Archive for June, 2015

Women Characters: Defined by Relationships

Sometimes my mind gets highly analytical. I think it must come from my engineering background. But I’ve noticed, recently, that a lot of women characters are missing a husband, or a child, or both, as a way to make them sympathetic, to give them a tragic backstory.

And this annoys me, probably on two fronts: 1) as a wife/mother myself, I don’t like to think about such things, and 2) this is so common it seems like no one can think of anything else to give a female character any depth.

I think we’re all familiar with the concept of fridging, which is where a character, usually a woman, is killed, maimed, or otherwise hurt or devalued to advance a main character’s (often male) character development.

And this seems related–that a woman is often defined by her relationships to others. Now, we’re all defined by our relationships, to some extent, but it sometimes seems like a woman is reduced to the sum of hers, rather than being given her own personality.

So female leads are often described by their losses: a child or a husband, if old enough, or a parent or a “true love,” if younger. Rape is another common tragic backstory trope, and again, we are often shown her relationship to men, in this case, or sometimes even her rapist depending on the story.

Sometimes we see male characters defined by a relationship (Mel Gibson’s character in Lethal Weapon, for example) but this is less common.

What do you think, Squiders? Am I off the mark? Reading the wrong sort of books? Or does it feel like, to you, women have the same common characterizations, and they’re based off the people around her rather than herself?


My Gateway Novel: Wishsong of Shannara

Whenever we find something we like–a TV show, a band, a sport, whatever–there’s always something that introduces us to whatever it is, our “gateway,” if you will, that we never forget, especially if whatever turns out to be transformative in some way.

(For example, I can remember that the song that introduced me to my favorite genre of music, symphonic metal, was Nightwish’s End of All Hope, and that it was the background music for a Twilight Princess fanvid. Why I was watching Zelda fanvids, I don’t remember, but I will never forget that song.)

For me, I can still remember the first fantasy novel I ever read, the one that hooked me into a genre that has never let me go. I was 12, perusing the shelves at my elementary school library. I’d read some scifi at that point–A Wrinkle in Time, a children’s book that I really loved whose title escapes me (something with Puck?)–and was, of course, a Trekkie raised by Trekkie parents, but I hadn’t touched fantasy. The books we read in school were contemporary, and often involved children lost in the wilderness (like Hatchet or Julie of the Wolves). Or they were historical fiction.

I can even remember the shelf it was on. My elementary school library had a reading treehouse in one corner, and it was on the bookcase next to that, on the far lefthand side, second shelf from the bottom. I don’t know what possessed me to pull it out. It was a big book, over 500 pages, certainly bigger than anything else I had read.

But pull it out I did. The Wishsong of Shannara by Terry Brooks. And I took it out and read it and have never looked back.

It had magic and evil and loyalty and consequences and the hero was a girl just like me.

I’ve read a lot of the Shannara books over the years (of the original trilogy, I actually like The Sword of Shannara better), and, of course, have branched out into many other authors and other subgenres of fantasy, but I will always remember my first. And I sometimes wonder if, since I found high/epic fantasy first, that has colored my likes, since that is my favorite subgenre.

(Another fantasy book I read early on–the next year, as part of a local author event, where we all read a book by a local author and then got to meet same author–was T.A. Barron’s The Ancient One, which is part portal fantasy, part contemporary. Female protagonist again. Excellent book. Involves trees, which is probably why I like it so much.)

(The year after that we had to read Will Hobbs, and I was pretty done with “Boy survives in the wild” books by that point, so that was less awesome.)

Can you remember the book that got you into scifi or fantasy? Any other gateways you’d like to share?

Character Archetypes: Wrap-up

Well, Squiders, I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at some of the character archetypes. We could go on forever, honestly. Some people denote eight different character archetypes, others twelve. Still others can break down each archetype into another six or eight or ten sub-archetypes.

The interesting thing about archetypes is that, yes, they do seem to be fairly universal. You can look at classic mythology and modern TV shows and find the same character archetypes. And, despite knowing that they’re archetypes, that they’re set up to fit a mold (or inadvertently ended up that way, through the collective unconscious or whatever), they often come across as realistic, well-rounded characters (some archetypes not included).

I also find them interesting because there’s so much you can do to subvert an archetype. People who deal with archetypes on a regular basis call these Shadow archetypes, but I think it’s fascinating to see what people will do to take a classic archetype and try to turn it on its side.

The fact of the matter is, most people–and characters–go through stages. Even if they fit an archetype to a tee at one point, their character arc can drag them into a different one, or several across the length of their journey. A character who is the Hero of their own story can be a Villain in someone else’s.

