Where The Rubber Meets the Road — Creating Characters with Tropes and Archetypes

One of the hardest darlings to kill are our pet characters. Characters require a great deal of investment of time and words. Unnecessary characters can easily derail an otherwise smooth story. Unfortunately, if a character isn’t pulling their own narrative weight, we can’t afford to keep them. In order to avoid this editorial heartache, I will focus on what story needs a character will fulfill during prewriting. Those who come up short get cut before I invest in them emotionally.

Take as an example my character of George in The Girl with the Artist’s Eyes published in the One Horn to Rule them All anthology. When I created Catalina and Walter, I realized that their personalities and character objectives would imbalance the plot. By herself, Catalina had neither the physical nor social presence to overpower Sams. In addition, I was unable to change either character without ruining what I was aiming to do with their individual arcs. And so, George was created to fill the role of Catalina’s side kick.

With a clear need established, I sketched out George’s character in broad strokes by invoking tropes and archetypes. For instance, George needed motivation to help my protagonist, and so I made him her Best and Truest Friend. However, I also wanted him to empathize with Walter, especially the absurdity of the situation. And so, I mixed in a bit of the Class Clown and Prankster archetypes. Though those three aspects were sufficient for a character in a short story, the process needed not end there. By layering and blending tropes and archetypes, it is possible to create a character complex enough for any length of work.

Once I had George’s character sketch, I began to round him out by digging into the details of his past and personality. However, this process proved to be more complex than simply adding trivia to his character profile. Though hair color may be an important descriptor, being a brunette rarely informs character. Instead, it was essential to determine what aspects made George unique amongst a crowd of sidekicks. In addition, I looked for how his fundamental composition created internal, external, and interpersonal conflict. Through adding details I was able to both highlight and smooth over incongruities to create a believably complex and well-rounded character.

In their raw forms and taken individually, tropes and archetypes can be clichéd. However, when cleverly combined and altered with the right sort of details, they form the basis of something entirely new and interesting. For me, characters offer a unique opportunity for that sort of manipulation. Though tropes and archetypes have a strong presence in the realms of milieu, story idea, and plot, I find that all of these elements often revolve around character. After all, it is through the PoV that the reader interacts with the milieu and by the PoV’s choices that the plot is driven. It seems wise, therefore, to be extra thoughtful about that character’s most basic makeup.


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