Back in January, Jonathan Vars was here to talk about some lesser-known archetypes and how utilizing them can bring a sense of freshness to our stories. Because of the positive feedback on that post, he’s back with three MORE archetypes you might not be so familiar with.
As I mentioned in my original post, there are dozens of character archetypes available to the fiction writer. Having a broad range of character types is like having a palette of different colors to paint with. Each archetype offers a different perspective and point of view. They provide unique insights into your story that you would be unable to achieve by clinging only to the “tried and true” characters. So, without further ado, here are three more lesser-known archetypes to use in your writing:
The literal meaning of penitent is “sorrowful or regretful.” So the penitent is that character who’s seeking cleansing, forgiveness, and redemption from a dark past. One of the best examples of this that I’ve seen in modern writing is the character of John Reese from the TV show Person of Interest. Reese’s somewhat jaded past in espionage leaves him with many regrets that haunt him throughout the show.
The penitent is interesting because his guilt can serve both as a motivator (spurring him on to seek cleansing) and an Achilles heel (leaving him vulnerable to self-doubt and feelings of unworthiness). Any time a character can embody this sort of dual nature, it adds depth, both to his personality and the story as a whole.
The curmudgeon is essentially the “cranky old man,” the cynical character who seems happiest when bemoaning imperfections. Curmudgeons are versatile in that they can play just about any story role—antagonist, sidekick, mentor, jester, even villain. Ebenezer Scrooge, everyone’s favorite Christmas hater, is the perfect example of this.
Though seemingly one sided, this archetype can be used to represent many different points of view, depending on the depth of character established. Although crusty and probably not much fun to be around, the curmudgeon can add realism to a story, reminding overly optimistic characters of stark realities and potential problems. The curmudgeon can also become a sympathetic character when readers learn the backstory responsible for his or her negative point of view.
The sycophant is the quintessential “yes man”, the underling who goes along with whatever their superior says in a constant effort to maintain approval. Sycophants are generally portrayed as somewhat mindless, accustomed to taking orders instead of thinking for themselves. A comical example is Lefou from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Despite being insulted and physically beaten by Gaston, Lefou remains devoted and eager to please, playing perfectly into this archetype.
Historically, the sycophant doesn’t have much of an arc, being used mostly to define other characters. Bring him to life by probing deeper into his background and making him more than just a subservient sidekick. An interesting concept is the idea of a pseudo-sycophant who poses as a “yes man” while secretly plotting against the hero in the background. By making him a unique and three-dimensional character in his own right, the sycophant can be used to provide singular insight, add tension and conflict, symbolize a larger idea or theme of the story, or act as a foil or mirror to the protagonist.
While archetypes are known for being certain kinds of characters, they don’t have to be etched in stone. Give them depth and add individualization by mixing them up. Who says you can’t have a penitent with sycophantic tendencies? Or a curmudgeon hiding his penitent roots? People are dynamic, and your characters should be as well. Applying human complexities to our characters can result in truly original characters that will greatly enhance your story and cast.
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.