I haven’t personally tried using archetypes in my own writing, but I bet you if I went back and looked, I would find some anyway. I think that’s true of most writers. These archetypes exist everywhere in the media around us, whether we’re aware of them or not, and so they seep in to the way we view the world and how we think narratives should be structured.

Did you enjoy this look at the archetypes, Squiders? Did I leave out any character archetypes you’re fond of?

Character Archetypes: The Sidekick

Very few Heroes stand alone. Often they are accompanied by a Sidekick, or a few. In some cases, a large number of companion characters will form a different archetype known as the Hunting Group of Companions. Sidekicks help the Hero through their trials and tribulations, but never quite step into the limelight themselves.

Common Aspects of the Sidekick Archetype:

  • Usually loyal to the Hero
  • Tend to have Hero-like qualities themselves
  • Always secondary to Hero
  • Tend to be focused on the Hero and what the Hero is trying to accomplish
  • Can have life outside of Hero to some extent
  • Helps Hero in Quest

Sidekick characters exist to help the Hero. They are your Watsons, your Ron Weasleys, your Samwise Gamgees. They are loyal, competent in their own right, and generally echo the noble and just ideals seen in a Hero character. In some cases, the only reason a Hero can manage to complete their Quest is due to the help of their Sidekick(s).

Beyond that, Sidekick characters can vary widely. Often they are used as comic relief. They tend to be extremely devoted to the Hero, though this depends on the individual character. They may bemoan the Hero always getting the spotlight, but they’ll still have the Hero’s back.

Alternatively, Sidekick characters can be associated with other archetypes. Some Sidekicks are attached to Villains instead. An Evil with a Good Heart character may start out as the Sidekick to a greater evil.

Any Sidekick characters you’re especially fond of, Squiders? (I admit to loving Samwise Gamgee myself.) Have you seen this archetype used in any especially interesting ways?

Next: Wrap-up

Character Archetypes: The Innocent

The Innocent is an archetype that can be used for a number of different types of characters, though if the Innocent is included in the main part of a story, they rarely remain such. Innocent characters can also fall into Hero, Sidekick, and Damsel in Distress archetypes. Often, they may be children.

Common Aspects of the Innocent Archetype:

  • Generally happy, optimistic people
  • Usually naive or inexperienced in some manner
  • Playful
  • May be too dependent on other characters
  • May ignore reality in order to hold onto ideals

The Innocent Archetype may also be called the Child or the Initiate, depending on who you’re talking to. In general, the Innocent is someone who craves love and happiness, and who hasn’t been beaten down enough by the world to give up on those ideals. These tend to be sympathetic characters and, if not the main character, a Hero often feels duty-bound to protect them from the evils of life.

There are also downfalls to Innocent characters. They may purposefully skew reality to maintain their vision of the world, or they may be dangerously childish, ignoring rules and potential risks. They may also unknowingly endanger people around them with their carelessness or naivety.

Some examples of Innocent characters include Kaylee from Firefly, Forest Gump, Pippin (the hobbit), Dory (from Finding Nemo), and quite a few Disney princesses.

Who are your favorite Innocent characters, Squiders? With your favorites, do they also fall into another archetype?

Next: The Sidekick Archetype

Character Archetypes: The Temptress

Ah, the Temptress. She saunters in and gives you a coy smile, her eyes promising that more is available, if you’re willing. The Temptress is a fairly common female archetype though, like the Damsel in Distress, it is evolving in response to people wanting more well-rounded and less stereotypical female characters.

Common Aspects of the Temptress Archetype:

  • Usually female
  • Usually bad news for the Hero
  • Commonly portrayed as being sensuous, but can tempt in other ways
  • Used as an obstacle the Hero must overcome to continue on their Quest

The Temptress, like the Mother and the Damsel, can be more of an idea than a person. The main reason the Temptress exists, especially in a classic Hero’s Journey story, is to be an obstacle in the Hero’s way, something they must not give into, because doing so would prove them unworthy. Getting past the temptation allows the Hero to prove they are just and worthy, and to continue on with what must be done.

Most Temptress characters are women, but they do not have to be. In general, however, a Temptress character will bring a Hero character’s downfall, whether it is purposeful or not. The Temptress character can be an echo of a Hero’s dark side, showing them what they could become if they give up their ideals. But a Temptress is not necessarily evil, or even aligned with the Villain. They exist more as an obstacle and for the character development of the Hero.

Almost every James Bond movie has a Temptress in it somewhere. And the Sirens from Greek mythology are perhaps the most literal example of this archetype, as they lead men to their deaths.

