Side Hustle Author | The Easy Way to Create Awesome Characters
I often say that I learned more about storytelling in my career as an ad agency copywriter than I ever did earning an undergrad in creative writing. But then I might not have gotten my first gig in advertising had I not had the degree on my résumé.
Regardless, here I am: a storyteller.
One of the most important things I've learned in advertising is how to use archetypes to build characters. In case you're not familiar, the theory of archetypes was introduced by Carl Jung, who charted universal human desires onto a wheel of twelve mythical characters that represent those desires. The theory goes that these characters "live" in our collective unconscious, and at different times and in different situations, we find ourselves embodying these characters and their respective desires.
As an example, if you've ever felt an urge inside you to shake things up or disrupt the status quo, that urge can be thought of as an expression of the outlaw archetype. Or, if you ever felt the urge to be intimate with someone, and connect with them at a deep level, this would be an expression of the lover archetype.
Why Advertisers Use Character Archetypes
When it comes to advertising, the cornerstone of branding boils down to assigning an archetype to your product or service. In some cases, the character archetype is more obvious; in other cases, it's much more subtle. Regardless, the thinking goes that by expressing a brand's identity through the voice of a character archetype causes customers to also identify with that brand—they see themselves in the brand, and are thus more likely to not only buy the product, but feel connected to it.
The most famous and, frankly, impressive example of this process would be the brand Harley-Davidson, which embodies the outlaw archetype to such a deep degree that it has created an entire sub-culture of enthusiasts who satisfy the outlaw living inside them by aligning themselves with the Harley-Davidson brand.
But how does this relate to writing a book? I'm glad you asked.
Why Character Archetypes Are a Friend to the Side Hustle Author
The same reason that advertisers use archetypes: They allow your audience to quickly identify with and become invested in your characters.
Every character in your novel must have a motivation, a core desire, strengths, weaknesses, fears, and a purpose. The beauty of the character archetypes wheel is that you already have these guardrails mapped out for you. This not only guides you toward creating awesome characters, it saves you time.
You might be thinking, But then wouldn't character's based on archetypes all be the same and unoriginal? On the contrary, once you've built the foundational elements for your character you are free to twist and turn and recreate them however you please. Take Annie from Misery, for example, who is a twisted example of the caregiver archetype. In her case, she has embraced what's called the "shadow" side of the caregiver, using her ability to care for others for evil purposes.
Not only do character archetypes give you the guardrails for your characters, you can also use them to build the beats of your story. If you have a great concept in mind for your book, you can begin to add in the character archetypes that will help you bring that concept to life.
Let's take A Nightmare on Elm Street for example, the concept being: a child murderer seeks revenge on the people who burned him to death by hunting and killing their children—in their dreams.
Cool concept, right? But now we need to build it out. We need a protagonist who can defeat the antagonist (or fail to defeat), and we need supporting characters who will create the necessary building blocks to turn the concept into a story.
Below, I've broken this down, showing you how—in many respects—the character archetypes of A Nightmare on Elm Street are what turn the concept into the story.
A Final Reason Why I Love Using Character Archetypes
It makes creating characters fun. As a writer, I typically approach creativity by starting from a solid place and branching out into unknown territory from there. This isn't everyone's approach—some of us prefer to cast the net wide and then boil something down to the essence. But for me, building a character from the solid ground of an archetype gives me the guardrails I need to take chances and push boundaries with my ideas.
By no means is this the right way—it's just my way. Regardless of whether you'd like to start building your characters using archetypes, I would argue that an understanding of them is important for your ability to conceptualize a character. As a fun challenge, try identifying the archetypes of the characters in the book or movie you're watching. Trust me: they are all built around archetypes!