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Character Archetypes

by Dan Acuff Ph.D.

“Great characters make great stories”.

For sure you’ve heard this slice of storytelling wisdom. Quite true. Great characters married with a unique and compelling plotline and effective writing can be your ticket into the world of published authors.

Now let’s up the odds. Let’s add an important element into the character mix: character ARCHETYPES. Character archetypes are character types that have remained constant down through the ages. There has always been a king, for example, along with his queen and cadre of princes, princesses and warriors. There have always been heroes and villains and jesters.

Here is a listing of most of the possible archetypes:


An examination of the character archetypes in the hugely successful Star Wars series reveals a brilliant use of archetypes. We have two wise old men in Yoda and Obie Wan Kenobi. We have the hero (prince) Luke Skywalker and his Princess Leia. There is one of the greatest villains of all time in Darth Vader and a quite attractive rebel in Hans Solo. Add to this the jester, C3PO and the genius R2D2 along with the brute/beast archetype of Chewbaca and great character archetypes abound.

In the children’s story arena, look at Winnie the Pooh. Pooh is a loveable and innocent buffoon mixed with a bit of the unlikely not quite hero. Piglet is a great innocent also and sidekick. Owl is wise – questionably - and Eeyore is the nay-saying simpleton.

The enduring successes of many Disney stories is in large part due to effective character types. Mickey Mouse is heroic – and this quality is combined with a certain innocence. Goofy is aptly named as a jester, and Huey, Louie and Dewey are the mischievous kids. Oilcan Harry stands out as a villain in early Disney. Heralded as one of the greatest Disney stories is the Lion King. All the archetypical pieces are in place here. The innocent lion cub, Simba, the murdered king and father archetype, Mufasa, the loving mother Sarabi, the treacherous villain Uncle Scar, the wise advisor baboon, Rafiki, and the jesters in Timon and Pumbaa.

When you sit down to first put pen to paper, characters and character archetypes are a solid place to start. Most stories have a central character. What archetype? Hero? Innocent? Warrior like Max in Where the Wild Things Are? What is the central character’s goal and what character archetype stands in his way, if any? Can you bring in the fun that a jester archetype provides?

It’s all about identification, drama/conflict and fun. There are essentially five types of identification – or ways that readers relate to characters:

* Nurturing Identification: The reader is drawn to nurture or be nurtured by a character.
* Like Me: The reader experiences a character to be like himself/herself.
* Emulatory: The reader wants to be like the character in some ways.
* Entertaining: The reader is simply entertained by this archetype.
* Disidentification: The reader is attracted to or repelled by (or both) a villain character.

Given the central idea and theme of your story, a key is to determine which character archetypes will bring about which kinds of identification.

Children’s stories often have only a few characters. The dynamic between these characters, that is how they interrelate with each other, is largely a function of their archetypes. Using the chart above, think your archetypes through and create your cast of characters with the archetypes firmly in mind.

All rights reserved Dr. Dan Acuff

Note: Dr. Dan Acuff is a globally recognized expert on products and programs for kids and youth. As a consultant he has worked with over 50 major corporations such as Disney, Mattel, Hasbro, Scholastic, Western Publishing, Lucas Film, Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox and Nickelodeon. He is author of What Kids buy and Why – The Psychology of Marketing to Kids.

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