Technique of the Week: Character Archetypes and How to Use Them

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Strangely, developing characters is an oft-overlooked part of the screenwriting process. I come from a novel writing background, and nearly every writing exercise and resource is geared towards creating great characters with unique backstories that influence their actions throughout the course of the story. The technical aspects of screenwriting can distract from the true purpose of a script: to make the audience feel something.

In order to elicit that emotion, you need to have characters they can cheer for and relate to.

What are character archetypes?

Character archetypes are essentially the blueprints or building blocks of a character, derived from classical literature and art.

Character archetypes are different from stereotypes because stereotypes are superficial classifications of a character — i.e. the alcoholic character who drowns his sorrows at a bar — whereas archetypes are a narrow starting point that allows you to focus on traits and motivations required to build a compelling, consistent character.

Instead of just building off the stereotypical alcoholic character, let’s use a similar archetype:  The Guardian. This character could be a war veteran whose most important goal in life to protect those he loves at all costs, and often takes impossible risks to do so. He puts physical strength before mental acuity, and can be an adrenaline junkie. His alcoholic habit most likely stemmed from his inability to communicate with others about the trauma he’s undergone in his quest to protect others, and instead of talking to a psychiatrist about his PTSD, he’d rather drink himself to death and continue to put himself in risky situations in attempt to make the adrenaline numb the pain.

Much more interesting than your stock alcoholic character, right?

Having an understanding of different archetypes is the key to being able to develop interesting characters for your screenplay because it gives you a set of strengths and weaknesses to start with. The real character work — inventing quirks, traits, backstory, and motivation — all stem from an understanding of the base layer of your character.

What are the standard character archetypes?

Page 85 uses a set of classical archetypes inspired by the masters of storytelling, such as Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung. Inside our software, we have 30 basic archetypes for female and male heroes and villains, and a separate set for supporting characters.

You can access these character archetypes from inside the “Character” tab under “My Stories.” 

How do I use character archetypes?

First, explore each archetype and decide which one would function best within your concept in order to create maximum conflict and irony. The Ruler is nothing without his power, so what happens when he loses it? And if The Innocent believes nothing bad will happen to her, how does she deal when tragedy strikes?

These are the questions you have to figure out when you’re trying to figure out what kind of hero to place in the limelight.

Secondly, use these archetypes as a jumping off point. What happened to The Loner to make him withdraw from society? Why did the protagonist’s best friend suddenly become The Rival? And how does that affect the story?

Then, layer on character quirks, backstories, and the small details taken from your own study of other people in order to really make your characters feel real within the realms of your screenplay. 

Happy writing, and stay tuned for more articles about how to build great characters for your screenplay!

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