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Those Pesky Archetypes ©
by Juliet Burns

My critique partner is laughing her butt off right now, because she knows how bad I suck at characterization. But, what I don’t know, I definitely know WHO to ask. Or in this case, I have some of the BEST resources for you to go to.

I’ve heard some authors say, they NEVER write a word until they KNOW their characters. Others say, they get to know their characters AS they write and usually by the 3rd-5th chapter, they know them.

I think I finally nailed down exactly who my heroine was in my latest WIP about the next to last chapter. Can you say, Revision?

Needless to say, I rely heavily on THE COMPLETE WRITER’S GUIDE TO HEROES AND HEROINES, SIXTEEN MASTER ARCHETYPES, by Tami D. Cowden, Caro LaFever, and Sue Viders. This, folks, is my BIBLE for getting to know my characters.

There are some other really good books about fictional characters out there:

45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt
Creating Unforgettable Characters by Linda Seger

Some authors use astrology—here’s a link to an interesting article about that.
Some use character interview sheets (see below) or character charts.
Some use the character’s name to divine their meaning or at least, choose the name with great care. Here’s a fun article about the importance of names.

But the archetypes idea is my PERSONAL favorite. Is your hero a Chief or a Bad Boy or a Charmer?

Is your heroine a Spunky Kid or a Crusader or a Boss?

Each archetype comes complete with strengths and weaknesses, lots of traits and there’s even a section in the back for the layered archetype. Maybe your hero is part Chief and part Charmer. Also in the back of the book, the authors give you examples of how each male and female archetype interact with each other. They also give examples of each archetype from TV and movies and once you start getting to know these archetypes, it’s fun to be able to pick the ones to match your favorite characters from the TV and movies you watch. This really helped me.

After you determine what archetype your character is, make sure you incorporate that into each decision he/she makes, and into each action he/she takes. I struggle with this since I tend to be a “plot driven” writer. A “character driven” writer writes what the characters tell her they would do next. Makes sense, right? But, oh, not for me. That would be too easy. I tend to think about what I want to happen next (for example, I need the bad guy to harass the heroine so the hero can jump in and, well, be heroic) but a lot of times, I have the characters do something just because I WANT them to for the plot to work out. THEN I have to come up with a reason WHY. Many times I have to go back and rewrite because it just doesn’t make sense that this particular character would behave in this way. To borrow a quote from a friend:  "If I can’t set a good example, I’ll just have to be a horrible warning."

So, be sure to stay true to your character’s archetype. Watch what motivates them. For example, a WARRIOR is usually motivated by HONOR. A CHIEF is motivated by wanting to be IN CONTROL.

If you have any questions, let me know.

Here are some links to some of the best articles I’ve read about characterization. They can explain it a lot better than me.

We Need a Hero by Tami Cowden
The Women We Want to Be: The Eight Female Archetypes
Here’s another article by Tami on how to show characterization
On getting your reader to become emotionally involved with your characters
And here’s one about breathing life into your characters

Here’s that character interview sheet I mentioned above. Fill this out for your hero and also for your heroine. You’ll be surprised how well you get to know your character.


I. My basic biographical information:

My full name is
I was born in (place name)
My heritage is (racial, ethnic)
The other places I have lived are

II. My additional biographical information:

My birth (or adoptive) family’s financial situation was
Because of that, my attitude toward money is
My family’s status in the community was
My birth (or adoptive) family consisted of
The member of my family I am closest to is
The member of my family I am most distant from is
Other than these, my favorite relative is
Other than these, my least favorite relative is
As a child, I would describe myself as
The most significant experience of my childhood was
As an adolescent, I would describe myself as
The most significant experience of my adolescence was
My first sexual experience was
My attitude toward the opposite sex has been that
My educational background is
My general health is
My specific health concerns and problems have been

III. My physical characteristics:

What I like about the way I look is
What I hate about the way I look is
I believe that other people think I look
My style of dress is

IV. My general character traits

If you ask me what I’m like as a person, I’d say I’m
I would describe my habits (neatness vs. sloppiness, etc) as
I would describe my religious attitudes as
I would describe my political attitudes as
I would describe my attitude toward life in general as

V. My outstanding character traits:

The most significant thing I’ve ever discovered about myself is
The situation in which I made this discovery happened like this
I feel that my greatest talent is
The thing I believe in most strongly is
The thing I care most about in life is
The thing I enjoy, or have enjoyed, most in my life is
The thing I dislike most in life is
My most important goal in life is to

VI. My personal history

My marital status is
My experience with romantic or sexual relationships is
My current attitude toward such relationships is
I have worked in the following jobs
My feeling about my current work is
My future professional ambitions are to
My favorite hobby or leisure time activity is
My best friend ever was
My current best friend is
My current place of residence is
I like or dislike it there because

VII. My emotional history

I am most inhibited in the area of
I am superstitious about
I have a phobia about
My greatest disappointment in life is (or was)
My greatest frustration in life is (or was)
My greatest regret in life is (or was)
The time in my life I was most enraged was
The time in my life I was most terrified was
The time in my life I was most humiliated was
The time in my life I was most heartbroken was
The time in my life I was most excited was
The time in my life I was most joyful was
My deepest fear in life is
My darkest secret is
The biggest lie I ever told is
I told it because
The thing I yearn for most in life is

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