Photo Credit: Careful by Wes Peck

I’ve always had the good fortune of knowing people with big personalities, but when I first started writing fiction seriously I refused to allow myself to be inspired by anyone I knew. I was afraid that if I allowed real people to inform my characters they would recognize themselves immediately and object to the way I portrayed them.

From what I hear, it’s a fairly common fear. Even Agatha Christie limited herself to only being inspired by people she’d never spoken to. But I took it even further. No one I’d even scene was allowed to influence a story. When I was working on my thesis novel, it took serious courage to put a programmer who wears a pirate hat in the story after I passed a group of geeky students in pirate hats on the sidewalk.

It’s difficult enough to find enough material to fill a novel when you allow yourself to be inspired by anything, and I quickly found that taking such an extreme stance was unsustainable. Since a good character–one that feels like a person instead of a puppet or a role–is one that we recognize, cutting out personal experience in character building practically condemned me to writing cardboard characters. Getting past that fear is still one of my growing edges, but one of the ways I’ve learned to work around it is to begin the character building process with archetypes rather than real people.

Archetype comes from the Greek for “primitive” and “model,” like the wooden mannequins artists use as models. They are specific enough to give you a rough idea of a character’s role and vague enough to have lots of room for an interesting personality to develop. I find that they make a particularly satisfying place holder in a rough draft.

Building a Catalog of Archetypes

I started working with archetypes when I encountered the Hero’s Journey in Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey.

The hero’s journey is a simplified version of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces and contains eight archetypes:

  • Hero
  • Shadow
  • Mentor
  • Herald
  • Threshold guardian
  • Shapeshifter
  • Allies

If you’ve never worked with archetypes before, the Hero’s Journey is a great place to start, but I quickly found it limiting. Not every protagonist is a hero or even a heroine, and I was uncomfortable with the idea that characters exist in relation to the hero. That might be true from the hero’s perspective, true, but good characters are protagonists in their own stories, and I didn’t find room for that in this model.

From there, I moved on to looking for patterns in fairy tales and mythology. When I started looking at characters through this lens, I started to see archetypes everywhere. Jane Eyre is Cinderella in disguise. So many monster in the house movies are just retellings of Hansel and Gretel. The myth of the goddess Inanna is the original model for Girl Underground stories.

The problem with looking for archetypes in stories, especially when looking at modern examples, is that it’s sometimes difficult to see the primitive model under a well-developed character. This is particularly a danger when many writers are inspired by the same model and a single version of an archetype threatens to overwhelm the rough model underneath. (How many mentors look like Gandalf?) Additionally, it is sometimes also difficult to separate a character archetype from an archetypal plot. Who is Cinderalla? She’s the abused girl who ends up a princess, right? But that’s what happened to her. Who is she? She could be anybody. I wanted a model that would help me develop a character’s personality.

For the past few years the best work I’ve done with archetypes has come from studying the Tarot. When most people think of Tarot, they think of someone like T.S. Eliot’s Madame Sosostris telling the future in “The Waste Land,” but scholars have been examining the connections between Tarot and mind for many years. The idea of using a stack of cards to tell the future makes me uncomfortable, but the images in the Tarot draw on the same pool of archetypes that are found in myths, fairy tales, and modern stories, but unlike most stories, a traditional Tarot deck has 78 cards, and once you get 78 of anything you’re almost forced to go past the obvious. Instead of one archetype for a powerful man, there are eight. Instead of one strong woman, there are nine. That kind of diversity encourages me to think more deeply than descriptors like “power hungry.” Is he power hungry like the magician or interested justice like the Emperor? Is she strong because she’s a survivor or because she’s wise?

And best of all the cards have yet to be offended by the way I wrote them in a story.