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Using Archetypes To Find Your Story

I write romance, and that means my stories are, by necessity, character driven.  That doesn’t mean I ignore plot or story — my books have plenty of plot, and storytelling is my favorite thing about writing.  But in a romance the story should grow out of the struggles of the characters.  More important, the love story in every romance requires the characters to grow.  The hero and heroine need to learn something by the end of the book that allows them to have their happy ending.  The bigger the transformation the more satisfying the ending.

Coming up with ideas for that inner character arc is not easy for me.  I can come up with ideas for situations and story lines and conflict, but figuring out what a character has to learn before he or she gets to the end of the story is really hard.  I need all the help I can get. 

Otherwise I’m liable to find myself in the middle of a story and suddenly realize that the characters are two-dimensional and don’t really have any significant barrier to their love story.  When that happens, major revisions are usually required. 

I hate major revisions.  Like the plague.  Unfortunately, when I was first learning how to tell a story, this happened all. The. Time. 

MyssCardsAnd then, one day about ten years ago, I went to a plotting workshop put on by my local RWA chapter.  And, of course, the instructor started out by telling us that we needed to know our characters in order to tell a good story.  I knew this, but I was clueless as to how to actually accomplish that. 

And then the instructor did a remarkable thing — she brought a bright red box out of her bag that looked like a box of tarot cards. “These might help,” she said.

They weren’t tarot cards.  They were “archetype” cards developed by the self-help guru, Caroline Myss. 

I don’t know a whole lot about new-age self-awareness, but I recognized a good thing when I saw it.  Right after the workshop I rushed right out to my local bookstore and found a deck of these cards for myself.  I’ve been using them ever since.  (Follow this link to a full listing of all of the Caroline Myss archetypes, along with detailed explanations of each of them.)

There are many archetype systems that authors can use, but I love playing with my cards.  They make it fun.  But they are also so useful because each of of these archetypes comes with a list of positive and negative attributes.  The negative attributes are particularly helpful when it comes to figuring out what lessons a character needs to learn before he or she can find love.

Let me give you an example of how I used these archetypes in the novel I started writing yesterday. 

MyssBeggarMy heroine is a “beggar.” The card gives me a few clues to this archetype, but a further exploration on the Caroline Myss webpage leads to the understanding that: 1) a beggar is starving for love and attention, and 2) a beggar doesn’t feel self-empowered.  She has to rely on others for sustenance for her self-esteem.

Okay, that immediately gets my brain working.  What kind of character would match that archetype?  I came up with a woman who set off to change the world only to have the world throw her back.  She’s lost her job, her home, her life savings.  She’s come back to town to live with the mother who never really gave her the attention she craved.  And she has to face a community who expected great things from her and who now sees her as a failure.  There is a job opportunity in town, but she’s going to have to beg someone for it.  She desperately craves validation from the people around her, but of course they are not going to give her what she craves.  (But they might just give her what she needs.)

Okay, so far so good.  Now comes the fun part.  What does this archetype need to learn in order to have a happy ending?  The answers come pretty quickly:  1) confront and/or reconcile with the mother who neglected her in some way, 2) take control of her life in some way by finding a job that no one expects her to succeed at, and 3) develop a relationship with a hero who refuses to do the one thing she thinks she needs — validate her existence.  (To be a fully realized person, she’s going to have to validate herself.)

See what just happened?  Not only did the card help me find a character, but it gave me the beginning of a story line, complete with built in conflicts.  Of course I’m not done yet.  I need a hero for my beggar.

MyssHermitOff I go to the cards again, and I find the one for “hermit,” an archetype that has withdrawn from the world because of his own fears.  A hermit also refuses to help those in need.

Wow, that immediately generates a ton of ideas.  I used this archetype to come up with a hero who has withdrawn from society because his wife has died.  Now he is intently focused on trying to keep his dead wife’s memory alive at the expense of everything else in his life, including his daughter.  (Who is starving for attention, which harkens back to the heroine’s own backstory.) In withdrawing from the world, the hero has turned a blind eye to the people around him who are in need, especially his young daughter, but also other members of his family.  There is a business that requires his attention, or it’s going to fail.  His friend is in the middle of a legal battle, and the hero is a lawyer.  And since he doesn’t give a darn about anything but his own sorrow, he’s not terribly interested in helping any beggars who ,might show up, especially if the beggar in question is his wife’s best friend from high school.

