Character Archetypes: A Shapeshifter, a Herald, and a Trickster Walk into a Bar…

…stop me if you’ve heard this one.

Hey, remember summer 2017?

Me neither.

If summer 2017 were a Game of Thrones character, it would be Ned Stark. Super nice with a promising future, then BAM! Decapitated by a bastard.

Winter is Coming.

While the rest of the country anticipates my favorite season of fall, I’m stuck down here in South Florida—the penis of the continental United States. And with that imagery, yes—it’s hot as balls down here.

The upside is that it’s football season, so when I’m not writing or editing for you fine folk, I’m screaming my head off at my sons’ football games. No joke—I’m that mom. Most of you know that already, but if you don’t, it’s important that you do. It’s one of my defining characteristics.

Writer. Editor. Screamer at children’s football games.

I mean, I SCREAM. They are blood-curdling, larynx-shredding wails. I sound like I am being murdered and everyone I know is simultaneously being murdered. It is a thousand degrees out there and I’m the idiot with goosebumps all over my body because wow, that was a good play!

I turn each game into The Red Wedding, and why all the GOT references?!

Oh, that’s right. Because I want to talk about characters. Duh.

A question was raised a few weeks ago by my girl Cassie about writing from the antagonist’s POV. The issue was that, as normal, kind-hearted civilians, we have a hard time getting into the minds of our villains, whether they are murderers, stalkers, rapists, or Lannisters.

Sorry, I’m done. I swear (to the gods).

I’ll suggest a small exercise, and if you feel inclined to do it, fine. If not, fuck you. Kidding.

As writers, we set boundaries. There are things we will and won’t write. I’m sure you all have a set of rules for yourself, whether conscious or unconscious, that you follow. I want you to think of one thing that you will never, ever, in a million years, write about. Hold that thought.

Now, back to Cassie’s initial question. I noticed a lot of comments underneath were along the lines of doing research or watching scary movies or listening to certain types of music. And while those are great if you’re writing a research paper on murderers/stalkers/rapists/Lannisters, as the author of the book and the creator of this character, you need to dig much deeper. You need to locate that character within yourself.

I know that sounds scary, because none of us are the aforementioned clusterfuck that I refuse to type out again, but guess what?

You are.

You’ve created that character. He has come from the marrow of your bones and the matter of your brain and the soul of your souls. If ANYONE knows that character, it’s you. And if you don’t give him the proper attention and let him express himself for who he is, you’re doing him an injustice, and ultimately, you’re doing your MC an injustice, as well.

So if you’re scared of your antagonist, it’s probably because you don’t fully understand his role in the story. You should be in his brain just as much as your MC’s, because his character is just as important as your protagonist.

Having that said, because we tend to focus mainly on developing our MC, we end up leaving the rest of our characters as supporting actor nominees. But each character should be just as defined, as they serve to thrust the plot along just as much as the MC.

On a side note—if you have a character that just seems to stand around and does nothing to further the plot, you need to Ned Stark his ass.

Christopher Vogler wrote a book called The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.

I went to a weekend-long conference on Character Arc & Archetype given by Joyce Sweeney and Jamie Morris a few years ago, and we utilized this book along with concepts from Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, who all used a mythological approach to defining and profiling all the types of characters we use in fiction, whether books, movies, theater, etc. It was the shit. Truly one of my favorite writing conferences EVER.

While I strongly recommend buying the book, I want to break down ten main archetypes:

