I quite like archetypes in fiction, I feel like most fiction-readers probably do. But everyone knows (and usually hates) Mary-Sues and Larry-Stus, so the problem must then lie in walking the line between relatable and predictable.
So! When you write archetypes, you’re probably doing one of two things:
Either you get a bit lazy and insert a stock standard ‘mother’, ‘mentor’ or ‘monster’ without trying to develop them to serve more than one role in your novel¹ or you create a character so real that they inadvertently remind your audience of a base-level character embedded in their subconscious via social conditioning.
The second one is fine, and pretty universal among great writing that resonates with people. The first will probably bring down the tone of your writing unless you’re writing for a very young or inexperienced audience².
The hard part, then, is deciding which version you tend to write; or fixing your writing if you accidentally wrote a shortcut rather than an archetype. These are the questions you should ask yourself to help you decide which one you’ve made your character.
- Does the archetype have a solid reason grounded in logic or ambition for behaving the way they do to the protagonist³?
- Is the mentor already connected to the protagonist in some way, that they are determined to teach them?
- Do they have good reasons to want the protagonist to succeed?
- What benefit do they get from the arrangement?
- How did the protagonist prove themselves to their mentor, or how did they earn their place as a student?
- Does the archetype have a personal reason from their past to behave the way they do in general?
- Did your monster get betrayed by someone they loved more than anything?
- Why does Og the bloodthirsty thirst for blood? Is blood simply a metaphor for the human connection Og so desperately craves.
We’re long past the years of a race being bloodthirsty and evil because that’s how they’re made. It’s boring, it’s been done, it’s lazy writing, it has some not-to-subtle parallels to racism. If you have a whole race of anything (human or not)all acting the same way they better be mind-controlled.
- Does the archetype have a fundamental, in-world reason for behaving the way they do?
- Maybe your mother figure has a biological force that makes them ‘imprint’ and become protective.
- Maybe the political or social system encourages or requires the mother figure to protect their charge.
- Maybe the mother figure is keeping their charge alive for another (perhaps sinister) reason. Has defensiveness become overprotectiveness? Is this horror now?
As you can see, there’s a lot of overlap up there^, and obviously your archetype can (maybe even should) be motivated by more than one thing. Complexity is good! But so is clarity. If you’re writing an archetype, clarity probably isn’t an issue, (Monsters destroy! Mothers protect! Mentors instruct!) so having your archetype’s behaviour be motivated4 by a more complex situation can stop their characterisation from falling flat.
The key is CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT, with strong ties to PLOT, WORLDBUILDING, BACKSTORY or THEME.
- The mentor failed the hero’s parents, and that’s why she’s training him to take on the evil ruler.
- The guardian lost a child, and they’re damned if they’ll lose anyone else, even a team member they don’t particularly like.
- The monster was betrayed over and over again, until she learnt that the only way to protect yourself is to attack first and mercilessly.
Mira Grant put it better than I could:
“Even the people we’d paint as the villains of the piece, given leave, doubtless consider themselves reasonable.”
You don’t need to redeem all your villains, that gets boring and weakens the previous work you did illuminating all their flaws. Some people are too broken to be fixed, especially if they refuse to make the effort to pick up all the pieces; your job isn’t to find an angle at which they seem whole, it’s to shine a light on their jagged edges, and hint at the force that broke and shaped them into the weapon they are today.
- Plot without character development is a sitcom.
- Character development without world building is (bad) romance.
- Word building without theme is a painting.
- Theme without plot is a sermon.
You need all of the above elements to work together to make a successful, immersive work of fiction.
And if you figure out an easy way to do it, let me know.
¹Multi-tasking is essential! 80 000 words isn’t enough to get the complexity you want unless you’re making one element (dialogue, flashbacks, character traits) do more than one job (worldbuilding, plot driving, character development).
²There’s a reason only fairytales can get away with having ‘beautiful princess’ be the beginning and end of the protagonist’s description and motivation.
³If your protagonist is the archetype, do they have a reason to be as set in their role as they are?
4Today’s blog post is brought to you by the letter ‘m’!