As part of my ongoing posts on understanding character archetypes, here are my next three examples to study. Last week’s entry was for the Hero, the Leader and the Mentor, for those catching up, it might help to read that post first.
The next three characters are predominantly used for the protagonist in a story; however, they all make fine antagonists.
1. The apprentice, student, innocent, orphan, ward, or ingénue:
This younger character is often looking for someone (like a mentor or leader) to mold them. These are characters wishing to both fit in, and to stand on their own two feet. They often hope to prove something and they can expend a lot of energy on trying to make someone care about them. An intense single minded focus or a need for approval, revenge, status, etc can be their undoing. Of today’s three archetypes the apprentice is the least likely to be the antagonist in a story. The exceptions to this rule are the apprentice learning from the antagonist mentor, or the apprentice waiting for a chance to betray the mentor and execute their own evil addenda. By far the best group of films to study for the apprentice relationship is the Star Wars franchise. The Skywalker boys make fine examples of both the positive and negative apprentice relationship model. It’s possible to map out all the interconnected mentor-apprentice relationships and watch how they change and evolve when you study all the films. Yes, there really are that many, and they reach right down to the droids R2D2 and C3PO. No, I will not tell you which one is the apprentice, but I’m sure you can figure it out.
Anyone sagging under the burden of life, dealing with their pain sardonically or with grumpy disdain for everything around them, is a curmudgeon. Curmudgeons can easily function in the role of protagonist or antagonist. This character can be the lovable, funny person, who despite stubbornly seeing every aspect of life as a glass half-empty; we still enjoy as a character. Alternatively, this character can be so rye, sharp and heartsick, that their disagreeable nature generates ire wherever they go, including with readers who likely feel only pity for them. It’s hard to write a lovable angry, disagreeable, curmudgeon, but it is possible. Some curmudgeons we find fascinating because of superior intellect, or a unique insight into human behavior. To study the funny curmudgeon, watch the film Grumpy Old Men. For a less funny version, watch episodes of House M.D. or study Melinda May from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for a great female grump.
3. The brains, mastermind, inventor, visionary, or genius:
Fictional intellectuals (like real ones) are usually brainy in a few areas and clueless in a number of others. Frequently, it’s from their lacking areas that a reader can find them endearing. Brains tend to be in constant motion, if not physically, then through interior monologue. They’re constantly plotting, planning, acting or reacting to their own complicated thought processes. The stereotypes for the brainy character are too many to count, like the computer savvy guy with the low social esteem and the mismatched socks. Or the angry brain, who lives life constantly disappointed in the lack of other people’s intellect and feels the need to belittle others. Some brains love the spotlight, and will seek recognition or fierce conflict with rivals to prove how smart they are. A discreet, shy version of the brain might be happier flying under the radar, perhaps even letting others take credit for their inventions. The brain can be a great original character, and works equally well for a protagonist or an antagonist. To study all types of brains at work, watch the BBC’s Sherlock.
All character archetypes should be a blend of positive attributes and flawed ones. As writers it’s helpful if we mix up these common traits, perhaps by blending traits from several archetypes in fresh ways. Try the curmudgeon/leader, the brainy/apprentice, or the hero/mentor.
Up Next from Robin…. Seven Favorite Sidekick Character Archetypes