  • Hero: Your main character, your protagonist. This person is put into a crappy situation, and is forced to pursue a specific goal. She will face various challenges and experience many failures and triumphs in effort to achieve this goal. This is the character with whom we, the readers, identify the most.
  • Shadow: The main bad guy, the antagonist—the one who wants your protagonist to fail his/her quest. The antagonist acts as the mirror of your MC, as in—when your MC gains strength, so does your antagonist. This person has a goal of her own, as well. And it is generally the opposite of what your protagonist is trying to achieve.
  • Ally: This is your MC’s trusty sidekick, the one who supports her goal and encourages her along her quest. She generally has talents that the MC lacks, making her a valuable resource and an alter-ego of sorts. (Side note: I like to base mine on how my MC would be if she were perfect and in normal circumstances.)
  • Threshold Guardian: Also known as the Rival. This is different from the antagonist, because a rival actually has the same goal as the protagonist. The rival is much less threatening than the antagonist, because the rival serves more as a competition or complication for our MC. Think of Draco Malfoy, whom a lot of us hate, but he’s not the true enemy in the end.
  • Mentor: This is the person that guides your MC with wisdom and knowledge that the MC lacks while pursuing her quest. It’s on a higher level than the sidekick, however. Think Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid or Atticus in To Kill A Mockingbird. Dumbledore! Haymitch!
  • Trickster: The jokester, the clown. This is a character who is hard to trust, because he/she is constantly manipulating characters to help assist other characters, and to give egocentric characters a reality check. This generally is neither a good guy nor a bad guy—he doesn’t fall into either category. Think Tyrion Lannister, or Jack Sparrow. Dobby from Harry Potter. If you’re familiar with mythology, Hermes—the god of thievery.
  • Herald: This person is generally a type of messenger, and serves to move the story along by internally signaling to the hero that he/she needs to change somehow. The herald is usually active in the beginning of the story, since he/she is generally the one who proclaims the “call to action.” Effie Trinket in The Hunger Games.
  • Shapeshifter: This is like the character of many faces—the wildcard. Shapeshifters usually serve as a “slap in the face” to the MC, forcing her to confront her feelings or her stance on good and evil, and ultimately instilling some self-realization. They represent loyalty—trust vs. mistrust—because they are, well, two-faced. These are a little more difficult to pin-point, as many characters can act as a Shapeshifter here and there, but Snape is a classic Shapeshifter. Then there’s the obvious: Jaqen H’ghar.
  • Lover*: Pretty self-explanatory, especially for all you romance readers. One goal of a Lover that is often overlooked is that he helps pull the MC further into the special world of her quest.
  • Precious Child*: This doesn’t always have to be an actual child, just something that is near and dear to the MC’s heart. Something that often is the source of her quest. This character is used to raise the stakes because the MC is willing to sacrifice almost anything to save it/him/her. If you’ve read Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris, Millie is the perfect example of this.

*These last two aren’t listed in Vogler’s book; however, they are character types that are often utilized in literature, both ancient and modern.

You don’t have to have each one of these archetypes in your book, but I can guarantee that each of your characters fits into at least one (if not more!) of these categories. Take a minute to determine which archetype each of your characters symbolizes. Also, there are soooo many more sub-personalities and archetypes in the book, so please. Just get it.

Now here is the fun part. Let’s do a little writing exercise by mixing and matching. If you have a Lover in your story, write a paragraph or two of him/her as a trickster.

Now do the same thing with your sidekick, and write him/her as a rival.

Write about your mentor as your antagonist.

Uncomfortable, isn’t it? You’re feeling out of your realm, bending literary joints and muscles in directions they’re not meant to go…

Does this remind you of when you try to write from your villain’s POV? Do you feel like you can write your antagonist as a protagonist?

Now, remember that thing you thought of earlier? The one you said you’d never, ever, in a million years, write about?

Go write it.


5 thoughts on “Character Archetypes: A Shapeshifter, a Herald, and a Trickster Walk into a Bar…”

  1. Your posts…amazing. Every. Single. One.

    I can’t wait to try this exercise. Thank you for making it so clear.

    Halfway through this post, I decided in my head who you were. And you confirmed it with your hastag. Thank you, Tyrion Lannister. <– I'm pretty sure he's not a Lannister, btw. 😉

    1. I’m not sure I’d classify Tyrion as a trickster, though. Littlefinger…he was a trickster.

      1. Ha! I hope he’s not. But as it is, I’m forced to call him Tyrion Lannister until it can be proved otherwise. And yes, he is definitely a trickster, but Littlefinger was also a variation of one. However, I would peg Littlefinger more of a Shapeshifter.

  2. Traci, seriously I can’t get enough of your posts!!

    By the way my mum is the same, gurantee you could always hear her screaming over a crowd of people when we had athletics, or when my brother was diving.
    Now she’s the same with my nephews and niece but we love her even more for it.

    I’m going to try this exercise, I’ll have to grab that book too, thank you.

    Ps I don’t think Tyrion is a Lannister…

    1. LOL That is so cute! I’m sure I’ll be the same way when I’m old and have grandchildren…

      PS – I hope not.

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