The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes & Heroines by Tami D. Cowden, Caro LaFever, & Sue Viders: “people power” for writers

The Complete Writer's Guide to Heroes and Heroines: Sixteen Master ArchetypesThe Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes and Heroines: Sixteen Master Archetypes by Tami D. Cowden
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This apparently self-published handbook of character archetypes adds a powerful tool to the writer’s kit.

As I recall, this book popped up on the Gooodreads recommendation engine, and, as I have been trying to develop my own method of using the concept of archetypes to help me built dramatic characters, I was immediately drawn to it and knew I had to read it. I bought myself a copy and plunged in.

I was immediately impressed with the authors’ command of their material and the level of thought that they had put into their book. According to them, the main characters—the heroes and heroines—of every story are based upon one (or more) of exactly 16 different archetypes: eight male, eight female. Furthermore, each of these archetypes manifests as one of two types; so the storyteller, in creating a principal character, has a palette of 32 different basic types to choose from. These different types are distinct, recognizable, and strongly motivated to behave in consistent, characteristic ways, and it is exactly these features, the authors assert, that make characters fascinating and enjoyable for readers and viewers.

This contention I did not find hard to accept; I had arrived at much the same conclusion in my own researches and thinking on character creation. What surprised me was the exact identity of these archetypes, for it does not correspond to other lists of archetypes that I had come across, notably those of Carl Jung, who I think was the first to adapt the word archetype to the psychological context, and those of Caroline Myss, who proposes a much longer list of archetypes in her book Sacred Contracts: Awakening Your Divine Potential. A still different list of potential character archetypes can be drawn from Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. And I have derived pleasure and profit from using Animal Attraction: Discover Your Animal Personality Type and Unlock the Secrets to Your Friendships, Sex Life, and Love Life by zoologist Roy Feinson, a cheeky look at how humans fall into types that resemble certain animals. The “sixteen master archetypes” put forward by Cowden, LaFever, and Viders in their book are different from any of these, but the authors do not explain how they arrived at their list; it is simply presented as a fully worked-out system.

This is probably because Heroes & Heroines is not a book of theory; it is intended as a practical handbook, giving the writer only as much information as he needs to launch on the difficult task of character creation. And this it does very well. After a brief introduction, the authors get down to presenting the character archetypes in the form of a briefing for each one, arranged under a set of fixed headings: qualities, virtues, flaws, background, styles, and occupation. The consistency of the format makes it easy to compare the different archetypes; it also makes the book pleasurable in itself to read, maybe something to do with the scientific systematizing of the willfulness and messiness of human behavior.

The authors start with the eight male archetypes. Curious about what they are? I don’t think it’s a spoiler to give the list, since it shows up right in the table of contents:

  • the Chief
  • the Bad Boy
  • the Best Friend
  • the Charmer
  • the Lost Soul
  • the Professor
  • the Swashbuckler
  • the Warrior

(I was interested to note that the list is alphabetical except for the Chief. My guess is that the authors felt that the only place for the Chief was at the top of the list!)

The authors are liberal and specific with their examples, to help make the archetype clear and vivid for the reader. They characterize the Chief as “a dynamic leader [who] has time for nothing but work,” and give as examples Captain Kirk of Star Trek and Henry Higgins of My Fair Lady. These are telling examples, for superficially it might appear that Captain Kirk and Henry Higgins have little in common. One is the intrepid commander of a large spaceship, the other an eccentric upper-class Victorian social theorist. What they share, according to these authors, are the core traits of the Chief: they are active, strong-willed, focused on their task, and they exact obedience from those around them. They are undeterred by obstacles and make formidable opponents. These traits form the core of the archetype; a menu of other, less central traits comes into play beyond this, helping to distinguish one Chief from another. For example, while Captain Kirk exemplifies more strongly the 3 “virtues” of the Chief, namely that he is goal-oriented, decisive, and responsible, Henry Higgins probably shows more of the Chief’s 3 “flaws,” those of being stubborn, unsympathetic, and dominating.

Chiefs are further distinguished by one of 2 styles in which they manifest: the born leader or the conqueror. The former is a Chief born to a life of power and authority, while the latter is a Chief who had to fight his way to the top. I’m not very familiar with the backgrounds of these two characters, but I sense that Higgins is more of a born leader, while Kirk is probably a conqueror.

Archetypes are distinguished still further by their backgrounds (the circumstances of their early lives) and their occupation. By tinkering with all of these features, a writer can construct a nuanced and striking character. And there are still further options. For the features of two different archetypes can be combined to create a single layered archetype. The authors point to the example of John Rambo in First Blood, who combines traits of the Warrior (a principled, fearless fighter) and the Lost Soul (a man carrying an inner wound that won’t heal).

A further avenue for writers to explore is that of the evolving archetype, a character that changes, in the course of a story, from one archetype into another. Here the authors point to the character Edward Lewis in Pretty Woman, who evolves from a Chief into a Best Friend.

Female archetypes get equal time. They are:

  • the Boss
  • the Seductress
  • the Spunky Kid
  • the Free Spirit
  • the Waif
  • the Librarian
  • the Crusader
  • the Nurturer

These are all covered in the same way, with examples. And while the authors do not go into this, it’s possible to draw parallels between the male and female lists. For the Boss is the female counterpart of the Chief, the Seductress the female counterpart of the Charmer, and so on. I would say the parallels are pretty close for 6 of the archetypes on each list, with 2 remaining unique to its list in each case.

The book goes on to give brief descriptions of how the archetypes interact with each other; in particular, it shows how every male archetype interacts with every female archetype, discussing in each case how they clash, how they mesh, and how they change. The authors achieve a lot in a short space, and I was impressed with amount and quality of work they put into these interactions. Here too they give examples, mostly from movies, of these archetype interactions. A movie in which a Swashbuckler meets up with a Seductress? Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. How about a Best Friend encountering a Free Spirit? Clueless.

I liked all of this very much. But my response to the book went even deeper than that. For I found that when I read certain material in it, I actually teared up; I recognized aspects of myself in these archetypes. When I read the authors’ description of the Lost Soul, I recognized myself, which led me to wonder how I got to be that way. But perhaps more than that I embody the archetype of the Professor—the intellectual who has a closer relationship with his books than he does with people. Gadzooks—I’m a layered archetype!

The book does have some faults. Although my copy appears to be a new 2013 edition of the work originally published in 2000, it seems a homemade thing with copyediting problems. Some of the text and paragraph formatting has gone awry, and the names of the archetypes are always given in full caps (CHIEF, SPUNKY KID, and so on). All these things give the book an amateur feeling that it does not deserve. And, as I say, this reader would have appreciated some note on how the authors discovered or developed these archetypes. And why are there exactly 8 of them, broken neatly into male and female? And why are there exactly 2 subspecies of each? These kinds of questions gnaw at the Professor.

But, altogether, I think this book is a valuable tool for anyone who wants to engage in dramatic writing. I’ve struggled to develop characters in my own writing career, and I am conscious of the amount of thought and analysis that has gone into working out these archetypes and their interconnections. Each of the male-female archetype interactions that the authors provide would form the heart of a good story. There are 64 of these; a writer could just scoop one up and be off to a running start. I wish to heck I’d had this book when I was doing my TV series.

Anyway, I’m using it now. I don’t know whether it contains the ultimate truth about characters and archetypes. But I do know that if you structure your characters and their behavior based on these archetypes, you will come a lot closer to having a story that throbs with the pulse of life.

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