Eight Character Archetypes, Then and Now

Four years ago, I wrote a blog post on my old Mad Chronicler site called “Who’s Who? The 8 Character Archetypes.” I’ve been thinking about it a lot, lately. Four years is a long time for any individual writer, and even in the bookish community, our understanding of tropes and archetypes can shift in that time-frame. So, I thought it would be interesting to return to my old archetypes post, both as an individual writer and as compared to some of the newer archetype theories that are floating around on the internet.

To begin, I wanted to say that this post was inspired by recent YouTube videos I have seen that mentioned a new character archetype: the contagonist. I will describe later on in the blog post what a contagonist is and what function they serve in the narrative, but the idea of the contagonist was coined by Dramatica, and it’s their eight character archetypes that I will be referencing in regard to the more “present-day” theories.

A warning: I’m going to be using Wheel of Time for my examples, as its massive cast allows for many a case study. With the TV show soon to come out and people delving into the series for the first time, I will be actively trying to avoid any spoilers, but I can’t make any guarantees, especially for the first book or two. I’ll drop an asterisk in front of paragraphs that discuss WoT so you can choose whether or not to read them.

Old Theories vs. New

1. The Hero vs. Protagonist

The hero/ine has been a longstanding icon of the fantasy genre. Conceptually, the hero and the protagonist serve the same function. Dramatica defines them as the driver of the story, who forces the action simply by acting. Because the story revolves around the protagonist, they are the character we root for, and often, we see them pitted against an evil they must overcome, and their bravery and steadfastness gives them a heroic person.

In recent years, however, the desire for rounded-out characters has grown, and to round them out, characters need to be given flaws and flawed ways of thinking. They need to make mistakes so that they can involve, and their questionable motives, while sometimes troubling, still turns them into a unique character. As a result, hero feels less of an accurate term than protagonist, as protagonist is a morally neutral term that does not inherently imply that a reader should immediately root for them.

*Consider Wheel of Time. While the likes of Egwene, Perrin, Mat, and a few others could be considered protagonists, Rand al’Thor is the one who will, in the end, serve the biggest function of the narrative. If he fails, so will the world, and the tension weighs heavily on him. He starts off as an innocent sheepherder, one who is easy to root for because of that innocence, but the farther along he goes, the more responsibility he must weather, and the more his motives and decisions grow questionable. Especially as we get closer to the end, Rand no longer feels quite like the heroic figure we hoped he’d become, and we the readers get worried for his well-being.

2. The Shadow vs. Antagonist

For as long as there’s been a hero, there’s been someone they’ve had to pit themselves up against. The traditional “shadowy” character is one whose motives are carelessly direct. For Dramatica, they are a problem to be solved or a force to be overcome.

If recent years have demanded our protagonists grow from “pure white” to “morally gray,” then our antagonists have done the same, but mirrored. In the recent trends to humanize characters, many a reader, myself included, find that evil for the sake of evil is no longer compelling. The stakes feel higher if the antagonist is justified. It turns the story away from the idea of morality; if the reader thinks both characters have rights to their desires, then whether the protagonist succeeds or fails, something is still invariably lost.

*The main Shadow in Wheel of Time is, of course, the Dark One. His strings can be found everywhere, in every bit of chaos. As an antagonist, he represents pure evil. He would destroy the entire world, the entire Pattern, if he was given half a chance, and it’s that desire that our main characters are trying to thwart. But as a character, his motives are very one-dimensional. Compared to Rand and practically every single other character, even those who only get one point of view scene, our big bad villain is as thin and lifeless as cardboard.

3. The Mentor vs. Guardian

The mentor and guardian serve one simple function: teach the protagonist how to survive in the world they have now entered. This character can also fall in with the wizened old wizard trope. They represent the foundational lessons that the protagonist needs to learn before they have any chance of going against the antagonist. For Dramatica, the guardian also serves the function of protecting the protagonist and illuminating their path, at least until the protagonist is able to do so on their own.

Unlike the previous two archetypes, a mentor character is not required, even in a fantasy setting. Another character may temporarily assume this role, or perhaps the cast of main characters collaborate to see themselves to safety. The most prominent example that comes to mind is Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, as the cast of six are in a position where they can rely on no one but themselves, and only they can protect each other.

*In Eye of the World, especially, Moiraine serves more as a guardian than a mentor, because her main function is to keep all of the companions out of the hands of the Shadow. It isn’t until later that Moiraine is likewise given the status of mentor, helping Rand learn what duties he must see to.

4. The Threshold Guardian vs. Contagonist

As Dramatica points out, the protagonist cannot throw themselves against the antagonist until the end, or the book would be over too quickly. But conflict must come from somewhere, and it arrives in the shape of this archetype. For Dramatica, the contagonist is there to generate conflict and delay the protagonist.

A threshold guardian, on the other hand, was described as having a more important role. Not only does it serve as filler between the call to action and the final showdown, the archetype is meant to test the protagonist’s mettle, to prepare them physically, mentally, and magically before the final battle takes place.

