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How to Start With an Archetype and Finish With a Strong Character

Two weeks ago we discussed how to determine whether your NaNoWriMo idea is novel-worthy. Since then you've hopefully spent at least a little bit of time fleshing that story out every single day, maybe even using our Novel Planning Checklist. Today we'll show you how to create dynamic characters by basing them on existing character archetypes.

What are character archetypes and why should you use them?

For the purposes of this article, let's use the definition of character archetypes provided by Writer's Digest:

"To a psychologist, archetypes are mental fingerprints revealing the details of a patient’s personality. To a writer, archetypes are the blueprints for building well-defined characters, be they heroes, villains, or supporting characters."

In other words, using a character archetype as the basis for your characters' personalities is an efficient way to build characters your readers will love (or love to hate).

Common archetypes include the Warrior, the Lover, and the Mentor. You can learn about these archetypes and more in Reedsy's collection of 12 Common Character Archetypes. For the purposes of this article, we'll dive right into how you can use them, using the Mentor as an example.

How to build a unique character using the Mentor archetype

The Mentor is the character who helps your protagonist prepare for the hardships they'll face throughout your story. The most common version of this archetype is significantly older than the protagonist and acts as some kind of official mentor. They might even be a teacher or the headmaster of a school, like Dumbledore.

Despite these common representations, a mentor can be anyone with something to teach your protagonist. Take, for instance, Toph from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Toph is the same age as Aang and has many personal issues and failings of her own. But she is an incredible earth-bender, and she imparts some important lessons on Aang. She's also one of the most beloved characters in the series.

To create a unique mentor, ask the following questions:

  • What does this character need to teach your protagonist? In some cases, your protagonist may have a single mentor throughout their entire journey. In others, they need to be taught specific lessons by different people. Going back to Avatar: The Last Airbender, Aang must learn to master each element from a different person because he's the only one who can master multiple elements. Does your story have any similar requirements?

  • How can you represent what they teach in their personality? One way to make a dynamic mentor is relating what they teach to their personality. For example, Katara, who teaches Aang most of his water bending, is highly adaptable, like the water she works with.

  • How can you alter this character to twist common tropes in your genre? If you're writing epic or high fantasy, where the mentors are often white, male and grey-bearded wizards, perhaps a young, dark-skinned woman would make a more interesting choice.

  • What kind of mentor will challenge your protagonist most? Sometimes you don't want the mentor relationship to be a peaceful one. Forcing your protagonist to learn from someone they don't automatically get along with can increase tension in your story and teach your character a separate set of lessons.

Your answers to these questions won't create a fully formed dynamic character, but they will form the foundation for your mentor character's development. You can alter these questions slightly to match each archetype necessary for your cast of characters.

Final advice

Over the next two weeks, try to spend a little bit of time developing your characters each day. If you need some guidance, check out our Creating Great Characters series.

Want to write an amazing NaNoWriMo novel? Don't know where to start? Download our Novel Planning Checklist today!

The Novel Planning Checklist is a resource designed to help new writers create the most important aspects of their characters, world-building, and plot before they dive into a first draft. It includes both mandatory tasks for basic novel-building and optional tasks for writers who want to dive even deeper into their stories. To download your free copy, subscribe to our mailing list at the bottom of this page.

Dianna Gunn is the author of YA fantasy novella “Keeper of the Dawn” and the Write Plan content writer. She also blogs about creativity, life and books at The Dabbler.


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