Obviously my hermit needs to have something my beggar desperately needs (a job perhaps, or money to accomplish some end, or legal advice).  They are going to fight about this for the first third of the book.  (I’d tell you what it is but that might spoil the read.) The bottom line a beggar heroine a hermit hero immediately generate conflict, which is always good for storytelling.  Equally important, I can now brainstorm a list of things that could happen that would either 1) force the hermit to deal with the people around him, or 2) force the beggar to fend for herself and improve her self-esteem, or deal with her residual issues with her mother.  Believe me I have a long, long list of what ifs now — many more than I need to tell a good story.

So, how do you come up with characters who drive your stories?  Since we’re all feverishly writing as part of the Winter Writing Festival, I’m sure that brainstorming ideas would be welcome by all.

59 responses to “Using Archetypes To Find Your Story”

  1. jbrayweber says:

    I’ve heard you talk about these cards before, Hope. And I’ve heard others talk about them,too. All positives. Maybe it’s time I buy them for myself. It doesn’t hurt that love they way they are similar to tarot.

    For myself, I like to begin with the dark side of people and work from there. No rhyme or reason other than tapping into that dark side and trying to find the light.

    Great post!

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Hey Jenn,

      In a way I do the same thing. I’m always drawn to the negative traits of the archetype. I think when you know your characters’ weaknesses it becomes so much easier to make they three-dimensional. And then, of course, you have to figure out why they are the way they are, and that always reveals so much.

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  2. Shoshana says:

    Great post, Hope. I had never used archetypes for plotting before, but for the YA I’m about to start writing I got together with some friends and brainstormed with them using Tami Cowden’s character archetype book, and it was really helpful. Looking forward to getting to the actual writing. 🙂

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  3. This is fabulous, Hope! I remember a workshop on Archetypes years ago, but the cards would help me recall the different categories in a fun way. I’m going to find some : )

    To understand my characters I collage – yeah, cut out pictures and glue them on : ) I find pictures of people with obvious emotions on their faces. When I look at them I brainstorm about what put that fear, joy, disgust, insecurity, wistfulness, etc on their face. It works for me but can take some time. I bet those cards would help me speed up the process.

    Thanks so much for sharing!

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    • Elisa Beatty says:

      Oh, I love the idea of choosing pictures based on emotional expression rather than just physical attributes.

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      You know I do a collage, sort of, too. I will search the internet for photos of my hero and heroine and put them together in an electronic collage, which I will sometimes set up as my computer’s wallpaper. (Although I admit that the wall paper gets changed out whenever there’s a new photo of the grandchild.) But, I find the visuals very helpful for figuring out how my hero or heroine looks when he or she is feeling a certain emotion. I always have this electronic collage tucked away in my Scrivener file where I can pull it up any time I need it.

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    • I do the same, Heather. Finding those character pictures are my first step in starting a book.

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  4. Elisa Beatty says:

    Wow, those cards are absolutely gorgeous, Hope! I’d like to play with them just to see the images.

    What a cool idea!

    Do you know where she got these archetypes? Are they Jungian in origin or did she make them up herself?

    Will go check out her website!

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Elisa,

      They are incredibly fun to play with. Sometimes I just randomly pull two or three from the pile and see what kind of character I come up with. I think the fact that they are in card form makes it way more fun.

      I have no idea where she came up with these archetypes. She uses this in a new-age self-help way that I don’t exactly buy into. My guess is they are Jungian, but I really don’t know for certain.

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      • Elisa Beatty says:

        I did check out her website…WOW, is there a lot of info on there!!!! The cards are definitely WAY less overwhelming….and she references Jung. But these are clearly “based on” not “limited to” Jung’s.

        Very interesting and dense!

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  5. Rita Henuber says:

    Hope thank you! I have a list but it pales in comparison to this. I start out making everybody perfect (grrrr) then add in all their problems.

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  6. I have several characters living in my head right now, but I see how these cards can help. I’m going to give them a try.

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      I hope they work for you. But just remember that if they don’t work, it just means that your process for dreaming up characters is different from mine. Every writer has her own process for creating stories. You experiment with things and keep the stuff that works and jettison the rest.

