The valiant knight, the thief with a heart of gold, the scheming minister, the happy fool. These, and more, are all archetypes. What is an archetype? It is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as:
1) The original pattern or model of which all things of the same type are representations or
2) Psychology: An inherited idea or mode of thought in the psychology of C.G. Jung that is
derived from the experience of the (human) race and is present in the unconscious of the
Ergo, an archetype is a pattern, in this case, of character, of which the general population of
humanity is aware, and innately recognizes without having to be told. Archetypes are very useful in the deliniation of your story. What we want to know is: who does what and why. It is helpful then, if we can use archetypes to form the basics of character interactions.
The valiant knight goes on a quest to slay the dragon in order to save the princess. The theif
with a heart of gold outwits and steals from the evil king to provide prosperity to the kind and goodly peasants. These are fairly simple examples, explored in the folktales of Saint George and the Dragon and Robin Hood, respectively. Archetype, as a model or mold in which to construct your story, is like the frame of a house. It allows you as writer to see the general shape of your story construction, and provides the audience the ability to quickly gather an expectation of what this particular character represents, or is supposed to represent. Character does just about everything else, and the most dynamic characters break the mold of archetype.
Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Predjudice, Lancelot in The Once and Future King, Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, Hector in The Illiad. These are all fully-realized and deeply nuanced characters. It is for this reason that we feel for them when they fail, cheer for them when they succeed, and fear for them when they are in danger. If you have ever read a book or seen a film where a character dies or is otherwise greatly wronged, and as a result, you had to put the book down or pause the film in order to dry your tears and collect yourself before going on, then you have experienced character. Archetype does not create this kind of emotional response. If you have never experienced this, perhaps reconsider your choice of books or movies.
For our purposes, character is defined by Webster's as:
1) One of the attributes or features that make up and distinguish an individual.
• Main or essential nature especially as strongly marked and serving to distinguish.
2) One of the persons of a drama or novel.
• A person marked by notable or conspicuous traits.
So, what we see is that character is comprised of a person's distinguishing traits which are
especially marked so as to make them recognizable from others in the same story. I intend to elaborate on it in a future post, but it is important to avoid having the same type of characters present in the same story. You do not need two Evil Kings. You do not need two Damsels-in-Distress, or all-conquering Amazons. There are exceptions of course (where would the fun be without those), but in general, it is confusing to the audience, and tends to undermine the strengths of both characters. Rather, their distinctions are what help to drive the conflict. I will use the example of Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott. In it, you have two valiant knights, Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe, and Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert (what a mouthful). Both are undoubtedly accomplished, brave, and strong believers in their sworn duties. They are both religious, aristocratic men, who are eloquent, charming and knowledgable of the world. In their archetype, they are virtually identical, the very nature of their knightly status requires all of these things. That's where character comes in. Whereas Sir Wilfred, in spite of his high birth and great accomplishments as a knight and a healer, is humble, generous, self-effacing, a peace-maker, and wary of the trappings of pride; Sir Brian is arrogant, grasping, glory-seeking, violent, and haughty because of his high birth and accomplishments. Moreover, Sir Brian wants everyone else to think he is great as well, while Sir Wilfred believes that service is its own reward. Once these two come into contact, their differences drive them into conflict, from which only one may arise victorious, each striving to prove what it truly means to be a knight. Both characters are dynamic, but it is their particular characteristics which break
the mold and bounds of their archtypes, setting them apart as characters. It is possible to have a story using only archtypes instead of fully-fleshed out characters. Children's cartoons often do this, as do sketch shows. Indeed, archetype is a very powerful tool in the
creation of comedy because of its loose nature, which allows for quick and snappy reversals. When archetypal characters show up on the stage or screen, but have no further characterization, we call them 'stock characters', and they are there mostly to serve the plot or deliver important information more than anything else. However, in order to create true dynamic tension and conflict, or to present the audience with a story from which they may derive catharsis or a particularly relevatory conclusion, you must 'color in the lines' of your archetypal character with the particulars of what sets them apart from every other character in your story. Without these defining features, your story-house is incomplete, and remains a skeletal frame.