Character Roles and Archetypes in Fiction

Hi everyone. Previously we have spoken about the development of characters, but we have not yet spoken about the character roles and archetypes that you may find.

I will begin with the more familiar; character roles. It is generally accepted to be seven character roles in a narrative:

The Protagonist

This is the main character of the story and is often the one that is created in the most detail. When writing the protagonist, careful consideration of their backstory, character arc, and motivation. In most narrative, the point of view of the story is that of the protagonist and it is this character role that the readers become the most invested in.

The Antagonist

Don’t we all love a good villain? The antagonist is the villain of the story and must not be confused with an anti-hero. An example of a villain would be Sauron in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings, whereas an anti-hero is a character that may be immoral or wicked, but functions as a protagonist, for example, Harley Quinn in DC Comics.

The Deuteragonist

The second most important character after the protagonist. This role can often overlap with one of the other roles, such as the confidant, and can switch roles depending on the deuteragonist’s own story arc. They can begin the story as a supportive friend, but end the story as the protagonist’s opposition. This role is a grey area as it is often difficult to determine who the deuteragonist actually is. Much of it is up to the reader’s interpretation of who they feel the second most important character is and it may differ entirely from who you wrote to be the deuteragonist.

The Confidant

The best friend, the character that is closest to the protagonist and knows their secrets. Their function is given in the name, this is the character that your protagonist confides in and who is a natural part of their life. They are the character often used to help the protagonist work out problems by making plans, discussing difficulties and managing problems. It is with the support of the confidant and the interaction between the confidant and protagonist, that the protagonist’s personality can be shown in greater detail. 

The Love Interest

This character role is not one that has to be in your narrative. Your protagonist does not have to have an object of desire unless it is relevant to your story arc. If you do have a love interest in your story, ensure that they are compelling and fleshed out characters. A one-dimensional love interest will not provide much realism to the narrative and readers will not invest in a relationship that lacks depth.

The Foil

The opposite of the protagonist in values and characteristics. The primary function of the foil is to highlight the qualities of the protagonist.

Tertiary Characters

The ‘extras’ in the story. They can have varying degrees of character development and can perform multiple functions. They do not necessarily play a defining role in the main story arc but are additions that fill out the world of your story.

Not all of the character roles need to be filled all of the time, it does depend greatly on the type of story you are writing. Not all stories will have a love interest. At the same time, these character roles do not have to be filled by different characters. The deuteragonist may also be the antagonist, or the antagonist may also be the confidant. It is entirely up to you and the story that you are bringing to life.

Building further on the previous post of character development and now on character roles, we have character archetypes.

In a fictional narrative, characters can generally be categorized into archetypes. The archetypes were classified by Carl Jung, a Swiss Psychologist, Joseph Campbell, an American Literary Theorist and numerous other contributors in the spectrum of writing and storytelling. There are twelve archetypes that are commonly discussed;

The Lover: the romantic lead who’s guided by the heart. Their strengths include humanism, passion, and conviction. Their weaknesses include naivete and irrationality. 

The Hero: the protagonist who rises to meet a challenge and saves the day. Their strengths are courage, perseverance, and honor. Their weaknesses include overconfidence and hubris. 

The Magician: a powerful figure who has harnessed the ways of the universe to achieve their goals. Their strengths may include omniscience, omnipotence, and discipline, while their weaknesses center on corruptibility and arrogance. 

The Outlaw: the rebel who won’t abide by society’s demands. The outlaw can be a bad guy, but not always. The outlaw’s strengths include independent thinking and skepticism. Their weaknesses may include self-involvement and criminality. 

The Explorer: a character naturally is driven to push boundaries and find what’s next. Their strengths: They are curious, driven, and motivated by self-improvement. They are weak in that they are restless, unreliable, and never satisfied. 

The Sage: a wise figure with knowledge for those who inquire. Strengths of the sage include wisdom, experience, and insight. In terms of weakness, the sage may be overly cautious and hesitant to actually join the action. 

The Innocent: a morally pure character, often a child, whose only intentions are good. Their strengths range from morality to kindness to sincerity. Their weaknesses start with being vulnerable, naive, and minimally skilled. 

The Creator: a motivated visionary who creates art or structures during the narrative. Their strengths include creativity, willpower, and conviction. Their weaknesses include self-involvement, single-mindedness, and a lack of practical skills.

The Ruler: a character with legal or emotional power over others. The ruler’s strengths include omnipotence, status, and resources. Their weaknesses include aloofness, being disliked by others, and always seeming out of touch. 

The Caregiver: a character who continually supports others and makes sacrifices on their behalf. Among their strengths, caregivers are honorable, selfless, and loyal. Among their weaknesses, they lack personal ambition or leadership. Sometimes they even lack self-worth. 

The Everyman: a relatable character who feels recognizable from daily life. When it comes to strengths, they are grounded, salt-of-the-earth, and relatable. In terms of weaknesses, they typically lack special powers and are often unprepared for what’s to come. 

The Jester: an intentionally funny character who provides comic relief but may also speak important truths. Strengths include the ability to be funny, disarming, and insightful. Weaknesses include the capacity to be obnoxious and superficial. 

These can be divided further:

The Twelve Archetypes and Their Divisions

I love my antagonists and much of the time I put as much effort in to them as my protagonists. I get a great sense of satisfaction from writing a complex villain, where readers can’t quite decide if they are inherently bad or just molded into the villain by circumstance.

I do also have a predilection for writing more than one protagonist. Often, when I have two protagonists, they will switch between the protagonist and deuteragonist throughout the story depending on who is driving that section of the story.

I don’t write characters with a specific archetype in mind. I am sure there are some people that do, but being a discovery writer, planning is not my style. I am sure my characters fit into them somewhere, although I do also believe that any well rounded character will have elements of multiple archetypes, even if they gravitate towards one more than others.

A beautiful world will make a good book, but it is the characters that will make a great story.

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