*In Wheel of Time, there are so many obstacles that Rand and his friends must face to prepare for the Last Battle. They must unify the world against the forces of the Dark One, which proves an uneasy feat as people continue to deny the identity of the Dragon Reborn or would rather put their heads in the sand and ignore the looming fight. Other nations, some distant, arrive, generating more conflict and being unwilling to parley. Yet those that fit the contagonist role best would be that of the Forsaken. They are directly connected to the Dark One, and Rand’s progression, morally and magically, as well as his progression as a leader, all serve as checkpoints for Rand’s preparedness to face the Dark One.

5. The Trickster vs. Skeptic

This is where the two archetype theories begin to diverge, as their specific functions in the narrative vary. The trickster archetype’s main function in the narrative is to challenge the protagonist’s way of thinking, or make things a little harder, usually by accident. They often serve as some form of comic relief, though not always.

For Dramatica, they call this character the skeptic, and its opposing archetype, the sidekick, offer a balance for the protagonist. On the skeptic’s side, they’re present to doubt sincerity or truth or path of action. They remind the protagonist of the possibility of failure.

*In terms of comic relief and source of pessimism, Mat Cauthon is this archetype personified. However, those traits serve a vital purpose in the overall series. His antics near the beginning of Eye of the World lead to specific events that, in the end, will play a determining factor of Rand’s success or failure against the Dark One.

6. The Ally vs. Sidekick

In definition, the ally does much the same thing as Dramatica’s sidekick: they help the protagonist out through rough patches, giving them a moral boost when they need it. The sidekick balances the skeptic’s pessimism by their unwavering support and confidence.

*If Rand’s one friend, Mat, is the skeptic of the group, it seems only right that Perrin be the sidekick. While Perrin’s path diverges from Rand’s rather early on, he still has faith in his friend, and it’s clear that his own set of skills are going to play as big of a role in the Last Battle as Mat’s own adventuring.

7. The Shapeshifter vs. Emotion

These last two archetypes are almost completely separate from each other when it comes to definition, but they bring us to the last two. The shapeshifter is difficult to trust because their loyalties are not clear-cut. Sometimes, they help the protagonist out, and sometimes they work against them. In Dramatica, the emotion archetype responds to their feelings without thinking, with no regard for practicality.

I combined these two together because the emotion archetype is difficult to trust with its shifting emotions, but it’s worth pointing out that the emotion archetype’s converse, Reason, could be just as shifty in alliances based on their logic. Dramatica says emotion has its heart on its sleeve, both quick to anger and quick to empathize. But if the protagonist doesn’t know the emotion character, or if their paths have diverged, it’s understandable that the protagonist is hesitant to trust the unpredictable shapeshifting character.

*This is going to be really difficult to explain without getting into spoilers, but even in Eye of the World, it was obvious that Egwene and Rand were going to go down two separate paths. As they both find themselves weighed down by responsibilities that are much bigger than their childhood friendship, they find themselves wishing to trust the other, but held back, needing to put their own respective responsibilities first.

8. The Herald vs. Reason

Finally, the herald. As a fantasy archetype, their duty is to pull the protagonist out of their comfort and into the conflict that they must invariably resolve. They are the catalyst, the call to action.

This is not the purpose Dramatica’s Reason archetype serves. Like with the skeptic/sidekick, reason balances out emotion. As an archetype, they are cold logic and black-and-white morality. Dramatica describes them as almost inhuman. They stand for intellect, whereas emotion stands for heart, and the two conflict with the protagonist to determine the best course of action.

*While I think those familiar with the Wheel of Time series will automatically think of a specific character when I say black-and-white morality, I will actually use Lan Mandragoran as my case study for these archetypes, primarily because he manages to fill in both roles. As a herald, Rand immediately hits it off with Lan, and the Warder teaches him two important lessons: how to fight with the sword, and putting duty before desire. It is because of Lan that Rand accepts his role in the end. When it comes to Reason, Lan seems almost inhumanly strong. He knows his morals, he knows what’s important to him, and nothing else matters beyond the fight against the Shadow.

Dramatica uses a variety of other sub-categories that allow for the eight archetypes to bloom into sixty-four varieties, which ultimately would act as a firm foundation from which to build your characters. Yet I have my own Builder’s Theory, and I wanted to put character archetypes in context within it.

First of all, it’s important for me to say this above all: not every book requires all eight archetypes. Some books will, but not all. Sometimes, a character will serve several different roles, and sometimes, a role will be filled by several different characters. Before worrying about filling in all of the categories and checking in all the boxes, make sure that you craft what characters you need.

But the builder’s theory relies heavily on the idea that the process of crafting narratives can vary based on where a writer’s spark generally resides. Archetypes and tropes exist to help writers pull ideas out what would otherwise be their weaker point of creativity. An author can easily and guiltlessly use them to create the foundations of their idea. But it’s important that the author use the archetypes for foundational work only. The uniqueness doesn’t come from characters serving new narrative functions, but rather from how the character serves existing narrative functions, how the character archetype is adapted to the setting and the plot to make all three unique.

References:

Dramatica, Chapter 3: Characters — https://dramatica.com/theory/book/characters

The Eight Character Archetypes of the Hero’s Journey–https://mythcreants.com/blog/the-eight-character-archetypes-of-the-heros-journey/


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