The word archetype gets thrown around like candy at Halloween. There’s a ton of villainous archetypes: dark lords, femme fatales, your standard psycho serial killer, and they all play a role. They’re clearly defined, easily distinguishable…
But can anyone actually name me a hero archetype?
I can almost hear the dust balls rolling through the desert… Hero archetypes are much, much harder to define. Sure, you could suggest a maverick cop in a crime series, but wait… that’s a trope, not an archetype. Or what about the chosen one in a fantasy novel? Again, that’s a trope.
Are you stuttering yet?
Let me help.
Hero archetypes don’t exist.
So what is an archetype?
Archetypes are masks worn by characters to serve a particular function at a particular time to move the plot forward.
If you were paying attention, you’d notice I didn’t say ‘worn by the hero’. That’s because an archetype is a plot device; a function of fiction. Archetypes are not specific characters embodying one particular role for all time.
Think of it as character cosplay. If you force a character to act as a mentor to the hero for the entire plot and only as a mentor, you’re squeezing your character into such a tiny box you flatten them, literally and figuratively. You want three-dimensional, rounded characters, not pancakes. Pancakes are only good for breakfast… and maybe for food fights.
But what does this mean for your characters? Well, it means characters, like humans, are transient. Sometimes your mentor will also be your motivator or your ally. Think about all the hats you wear for your BFF. I bet you’ve been a motivator, a shoulder to cry on, a parent when they needed a slap, and a conscience when they did something they shouldn’t.
Top Tip: if you want to add depth to your side characters, make them play an addition role for your hero.
So here’s a whistle-stop run down of the major functions your characters can play
- Friend Function
I’ve already mentioned this function and how we play different roles for our friends. That’s exactly what this role does. Think Ron Weasley from Harry Potter. The friend plays roles including but not limited to: motivating your hero, stopping her from making a mistake (conscience), to being the shoulder she cries on (companionship).
- The guide function
The primary purpose of the guide in a story is threefold:
- Teach the hero, whether that’s new skills, new knowledge or otherwise
- Protect the hero from the villain’s devilish party tricks
- Bestow gifts on the hero, from magical death-wielding weapons to the anecdote that helps the hero have an epiphany.
There are a couple of other types of mentors such as the negative guide. Who, instead of encouraging the hero down the right path to heroism, manipulates the hero and leads them into the descent of darkness. For example, Littlefinger (Lord Petyr Baelish) in A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin, John Milton in The Devil’s Advocate, Alonzo in Training Day and Gordon Gekko in Wall Street.
- The obstacle function
The primary job of the obstacle archetype is to make sure the hero is worthy to move on to the next part of the story. You might think only villains can be obstacles. But not so. Even a friend of the heroes could be an obstacle. In fact, if the obstacle is a friend, it’s even more of a test of the hero’s will power – it’s much harder to go against a friend’s wishes to do ‘the right thing’
- Hermes function
Yes, for those of you who like mythology, this is a nod to the Greek emissary and messenger god. Hermes characters have vital information that they bring to the hero. Usually the message leads to a change or plot development, the most significant of which is usually the ‘call to action’ for the hero in the first act of your story. The messages are usually, good, bad or a prophecy style message.
- Sly fox function
Aside from a villain, the sly fox is one of my favorite archetypes because they’re so interesting to write. Their purpose is to feed doubt into the plot and, specifically, into the hero’s psyche. They come in two forms. A positive sly fox, like a lover in a romance story that feeds doubt into the heroine’s mind over his true feelings. Or a negative sly fox, who feeds doubt into the hero because, well, he’s an evil S.O.B. Think Scar from the Lion King or Dr. Elsa Schneider from Indiana Jones and Prince Hans from the Disney movie Frozen.
- The joker function
The joker is the character that brings mischief, play and fun to the story. Symbolically, it can represent the need for change within the story. They will usually sprinkle your plot with banter and slap the arrogant characters into shape. For example, Dobby the house elf from Harry Potter.
- Villain function
Last but by no means least, is, in my opinion, the most important archetype of them all. The villain. If your villain is weak, so is your story. Story is about change, whether it’s your hero’s character arc, or the world around your hero. Something will change. And those changes are created from the conflict in your story.
What’s the source of conflict?
That, dear reader, would be your villain. Give your villain as much love as your hero. Your story will thank you for it.
That was a super quick run through of the types of archetypes your hero might need during your story.
If you’d like more in depth information, there’s an entire chapter all about the function of archetypes in my new book: 10 Steps To Hero: How To Craft A Kickass Protagonist.
A bit more about the book:
From cardboard cut-out to superhero in 10 steps.
Are you fed up of one-dimensional heroes? Frustrated with creating clones? Does your protagonist fail to capture your reader’s heart?
In 10 Steps To Hero, you’ll discover:
+ How to develop a killer character arc
+ A step-by-step guide to creating your hero from initial concept to final page
+ Why the web of story connectivity is essential to crafting a hero that will hook readers
+ The four major pitfalls to avoid as well as the tropes your story needs
Finally, there is a comprehensive writing guide to help you create your perfect protagonist. Whether you’re writing your first story or you’re a professional writer, this book will help supercharge your hero and give them that extra edge.
These lessons will help you master your charming knights, navigate your way to the perfect balance of flaws and traits, as well as strengthen your hero to give your story the conflict and punch it needs.
First, there were villains, now there are heroes. If you like dark humor, learning through examples, and want to create the best hero you can, then you’ll love Sacha Black’s guide to crafting heroes.
Read 10 Steps To Hero today and start creating kick-ass heroes.
Sacha writes books about people with magical powers and other books about the art of writing. She lives in Hertfordshire, England, with her wife and genius, giant of a son.
When she’s not writing, she can be found laughing inappropriately loud, blogging, sniffing musty old books, fangirling film and TV soundtracks, or thinking up new ways to break the rules.