by Fae Rowen
I am a plot-driven writer. The plot arrives first in my head, then I look for people who will survive and grow in that world.
My #1 concern? My characters MUST connect with my readers. To have the “best book ever” experience, your reader must believe in, root for, identify with, and, maybe even, cry or fall in love with your protagonist.
It’s not easy to meet people like this in real life, so why would we think it should be easy as a writer?
When I began taking writing classes, I was given lists and forms to fill out about my characters. Hair and eye color, education, ethnicity, birthplace, hobbies–you’ve seen those lists. They work for some people, but they didn’t work for me. My characters seemed flat, even though I “interviewed” them to find out their likes and dislikes.
I moved on to Debra Dixon’s Goal, Motivation, Conflict. That really helped flesh out my characters.
- Why did they get angry?
- Why did a certain song make them sad?
- What “floated their boat” and why?
Not all that backstory should be revealed, but a single line to motivate inner conflict goes a long way in exposing your character’s underbelly. And that’s what our readers need to feel the humanity in our heroes and heroines.
But what do you do when your critique partner says a character is flat? Or a contest sheet comes back with, “I didn’t connect with your heroine.” Junk the story and start over? No!
The characters you remember from your favorite books are complex. You know their wants, needs and desires. You know their fears, trials, and failures. You feel their joy and success.
What if you’re in the middle of a WIP and your character needs another layer or two? Chances are those layers are not going to materialize out of thin air.
When I purchased my Archetype Cards by Carolyn Myss, I never intended to use them for writing. But three years ago I took them to the Washington D.C. conference and with Laura, Jenny and Sharla, we realized they could be an excellent tool to assist with characterization.
Archetypes were first discussed in the time of Plato in Ancient Greece. Carl Jung firmed up and popularized the concept in the twentieth century.
Archetypes are part of everyone’s psyche. They may sit passively and come forward to make you aware of danger or dangerous behaviors or they may drive your life.
All archetypes have positive and negative attributes. When you recognize the patterns of an archetype, instead of ignoring the archetype, you can make it your friend and ally. According to Carolyn Myss, as humans, we share four common archetypes and should be able to identify eight more that make us who we are.
For instance, it will come as no surprise to those who know me that one of my archetypes is the Queen.
In the best cases, I assert my power, take charge of situations, delegate authority and act with regal benevolence. Nice, right? But wait. The “shadow” or negative Queen attributes include barking out orders, making impossible demands and lopping off heads. Ouch! I’ve done that, too.
Oh, I hear the writer in you waking up. You’re seeing the possibilities of starting with the shadow characteristics for a character and, through a variety of plot storms, showing the character arc to the positive attributes. For those of us who sometimes get stuck, this little tool can give us the traits we love to hate and show us how those patterns transmute into positive qualities.
Seventy-eight different archetype cards await you. They range from Actor to Wizard. There are also detailed explanations of the four archetypes we all share. Here’s a summary of our common archetypes:
1. The Child, including Wounded Child, Abandoned/Orphan Child, Magical/Innocent Child, Nature Child, Eternal Child, and the Dependent Child. You probably know which one you are–and which one you wish you were.
2. The Victim. No, not me! But when in your life have you not felt powerless, blamed someone else for what happened, or been just a little green with envy? When your protagonist feels powerless, how uplifting is it to see her take effective action? A character learning to take responsibility for his own actions makes us root louder for him to succeed.
3. The Saboteur. This is a tough one in real life, because it deals with self-betrayal and fear. Just the stuff good characters are made of. (Read Laura’s blog on your character’s fear.) Does your heroine allow others to speak for her? By the end of the book, when she finds her voice, your reader will stand up and cheer at her words.
4. The Prostitute. Nope, I’m not talking about the heart-of-gold saloon girl. Have you ever “sold out” to someone or an organization you didn’t believe in? Has your hero stayed in a position he disliked for financial reasons? What if your heroine felt herself pulled by circumstances into a situation where she’ll have to ignore her integrity and ethics, but is strong enough to say no and suffer the consequences? We’re going to root for her all the way through the book!
Here’s an example of the information on one card:
Architect, Builder, Designer, Schemer
- Grounded, orderly, strategic qualities give creative energy a practical expression
- Talent for engineering everyday situation or designing solutions to common dilemmas
- Look for a pattern of designing and building–structure, devices or solutions
- Master manipulator
- Designs situations to one’s own advantage, regardless of the needs of others
Do you have to buy the Archetype Cards? No!
You can think of three characteristics that make you love your protagonist. Then think of the antithesis of each. Take your character through your story from those negative characteristics to the positive aspects.
You’ll have a satisfying character arc, which means you’ve delivered a satisfying story to your reader. And isn’t that what you set out to do every time you sit down to write?
Do you have other unexpected ways to add depth to your characters and help you with their character arcs? We’d love to hear about them!