Sir Ken Robinson said a curious thing about education. He said, and I’m paraphrasing, “What we need in education is not reform. What we need in education is revolution.” I have been thinking about characters in fiction, been thinking about the cardboard, one-dimensional characters we are seeing everywhere, and I have come to the conclusion that in character creation and development we don’t need reform. We need to burn it all down. We need to take to the streets. We need a revolution.
In this blog series, I will take out of my office many different tools we use to make characters and will set them on fire. Wanna watch them burn? Come with me and let’s burn it all to the ground.
I read a writer’s magazine recently. It doesn’t matter which one; I have seen this sort of thing a dozen times. In the article I saw the death of the exotic, three- or four-dimensional, unique character. I saw the death of creativity in character creation.
The author of the article said there are four different types of characters in the world. She said every character written fits into these categories. For the sake of my argument, I am not even going to name her characters’ types. They don’t matter. Not at all.
I will tell you that I was incensed.
She went on to say there were only four outcomes possible in any book. She said a lot of things I disagree with, but I am not going to get into all of them. Don’t look away. Keep your eye right here. Let’s focus on character. Let’s focus on the pit we are being mired in. Let’s talk about the character archetype.
The idea of a character archetype is very easy. Everyone in the world fits into one of these one- to two-word descriptions. I don’t know why we started to think this way—how we thought we could possibly benefit from thinking this way—but it has clipped our possibilities. It is not the way to think at all. Let’s talk about the post office.
Back in the day, don’t ask for dates, I hate those, too. Back in the day, we had the Pony Express. These cats would ride from one town to the next, from one house to the next, with a bag on their horse carrying a letter or a package. They rode to a specific spot and handed the bag off to another rider who was already in movement, handing the parcel off like a baton at a relay race. This was in a time when they had no addresses. They had no set spot they were headed. They went into a town and dropped off the package, or up to the house to drop off the package, and they delivered it.
You didn’t have an address, so anyone could get mail. The guy at the bar who slept in the livery and ate with the sows could be found by the Pony Express and could get his package. The drifter who went from one place to the next would find a package waiting for him when he got there because the Pony Express had been there and they had heard rumor of where he would be.
The Pony Express died out. They were replaced by addresses and post men. Now we have a slot for each person in the world. We have a box outside our houses that they can drop our things in. They will get their mail. Unless they are homeless. Unless they are an over-the-road trucker and have no actual address. They don’t get their mail at a house, they don’t get their mail. They have to buy a slot in a town post office and go there. This is what we are doing to characters.
We have slots for our characters. We have pre-made descriptions for them. We use words like Everyman, or Underdog, and we have a description of what that means. We then place that character in that slot. This helps us design a character, but also shuts us into a box. It makes that character predictable. It makes that character bland. We do this with Leaders, with Sidekicks. We do this with Survivors. (That is the one that bothers me the most.) We do this with every character we create.
But this is not how we live life. We don’t see our fathers as the Everyman. We see them as a man. As a father, a husband, a worker, and a friend. We see them as the heroes of their lives and the leaders of our families. We have dozens of descriptions of each person we know in the real world, dozens of ways the people in our lives would describe us.
Take four people out of my life. Any four. And ask them what archetype I fit into and you will get four different answers. Ask my kids the kind of slot I fit into and they will both have two separate ways of talking about me. This is because we are different things to different people. Shouldn’t our characters have the same effect?
I wrote a character named Konnon for the book Song. He walks through the book and is met by many different people. Just as many people would have a different description of him. His wife called him a Survivor. His daughter, if asked, would describe him as a Caregiver. Some of his friends find him to be a Hero. Others that know him would call him a Victim. Still others would say he was a Villain.
This is a real character. This is a fully formed multi-dimensional person filled with life and reality. This character defies a slot or archetype. Just as you do.
Not a character in your book, but you the writer.
I want you to do this for me. Bear with me, this will be annoying. Sit down and write out the way your friends would describe you if asked. Write down what archetypes you fit into. We often do this same sort of exercise for character creation. It is called the character description. Don’t get me started on that. I will burn that to the ground in the next blog I write about this revolution. For now, let’s just, as an example of archetype failure, write down how the different people in your life see you. You will be a hero to some, a role model they would like to, or do try, to emulate. You will be a villain to others. I am. You will be the underdog to a few and a decision maker to a few more.
Now do this. Write out the archetype that you fit into as if you are going to write yourself in a book. If you write yourself the way we have all been taught to by our professors and our magazines, we will have to trim the edges of ourselves and shove and kick to fit ourselves into that slot.
I will stand and rail about this all day if allowed to. We are not archetypes in our lives. We often think about ourselves as such to flatter ourselves.
When I am trying to get to sleep, I sit in the dark and say things like, “You’re a Leader, a kind man, a Hero to others. You are Creative and dynamic, and damn it, people like you.” All of these things are true. But on other nights when I can’t sleep I will say things like, “You are petty. You are weak. You are an ill fit for your family. You are alone in a crowd and you are a loser.” And in this, I am right as well.
Everyone we meet is many things at the same time. Our characters need to be as well. This is how you create real and lasting characters that people want to read about. This is how you take a hero and make them a villain at the same time, a leader and make them a follower as well. This creates turmoil within the people we write about.
So fists in the air. Torches and pitchforks, let’s go burn it to the ground. These archetypes we have been taught are holding us back.
Viva La Revolution!