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Characters And Archetypes For Page And Screen, by Ben Marshall

It may be useful to compare the way characters evolve in your novel to the way they’re constructed in television, where it’s more craft than art.

In the novel you’re writing, the characters may have just ‘came’ to you.  You may have started off with one or two, then the rest of your ensemble emerged from your unconscious, polarising around your protagonist and antagonist.  You probably barely had to think about them because they just coalesced in your mind, as you hope they will in your readers.

But in television, we have to think a little more pragmatically about characters and plan them more thoughtfully than intuitively.  US script guru Robert McKee says “True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the greater the revelation…”

It’s fine for you to let your characters reveal themselves along with your plot, but in television we have to know before we start plotting how a given character will react in any given situation.  When given the wrong order at a burger joint or seeing a little old lady about to be run down, we need to know in advance how our characters will react.  If we don’t, the show won’t be driven by its characters as much as it is by plot.  In which case, viewers probably won’t care which characters get together or which characters die in a hail of bullets.

Imagine you’re starting a television series from scratch.  You’ve got a budget, a limited number of core cast characters, a guest cast budget and some spare change for extras.  The premise is familiar to your audience but has a fresh and interesting twist; likewise your characters.   What you need is an ensemble who are interesting individually and likely to entertain us solo and en masse.

If you find you have two characters who act the same way and perform the same function, one is redundant.

Archetypes are a stock place to shop for characters.  Archetypes are universally recognisable personality types we all understand and, potentially, empathise with. Everyone from the writing department to production – even the suits in the network – need to ‘get’ the characters so we’re all on the same page.

Using archetypes also constrains us to keep a character consistent.  A character can say and do many different things according to circumstance, but they must remain true to their character or they become a cypher, only useful as a warm prop (as actors are sometimes referred to) to be a foil or deliver news.  This is, incidentally, why some characters don’t engage you as a viewer and why soaps can become dull, as hungover writers chase plot at the cost of keeping their characters’ needs and drives clear and urgent.

There are different sets of archetypes you can use for character creation, and as handy metaphors for their roles within the ensemble.  In a show about a crime family you could, for example, use the medieval deck of archetypes – burdened King, loving Queen, loyal prince, ambitious prince, insecure princess, adventurous princess, Machiavellian advisor, the fool, etc.

Other suites of archetypes include the high school deck (freaks, geeks, jocks, cheerleaders, girls next door, etc), the animal kingdom (sneaky snake, ruthless fox, cunning rabbit, noble lion, misanthropic tortoise, wise owl, etc.), the fairy tale (good witch, bad witch, wise wizard, seeker of truth, etc.) or the mythic (hero, wise woman, damsel, trickster, Great Mother, Satan-figure, mentor, warrior, etc.).

Again, the point of these is to create instantly recognisable types.  We know what they want and what they need.  What you do with these characters to make them real is up to you, but your readers or viewers will have, right from the start, insight into the characters’ behaviour, and won’t need a lot of tedious backstory to explain motives or action.

Another way to approach character-building is The Character Square.  It’s very Hollywood but I like it.

Draw a square on a piece of paper.

At each of three corners put a crucial characteristic – reasons or drives that get this character out of bed.

Let’s say we choose positive drives like ‘love of children’, ‘career ambition’ and ‘fulfilling parental wishes’.  So far, so boring.  Now we add the fourth corner, but this drive is the one that stands in total opposition to the others.  It can be positive like, say, ‘desire to be a ballerina’ (tragi-comic if your character is a pudgy thirty-five year old) or it can be negative such as ‘needs to kill again’.

Alternately, three negative corners such as ‘ruthlessly ambitious’, ‘sociopathic’, and ‘addicted to gambling’ could be contrasted with ‘deeply religious’.

Again, the point of this structuring is to constrain your character so you know how they’ll react as they struggle against their own nature and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

There are many ways to build characters, and while novelists operate on a mostly instinctual level, using even a little of the pragmatism of the television hack, you may find insights into your characters and the ensemble they fit into.


Ben Marshall’s author website:

Ben Marshall’s bio page


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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Your advice about archetypes is interesting. I’ve been criticised for having archetypal characters, but they suit the action-based, and highly ‘filmic’ books I write. I think fiction writers can learn much from what’s going on in film and television. For example, many of the superhero films are now being written with very introspective, humanising themes. The archetypes are still there, but there’s been a shift in mood. Just look at the latest Superman trailer, and the Spiderman film. Surely this is in response to audience need, preferences, levels of sophistication, etc. Something for the fiction author to think about (especially someone like me, who writes urban fantasy). Thanks for the post!

    April 2, 2013

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