Tea & Empathy for Writers

February 8, 2019                                                          

Creating Characters – 1

February’s Mini Class deals with the role of characters in fiction. We will look at recognized archetypes in fiction, unique versus universal characters, dark protagonists, antagonists, character arcs, conflict, sidekicks, and voice – Whew!

Creating characters is loads of fun, the creative process at its pinnacle. What do you do in the mall, the doctor’s office, church, traffic?  You notice the people around you, possibly covertly, but you’re watching. We all are. Everyone around you is a character and in the South, in case you didn’t know, a character is someone truly unique. Someone who may keep you laughing with them or at them, but always someone of interest. (Think Ouiser Boudreaux in Steel Magnolias or Festus in Gunsmoke.)

Universal character archetypes in literature embody those experiences shared by all of us — love, birth, death, struggle. These attributes are those that trigger intellectual and emotional reactions when we read about a serial killer who was a child locked in a dark closet, an athlete who breaks their back on a ski slope, a Jane Eyre, or a Titanic lost love.

Universal Character Archetypes   
(lists abound; here are five of my favorites)


Hero:   Classic good character bound by choice to the moral high ground, struggling to save the world from injustice or evil. Transfer into a story worth reading: challenge their integrity, but they remain stalwart. Katniss in Hunger Games, Batman, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, Atticus Finch and Scout To Kill a Mockingbird

Innocent Child:   Inexperienced, trusting, coming of age struggle, resourceful. Transfer into a story worth reading: compromise their safety. Pip Great Expectations, Dorothy Wizard of Oz, Huckleberry Finn, Jonas The Giver, Oliver Twist

Mentor:  Protects the protagonist, gives sage advice, a wise/loving father or mother personae, a wizened older person, frequently a fallen hero. Transfer into a story worth reading: show their weaknesses. Gandalf Lord of the Rings, Hagrid in Harry Potter, Yoda Star Wars, Watson Sherlock, Mrs. Whatsit A Wrinkle in Time, Fairy Godmother Cinderella, Father Merrin The Exorcist

Doppelganger:  Shows the other self, which they may not exist. Excellent tool to reveal complex characters. Transfer into a story worth reading: show both “sides” equally. Victor Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Roger Chillingworth The Scarlett Letter, William Wilson [Poe], The Incredible Hulk

Magician:  Inquisitive, egotistical, odd, genius that likes to adjust the universe in their image. Transfer into a story worth reading: expose their hubris to other humans who are in awe. Jay Gatsby The Great Gatsby, Sherlock Holmes, Snape Harry Potter, Frank Underwood House of Cards, Huey Long All the King’s Men.      https://www.storyboardthat.com/articles/e/doppelganger

TIP:   I strongly suggest you keep a list of your characters’ vital information close at hand. It’s easy to forget exactly what you decided, as you move through the chapters or other books in a series. Odds are that her hair was fiery red, and three chapters down, you mentioned her glowing blonde locks. Why? Because we often change our characters during the developmental stages. I find hair and eye color changes often as I edit, as well as name changes.  One thing I suggest to my clients is that if a color or name or other feature keeps returning to the page, that’s probably your muse or heart telling you what it should be.

We live in a highly visual age, which means writers have a prime opportunity to see how to get into a story quickly, stage it through the difficult middle, and get out with a dangling end for the next show, a humorous end to bring the tension to a close, the world safe again, and/or a solid connection to the characters who kept your attention.

So, watch television and movies and learn. Who, after all, created the shows and movies? WRITERS! See how they did it.

I’m a big fan of serial books and a few television shows. It’s amazing to watch how characters grow and develop over time in these mediums. When I try an author new to me and find a lot to like, it’s not unusual for me to go back to the beginning of the series to watch the characters develop, and thanks to Netflix, I can also do that with a TV series. Many, I find, are too archetypical in character and setting, and I move on to lusher places. One thing about checking out earlier books is finding that the writer, who is now rich and famous, wrote like the rest of us when they began. I find that comforting.

Unique Characters

Many of the books I mentioned in Universal Characters are also quite unique. Others are, well, universal in their particulars. Unique is frequently in sidekicks or secondary characters (more on this next time) but there are plenty of uniquely dark protagonists in classic literature and the numbers seem to grow more every day. Southern Gothic, Apocalyptic, and Sci-Fi fiction abound with some of the most unique protagonists that may, or may not, make your question your psychological well-being.

The prospect of redeeming factors lurking under these protagonists’ personas seems to be a reason for their popularity. Maybe it’s because the world is either birthing a larger proportion of these types, and we want to believe they can’t possibly be that harsh, or the reading and watching public has changed more than I want to believe, but I’ve gotten into “I” territory, so let’s turn to some highly unusual characters.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the other two books in that series by Stieg Larsson   introduced a wealth of quirky characters, not the least of which is Lisbeth, the protagonist. Violent in the extreme, grim, mysterious, exceptionally intelligent, covered in black and chains and piercings, it’s a feat of determination to learn to value her. And the quirky Lisbeth is a blend of all five archetypes mentioned above.

Hero: Lisbeth is on a mission to save the world from the monsters who assembled the injustices done to her and changed her from an innocent child into a damaged young woman.

Innocent Child: Lisbeth is buried in coming of age struggles, brilliant, and resourceful in the extreme.

Mentor: Lisbeth is discovered by the other protagonist in the story, Mikael Blomkvist, and they mentor each other, using the strengths and weaknesses in both to ultimately solve a very twisted series of subplots.

Doppelganger: Lisbeth is indeed a complex character, which knows her dark side and has no knowledge of her other side – the exact opposite of what most archetypical doppelgangers are like (think Dr. Jekyll.)

Magician: Lisbeth has all of these traits, believing the universe is a perverse place.

Other unique characters that make us all cringe are Bull Meecham in The Great Santini who defines the term bully. Norman Bates in Psycho. Hannibal Lecter in Red Dragon. Annie Wilkes in Misery. Cruella de Vil in The Hundred and One Dalmatians. Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter.

And I’m sure you could add many more. But, unique characters are also those we love,  –and please don’t scan this list and go on – such as:    

Pippi Longstocking


Inspector Clouseau Pink Panther

Neo The Matrix

George Bailey It’s A Wonderful Life

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial

Bilbo Baggins

Rocky Balboa

Forrest Gump

Captain Jack Sparrow The Pirates of the Caribbean

Edward Scissorhands

John McClane Die Hard

Stephanie Plum Janet Evanovich series

 You will find it an especially helpful learning experience if you take some of these lists of characters and their stories and connect to some of these archetype links on the web to see how easily you can identify which archetype they fit and which you want to try on your characters.   https://blog.reedsy.com/12-common-character-archetypes-every-writer-should-already-know/

Stephen King has written that his plots come to him first and then he creates characters to fit them. It may be his genre of books or that’s the way his muse works. For many authors, their characters appear first with a comment like, “Let me tell you a story.”

As you blend the psychological, sociological, and physical features to mold your characters, use these archetype resources to begin and then go crazy, adding and subtracting until you have anything but a stock character. Can you imagine how boring it would be if in each genre, there were a list of stock characters and those were the only characters your story could use?

Enduring stories that compel us to keep reading and call us back to read the book again may have used one of the archetypes listed above; however, if you take the time to study and think about them, you’ll discover that it was the twists the author added to thwart the characters, which illuminated the story and made it pop. Those authors gave the readers something fresh and new. You never would have heard of Alice if she hadn’t fallen asleep and found that rabbit hole.

Study your characters and Right Like You Mean It!    Mahala