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Archetypes vs Stereotypes

Wizard by Stefana-TserkWhat is the difference between a great character and a placeholder? Why is one warrior or wizard better than the other? They might serve exactly the same purpose in the novel, but one is clearly superior. Your grey-bearded magic user with the impractical hat just can’t compare with the scarred conjuror addicted to demon blood. One is a well developed protagonist, while the other is a cardboard cut-out from any generic fantasy novel.

It’s not difficult to see which is the archetype and which is the stereotype, but there are many authors who don’t know the difference between the terms. An archetype is a recurring character type that corresponds to a specific purpose in the story. They can be thought of as a model for a character when constructing an individual and deciding how they act. They may be the mentor for the hero, the adversary/shadow that must be defeated, or a lesser known type like the trickster who can provide comic relief. These archetypes have been studied by various writers such as Campbell, Vogler and Booker, who have detailed the common traits and patterns of various archetypes, though there is room for a great deal of variation.

Knight of the Temple by AlfredssonStereotypes are oversimplified characters cobbled together from clichés and generic traits. They are usually the answer to a perceived need in the story, with little thought given to making them original and developing them into well rounded characters. Instead, authors will replicate traits they’ve seen in other fiction, resulting in just another stock character.

Archetypes are broad definitions and any character you create will normally fall under one or more archetypes no matter what your intentions. Falling into a stereotype is something to be avoided as it will cause the narrative to feel flat and derivative, it will break the immersion of the piece and hammer home to the reader that they are looking at a work of fiction. Unfortunately it can be very easy to cross the line, especially for new writers who are working in a genre like fantasy. Long time readers will be able to name classic stereotypes like the wise wizard, corrupt advisor, or orphan child and spot them a mile away. The author really needs to be familiar with the development of the genre, so they know what to avoid.

But what about some of the lesser known ones that we can fall into, where is the line between archetype and stereotype? And how do you avoid turning your characters into carbon copies of a bland template? One of the most important steps is to try and really see your character as a person, think about their story and motivations, rather than merely their place in your grand plot. Don’t brush them off as if they were a bit actor; try to spend some time making them original and unique. It can be as simple as giving a character an unusual trait or personality quirk that sets them apart.

Take aScientist by Florian Stitz lesser known stereotype like the mad scientist/inventor character – give them an obsession for knowledge and experimentation, an absent mind, topped off with crazy hair and you have a stereotype. But don’t stop there. What’s the history of this character? Maybe he really wanted to be a musician and plays a piano cobbled together from random lab equipment? Or perhaps he fancies himself a swordsman, and is always trying to join the hero on his quest instead of merely handing over an invention? It could be a simple quirk, like a tendency to talk about himself in the third person, anything that can differentiate the character. It can be difficult to put that much work into every character in the story, especially if they’re only in a few scenes. But it’s definitely worth the effort and will make your writing stand out.

You don’t have to know the back-story of every faceless solider and kitchen scullion in your book in order to make them interesting. There are a number of quick tricks a writer can use to avoid the pitfall of a stereotype. The easiest one is to subvert the expectations of the reader and make the character the opposite of their role. Your wise old wizard is now a drunk who’s in way over his head, the hideous orc wants to save the world, and the gruff dwarf actually has a penchant for knitting and embroidery.

A Witch at Ordinary Farm by kerembeyitYou could try to put your own twist on the role by changing the character’s place in the novel. Maybe the orphan farm boy is actually the heir to the dark lord, and the forces of light must band together and make the terrible choice to murder the child for the greater good? It would definitely put a fresh spin on the idea when he is forced on the run from everything he has known and has to seek aid from those he has been taught to fear.

Another method is to give the character a serious flaw. Imagine what the classic elf archer would be like if he lost a hand – maybe he no longer strives to be the gallant warrior but just reminisces over his glory days. What about a dark lord who’s incapable of physically hurting anyone, and so must work through his minions. Think of the challenges for a master thief who’s been cursed with clumsiness by a vengeful witch. You can see how little touches can affect standard stereotype and open up a whole new host of ideas and possibilities. It’s even fine to have a character that’s very archetypal, as long as the writer works to make them different.

Startled by TsaoShinAlways try to experiment with your characters and see what you can do to keep them fresh, you might come up with something special that breaks the mould. One of the best examples I’ve seen of an original character breaking the stereotype is Abercrombie’s Bayaz, First of the Magi. He’s taken the idea of the mentor wizard and twisted it into something darker and more fitting to his work, creating something unique that profoundly alters the story.

The characters in a book are one of the greatest expressions of a writer’s style. Try some of these methods in your own writing, see if you can turn those pasty reproductions into vibrant individuals that drive the story and engage the reader. Experiment with different ways of altering archetypes and work in your own ideas of how you want a character to look. It can be tough to churn out something innovative and original on command, so start small. Work on crafting a character that captures your interest, and push for that spark that makes them great.

Title image by Stefana-Tserk.



  1. Avatar Gabriel says:

    This was a fun article to read, I liked the examples you gave for breaking the mold, and I enjoyed how well the entire article flowed. It made it the perfect morning read I wanted.

  2. Avatar Ingrid Wolf says:

    Thank you for this GREAT article! I’ve never ever read such a profound explanation of what’s the difference between archetype and stereotype and why the first one isn’t bad while the second one is. Actually, I’ve been confusing these two things for while, but due to you I no more will. And I will definitely use your advice on how to make characters more interesting and living when I’ll set to writing my next story! (Yes, I’m an aspiring writer.)

  3. Avatar Cait Spivey says:

    Great piece, Aaron! I definitely agree with you about the little quirks. They are absolutely character makers or breakers and can often be overlooked in the plotting/drafting process.

  4. Avatar Luke Green says:

    I had my own thoughts on this [on my own blog]. It’s a bit shorter and rougher… I need to clean up these older writing rants eventually.

  5. Avatar Brandon says:

    Great post! Thanks for the reminder to never let categories box your writing in. I’m always searching for ways to keep my characters from the dreaded “cliche`” or “Stereotype” so much so that I try to work out almost every detail, even for minor characters. You’ve reminded me, that sometimes just changing one or two things can really have a profound effect for the reader, especially when it comes to minor characters.

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