website voltampsreactive.com. His work in literary analysis of classic films and literature has been published by academic websites and he is the author of the soon to be released novel “Like Melvin” for which he is currently writing a sequel. In addition to writing, Jonathan enjoys running, painting, and trying not to freeze to death in the winter. He is currently willing to consider guest blogs for his website.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.