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  7. Laurie Kellogg says:

    Wonderful post, Hope. I also use archetypes to help develop my characters. I get my info from this wonderful book by Tami Cowden and Carol LeFever

    http://www.amazon.com/Complete-Writers-Guide-Heroes-Heroines-ebook/dp/B00HD176J2/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1421157293&sr=1-1&keywords=Tami+archetypes

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  8. Tamara Hogan says:

    Thanks for some insight into your character development process, Hope! It’s always so interesting to see how others work.

    For my heroes and heroines, I tend to start with contrasts in mind that might drive both interpersonal conflict and the plot. For example, in my next Underbelly Chronicles book, ENTHRALL ME, my hero, Wyland, is a 300 year old vampire who represents his people on the Underworld Council – and after a hundred years of celibacy, his libido has awakened for a completely inappropriate woman: vampire journalist and free spirit Tia Quinn, who’s barely 30. So the contrasts and themes I’m working with are youth vs. age, political power/secrecy vs. freedom of the press, the potential power inequities in their relationship (he’s her ruler), old/new, strength/weakness (real and perceived), free spirit vs. uptight, and so on. Assessing these contrasts, poking at potential sore spots, helps me with plotting.

    I also tend to craft my books so the villain shares at least a few personality traits with the hero, the heroine, or both of them. In my mind, the possibility of “villainy” lurks in each of us. The key difference is in the choices we make when the chips are down. Do we choose selflessness, or self-interest? Why? What’s the motivation? These are fascinating questions to me, and it’s a theme I revisit again and again in my work.

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  9. Sonja says:

    I love the idea of the archetype cards! I am definitely going to have to try them! Right now all the stories I’ve written have been memoir type, so I haven’t really developed any characters from scratch, just used the attributes of the people (and animals) I already knew.

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      If you’ve never developed characters from scratch you may find it either way too much fun, or very difficult. Every writer is different. But one thing is certain. In fiction (regardless of genre) you have to have believable characters that are three-dimensional and whose foibles, needs, wants, and goals drive the story forward. So whatever method works for you is the method you should use.

      Good luck with your writing. 🙂

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  10. Those cards look beautiful and so inspiring. I love considering archetypes as I build my characters, which I’m in the process of doing for a new series right now, so this is perfect timing! Thanks for the inspiration, Hope!

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    • Oh, and I meant to add that I’d like to try this with my villain, too, since I like him/her to be multi-dimensional. I’ve used GMC to create villains, but I’m not sure I’ve considered archetypes. Might be interesting…

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      • Hope Ramsay says:

        I use archetypes for my antagonists as well as my POV characters. Since I write books with multiple POVs, every POV character has a GMC and I try to figure out personality traits for them as well. I don’t do as much analytical work for antagonists and other POV characters as I do for the hero and heroine, but I find that the more I think about the main cast of characters, their personality traits and their goals the richer the story ideas. But, as noted elsewhere, I’m a plotter not a pantser.

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  11. Off to learn more! Thanks for the intro to something I haven’t used before. I definitely don’t flesh out my characters early enough in my drafting…well, I think a lot about my heroes, but my heroines tend to stay quite shadowy, sometimes well into my revisions.

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      There’s nothing wrong with starting a story with only the vaguest idea of who the characters are. This is not the way I write, but it’s the way a lot of people write.

      I happen to be a pre-planner and plotter, so I spend a lot of time with my characters before I start a book. Of course my characters also change over the course of the drafting. And sometimes my editor wants revisions, so the characters are tweaked. But I need to know my characters before I can even start.

      But some writers just need to write in order to find their characters.

      So you may find that using archetypes seems irrelevant to your process.

      1+
  12. Holy crap Hope! I feel you just changed my life. Seriously, this is solid gold. I ordered my cards and can’t wait until they get here.

    This is fantastic!!!!!!

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  13. Elisa Beatty says:

    Oooh…I just remembered I have an Amazon gift certificate!! I’m off to order the cards, just to play and see what they suggest for me.

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  14. THIS POST IS AWESOME!!! I have the same problem, Hope. Those darned inner journeys and such. Thanks for this! I want the cards too. LOL

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Yeah it would be so much better if all we had to worry about is a plot. 🙂

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      • YES! And I have to come back to this. I am so in love with you right now. And I don’t mean a little. I knew that writers used archetypes all the time. I just didn’t understand how. This post has already given new dimensions to my hero in a YA WIP I’m working on. Like you, I’ve always heard, “Know your characters.” But I never delved very deep.

