Beyond the Words Episode 20: Archetypes, with Maren Robison

Beyond the Words Episode 19: Cliches, with Duncan Smith
September 7, 2017
Beyond the Words Episode 21: Building the Villain You Love to Hate
September 22, 2017

Join Holly as she discusses the pros and cons of the Archetype, and how to adjust them to your story. Includes a review of “The Circle” by Cindy Cipriano at the end.

For a copy of The Circle, click here


Archetypes are different to clichés in a few fundamental ways. While clichés are phrases that have entered the lexicon and lost their meanings through overuse, the Archetype has not. There are a few archetypal characters and settings, depending on your genre. I’m going to stick to the genres I know best, as that is where I see the biggest room for improvement.

Let’s give a very quick example of an archetype and a cliché, so you can separate them in your mind. The Hero Gets the Girl is the cliché – the hero himself is the archetype. You can have many different forms of heroes – from the super, to the anti, to the hansom – but each archetype comes with its own dangers.

The Hero

You know the guy, he’s the dashing prince charming shimmying up the walls of a castle to save the princess, defeating a dragon, and riding off into the sunset together. He’s usually the nicest guy around, and has a charm streak a mile wide. Think Prince Charming or Peter Pan.

Sometime the Hero isn’t so much a hero, he’s just there in the forefront, doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. Think Wolverine or Deadpool, Rincewind or Death from the Discworld universe. They’re not heroes by any means, but they do have a few heroic tendencies. They just like to do things on their own.

The Damsel

The princess locked in the tower, surrounded by molten lava, whose job it is to wait around being rescued. She’s usually very pretty and well-bred, with parents of noble-or-higher standing. Think Sleeping Beauty, or Rapunzel.

The Guide

The wise person whose job it is to advise the hero and, when the time calls for it, sacrifices himself for the Hero. He’s usually an old man, but can sometimes be an old woman. Think Gandalf, Obi Won and Dumbledore.

The Villain

He’s the big baddie, the one who is causing so much trouble for your characters. Keep an eye on this one – he’s guaranteed to monologue, and more than willing to shoot a minion for his own mistakes. Think Scar, Captain Hook, Ursula, Cruella DeVille… You know the type.

The Sidekick

There’s one man who stands by the hero for all his worth, and who is usually used for comic relief. He’s the guy your hero can depend on, with the biggest heart. This place can sometimes be taken by an animal. Think Timon and Pumbaa, Samwise Gamgee, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger.


Those are the five main Archetypes used in fiction. You can’t think of these characters taking place outside of a fantasy realm? Consider Sherlock Holmes: Holmes himself the hero, Moriarty the villain, Irene Adler the Damsel with Sherlock in knots, Lestrade as the Guide, and of course, John Watson as the Sidekick.

You can’t find those in crime fiction, you say?

Take Patricia Cornwell’s works. Kay Scarpetta is the Hero, that’s a given. Pete Marino is the Guide, Lucy Farinelli the Damsel. The villains can be found with a different face every book. Who is the Sidekick? Well, as Kay Scarpetta doesn’t work so well with others, and this isn’t a buddy-cop movie, this slot is, generally, blank.

Archetypes are everywhere, in every genre. Even in the settings. A high-fantasy in a forest with elves, a crime fiction in some dirty, dingy alley, science fiction in space, and a slave ring that takes the main character as a member for a while. Mix it up a little – stick your high-fantasy into space, or into the dark alley. Shuffle your options – you might be surprised.

Have a look at your work, and identify your archetypes. Do you have any of these? Have you done anything to make them stand out, to make your archetypes less typical, and more you?

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