Any Temptress characters you think are well done, Squiders? Like the Damsel in Distress, what are your feelings on this archetype and its use in media?

Next: The Innocent Archetype

Character Archetypes: The Damsel in Distress

Ah, the Damsel in Distress Archetype. Well known, common, but I like to think, in this day and age, we’re getting a little more creative in our application of it. Like the Mother Archetype, at times it seems like the Damsel in Distress is more of an idea than an actual person, though this varies.

Common Aspects of the Damsel in Distress Archetype

  • Needs rescuing
  • By the Hero
  • Often female

The Damsel in Distress exists to be rescued by the Hero. The archetype is so named because characters of this type are often women, but they do not need to be. Damsels in Distress can be an end goal, a trap set by the Villain, or even a Threshold Guardian, in some cases. With character development, a Damsel in Distress can morph into a different archetype.

This archetype is common across many genres, including fairy tales, fantasy, mythology, science fiction, thrillers, and adventure stories. In some cases, a Damsel in Distress, once rescued, may have to then go rescue her Hero (ala Rapunzel).

Some examples of male Damsels in Distress (since I’m sure we can all name a ton of women: Zelda, Princess Peach, any princess in a Grimm Brothers fairy tale, etc.) include classic examples like Osiris, Santa Claus (so whomever can save Christmas), Hansel (saved by his sister), Han Solo (beginning of Return of the Jedi), and Robin from Batman. There is nothing that says a Damsel in Distress must be the opposite gender of the Hero, or that they need to be a love interest, though both of these are common.

What are your thoughts on the Damsel in Distress archetype, squiders? Does it seem to be on its way out, or at least mixed up a little more recently?

Next: The Temptress Archetype

Character Archetypes: The Threshold Guardian

I admit I like the name of this one. The Threshold Guardian! It sounds cool. Threshold Guardians are very common in any sort of Hero’s Journey plotline. Threshold Guardians can be good, evil, or neutral, alive or not, and may speak in riddles.

Common Aspects of the Threshold Guardian Archetype:

  • Acts as some sort of gatekeeper (in a literal or figurative sense)
  • Often directly stand in the Hero’s way
  • May have more than one in a single narrative
  • Can be trying to help or hinder, or may appear to do one while doing the other

Threshold Guardians stand between the Hero and what they want–or what they think they want. They may be in the employ of the Villain, they may be guarding their own interests, or they may be trying to help the Hero take the right path.

The Sphinx from myth is a good example of a Threshold Guardian. So is every combination of a pair where one is lying and one is telling the truth. A more comedic example would be the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Threshold Guardians can be defeated in a number of ways. Some required outsmarting, some can be bested physically. A Hero or his companions can even get past a Threshold Guardian by blending in. (To continue using Star Wars, Han and Luke get past the stormtroopers to rescue Leia by stealing uniforms.)

Threshold Guardian characters can morph into other archetypes by joining the party or imparting advice. A Threshold Guardian only remains one as long as there is still a threshold to be guarding. Once the Hero has successfully passed (or failed) the threshold, their purpose is done.

Threshold Guardians are numerous and can be found everywhere. I’m sure you can think of half a dozen. Many characters act as one temporarily. Think Inigo Montoya, or Sir Didymus from Labyrinth.

Any truly inspired Threshold Guardians you can think of, Squiders, ones where the solution to get past them was especially ingenious?

Next: The Damsel in Distress

Character Archetypes: The Mother

The Mother Archetype is kind of like the Mentor Archetype, in that Mother characters tend be more idealized and more removed from the action. They often show up only for a short time to provide guidance and nurturing before a Hero is sent on their way.

Common Aspects of the Mother Archetype:

  • Idealized
  • Nurturing; provides comfort and advice
  • Generally female
  • Rarely developed as a “real” person

Mother characters seem to exist purely as a stopping point in someone else’s story. They’re often more idea than person, and often based off the idea of the Earth Mother: matronly, symbolic of fertility and plenty.

Mother characters can also be apparent in their absence, with the idea that a Hero is lessened through the loss of their mother or someone fulfilling the Mother role.

Mother characters do not accompany a Hero on their quest. Often they provide their care on a one-time basis. Fairy godmothers are often considered to be examples of Mother archetypes, and the archetype is extremely common in fairy tales. But often, if you see an older woman show up somewhere, who gives comfort or advice, you’ve found a Mother character.

Any Mother characters you especially like, Squiders? I find it hard to get close to them, since they really are more idea than person.

Next: The Threshold Guardian