        I’m like really happy right now. I just ordered the cards, too. hehe

        2+
      • Okay, one more time! The hermit! There is a foreign movie, my very favorite, called The Man From Nowhere. It’s Korean and the hero in that embodies the hermit. There is even one part where he has a chance to help a little neighbor girl who is being hit by a woman and he doesn’t stick his neck out for her. (Of course, later he risks his life to save her, thus the hero part.) It is so good and he is the first character that popped into my head when you described the hermit.

        And the little girl in that movie is incredible!

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  15. Fantastic post, and now I have something new to add to my wishlist. 🙂 I too sometimes start with archetypes for the basic character, but the list of archetypes I work with isn’t anywhere near as extensive as this! I find usually one character is clear to me, while the other isn’t, so while the first character becomes more fleshed out by considering archetypes, the secondary character is often the foil for the original, or someone who works well within the plot.

    Thanks for sharing. 🙂

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      I hope you have fun using the cards. I think it’s probably pretty universal for all romance authors to have one character who is more fleshed out then the other. That happens to me all the time. I think this is because some characters have more to learn than others. Even in romances you can have stories that are mostly about the heroine’s growth, or mostly about the hero’s growth. Those kinds of stories can still be very satisfying.

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  16. Gwyn says:

    I’ve read the archetype books, but don’t use the cards. Might add them to my let’s-mix-it-up list, but not sure I’ll use them unless it’s to add to my subconscious files. Fact is, I don’t consciously create characters. They just show up. I see them, first, then, get to know them as they reveal their stories. I know that sounds really strange, but it’s true. That makes me believe my subconscious does a great deal of work before turning on the figurative light bulb for me. 😉

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  17. I have these cards and love them! They’re a fabulous tool for character generation. Thanks for sharing how you use them.

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  18. Hope, Have I told you lately that I absolutely love you? Great post and so very timely, for me.

    I spent the last week working on my H&H for new a contemporary. I used a book–THE SECRET LANGUAGE OF BIRTHDAYS– for my character development. I love it, and I do believe someone from your chapter (VF) actually presented to me. I’m definitely going to check out these cards and Carolyn’s website.

    Off to sprint. WINK

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  19. I’ve never seen these cards before, Hope, but they look fascinating. I’ve also never used archetypes, but I’ve been wanting to experiment with them, so it looks like now is the time (with the WWF and the start of a new manuscript). Thanks for this!

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  20. Vivi Andrews says:

    I haven’t used archetypes before, but it’s always nice to have another tool in the toolbox when it comes to getting to know your characters. I can never get any momentum going until they feel like real, complete people. Thanks for the tip, Hope!

    1+
    • Amanda Brice says:

      I feel the same way, which is probably why I’m so drawn to writing series with an overarching romance arc. That way once I get to know my characters I can stick with them for several books rather than reinventing the wheel and getting a new hero and heroine each book.

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  21. This is absolutely fascinating! I am always looking for ways to flesh out my characters and to add depth to their interactions.

    This has been a great discussion to read!

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  22. susan says:

    I’m done with tarots. I love reading about them from someone else just will not play with the deck, again.

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  23. Hope, this was such a fun & inspirational blog – thanks for it! I’m going to go get lost exploring archetypes now.

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  24. Brilliant! I just went to the Barnes & Noble website, discovered that my local store has it in stock and requested they put one aside for me. I’ll be picking up today. Thank you for this!

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  25. Amanda Brice says:

    I just went ahead and ordered the cards from Amazon! Should be here on Friday!

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  26. Elisa Beatty says:

    My cards just arrived!! (Gotta love Amazon Prime.)

    They really are gorgeous!

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  27. Hope, thank you for this post. I’ve certainly heard of archetypes and even been in a workshop about them, but it just didn’t stick with me. You’ve helped me see how to use them in a very practical way. And I think you’ve sold a lot of those cards for her– you should get commission!

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  28. Got mine yesterday and brought them with me to the day job (shh…don’t tell my boss). I can’t wait to start playing!

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