Hey there word nerds! For the past several articles, we’ve discussed the concept of a Storytelling Superpower, and how we all can find ours. The secret is the heart of every story–the character. There are four main character archetypes, and discovering which one resonates more with you can help you unlock your own storytelling superpower. In my last article, we discussed two of these archetypes — the Disruptor and the Underdog. Now, we’re skipping our regular #5onFri series to take a look at the final two: the survivor and the protector.
Character Archetypes: The Survivor
Until now, we have looked at archetypes of characters who want to change something either in themselves or in the world around them. Now we shift gears to archetypes driven by a desire for preservation. True to their name, survivor characters will do whatever it takes to preserve their life as they know it. This may be a literal battle for survival or simply a desire not to shake up the status quo, but to the character it feels like a life-and-death struggle. Whether they are stranded on a desert island, kidnapped by an evil genius, or fighting to beat a terminal illness, these are characters readers will admire for their pluck, determination, and sheer creative willpower.
Like underdogs, survivors are of the everyman time so readers see a part of themselves reflected in these characters and feel inspired when these characters persist against persist odds. There is also something inherently hopeful in this archetype. Despite the doom and gloom that often follows these characters, they hold fast and persist even if seems like all is lost. Taken to the extreme, survivors can become self-reliant to a fault, often isolating themselves and failing to ask for help even when they desperately need it.
As writers, we also need to be careful not to let the character’s struggle derail the story and make the issue or problem the story’s only raison d’être. It’s one thing to craft your narrative around a character who overcomes a trauma, but there has to be more to the story than just the trauma itself. A beautiful example is the short story “Everyday Use,” in which author Alice Walker explores issues of race, culture, and what it means to honor your heritage. While these themes are very present throughout, this is not a “racial heritage story” but is instead a story where the theme comes to light in how differently the two main characters interpret and understand their racial heritage, and the conflict that subsequently arises between them.
Character Archetypes: The Protector
Protectors are larger-than-life heroes. Whether or not they wear capes, boots, and spandex, then see the world in danger and want to do whatever they can to protect it and those they love in it. As with survivors, protectors are driven by a desire to preserve rather than to shake things up. Whether it’s Iron Man, James Bond, or the nerdy and militant Dwight Schrute from The Office, protectors show almost superhuman fortitude in their quest to protect what they believe in, prevent disasters, and stand up to the forces of evil.
Protectors are the most popular and prevalent character archetype, in part because heroic characters are powerful and inspiring. With all this power, however, often comes arrogance and protectors can become obsessed with status and might even misuse their power. Also, these characters do not like to follow rules or be subordinate to someone else, and they detest change especially if it undermines their authority. As with all larger-than-life characters, the way to make protectors engaging and relatable to readers is to show a hint of vulnerability and imperfection.
Protectors often come across as more likeable than their disruptor counterparts. After all, it’s easier for readers to root for a hero who is trying to save the world than it is to root for one who wants to take over the world or change it in his favor. There is one genre in short fiction, however, where we often see a counter-example of this, where the larger-than-life protector character is extremely unlikeable. This niche is horror—particularly the early classics from Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe. The reason it works to have unsympathetic protectors is because if they were otherwise the reader would not want to see them suffer. In Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” and “The Birthmark” or in many of Poe’s stories, the appeal of the story isn’t that the character succeeds, but in seeing him fail. And the best way to make a reader root against a character is to make that character unlikeable.
Your Character’s transformation
Now that you understand the four archetypes, it’s important to step back and remember that these are not fixed categories. Remember that change is inherent in any work of fiction; if your character doesn’t change in some way, then it’s a static dossier not a story. Keep in mind that this change does not have to be extreme. You do not need to push your character from one pole to the opposite. It can be no more than a subtle shift.
Remember, too, that the character’s want needs to drive this transformation. In Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” we see the grandmother change from narcissistic and manipulative matriarch into a desperate woman begging for her life. Because she starts out trying to control and dominate everyone in her family but ends up losing all control (including over her own life), this is why the story so heart-wrenching As you craft your characters, consider not only what they want and how they will transform throughout the story, but also how that desire will affect and support that change.
Your story’s resolution hinges on how you resolve your protagonist’s quest for that thing they desire. Does your character get what she wants? If so, does she still want it? The ending will depend on how you decide answer these two questions, but keep in mind that your character’s personality, what she wants, and how she transforms in pursuit of it, these are all inextricably linked. The key is to weave these threads together without it feeling like you’ve tied up your story in a neat bow. Often what differentiates a great story from one that is merely mediocre is the artistry of the ending, which both resolves the character’s quest for the thing she wants, and also transform her in the process. When the ending feels both unexpected and inevitable—surprising, but also deeply satisfying to the reader—that is when you know a story is truly exceptional.
Missed the other articles in this series? Check them out below:
Also, be sure to take the Storytelling Superpower Quiz!