The first thing writers run into when discovering Dramatica are the eight Archetypal Characters. In this series you will have a chance to rediscover these eight familiar characters and find ways to break them apart and make them more complicated and sophisticated.
Archetypes, Story Driver, and Hero
By far, the most useless aspect of the Hero’s Journey mono-myth lies with the concept of the character archetype. The Shapeshifter, the Trickster, the Threshold Guardian…while romantically named, prove ultimately worthless to the working writer.
On the other hand, Archetypal Characters as defined by the Dramatica theory of story prove extremely beneficial. Here, characters are seen as functions, completely devoid of their relationship to the “hero” of a story. Protagonists pursue goals and Antagonists prevent them. Guardians help while Contagonists get in the way.
The Hero is nowhere to be found.
While there are some similarities between the two ways of looking at story, the mono-myth approach falls well short of defining all the archetypes present in a complete story. The following is a comparison of the two paradigms and the relative usefulness of each. It assumes you have a working knowledge of the Dramatica Archetypes.
First, let’s start with the Campbell archetypes that are actually helpful:
Campbell: The Hero’s function is to serve and sacrifice.
Dramatica equivalent: Protagonist - the Protagonist’s function is to pursue the goal of the story. There are no moral implications associated with this function; the goal could be noble, it could be despicable. All that matters is that this character is the one pushing the effort towards the goal. “Restore order” could be interpreted as solving the story’s problem, but again “order” implies some sort of assumed preference to things being orderly (sometimes chaos is the thing that can solve a story’s problem). The concept of Hero is identified as the character who is both Protagonist and Main Character. The two are not automatically the same.
Campbell: The Mentor’s function is to guide.
Dramatica equivalent: Guardian - the Guardian’s function is to teach or help, and represents conscience. This one is pretty similar, although it’s important to point out that the Campbell version assumes the Mentor is guiding the Hero of the story. The Guardian could be helping or teaching anyone. All that matters is that they objectively represent that function.
Campbell: The Shadow’s function is to destroy.
Dramatica equivalent: Antagonist - the Antagonist’s function is to prevent the goal of the story from being met. This too is pretty similar, but the idea that they have to “destroy” can be limiting to some writers.
Campbell: The Ally’s function is to assist.
Dramatica equivalent: Sidekick - the Sidekick’s function is to show faithful support. Again, the same.
Campbell: The Shapeshifter’s function is to question and deceive.
Dramatica equivalent: While the deceiving part sounds closer to Contagonist, the idea that this character is supposed to supply “doubt” in a story implies that this character is the Skeptic - the Skeptic’s function is to be the disbeliever - the cynical one who opposes efforts towards the goal.
Campbell: The Trickster’s function is to disrupt.
Dramatica equivalent: The closest thing would be the Contagonist - the Contagonist’s function is to deflect or hinder the efforts towards the goal. In addition and in opposition to the Guardian’s function, the Contagonist represents temptation.
But this is where the similarities cease and Campbell’s archetypes begin to break down in terms of their objective usefulness.
Campbell: The Threshold Guardian’s function is to test. The Herald’s function is to warn and challenge.
Dramatica equivalent: There is no equivalent. Campbell sees both the Threshold Guardian and the Herald as characters responsible for driving the story forward. In the case of the TG, the hero must meet and overcome him in order to commit himself to his quest. In other words he turns Act 1 to Act 2. That’s a lot of responsibility for one character. It’s also extremely limiting creatively.
The concept of the Herald is even more egregious. This poor character has the major responsibility of issuing the “challenge” to the Main Character to embark on the journey in the first place. Proponents of Campbell’s theory are quick to point out that this character can be a newspaper or a storm, but you really shouldn’t have to bend a theory in order to make it work.
Act turns should not be tied to any one character. Not only is it limiting in terms of a writer’s creativity, it doesn’t even make sense. The development of a story’s problem progresses along the competing throughlines (the main plot, the Main Character’s throughline, etc.) based on the kind of drivers established at the beginning of a story’s problems.
The most interesting aspect of this whole study is the fact that Campbell is leaving out two very important archetypes - the Reason archetype and the Emotion archetype. Interestingly enough, most stories that follow the monomyth paradigm find a way to blend the elements of Reason and Emotion into the Hero or any one of the Allies attached to him or her.
Regardless of which paradigm is followed, stories that use Archetypal Characters often fall flat in the character department. Star Wars and Contact are not textbook examples of masterful character development. What you see is what you get. But what they can do is give an author a starting point or shorthand to get them rolling towards whatever it was that excited them about writing in the first place. I suspect George Lucas was more interested in battling light swords than he was the subtle intricacies of character motivation.
Clearly though, one approach is superior and far more succinct in its examination of what constitutes a complete story. Archetypal Characters, as defined by Dramatica, are seen as a collection of complimentary elements that work in tandem to provide an example of one way of solving the story’s central problem. They are defined not by their relation to the Hero, but by their function within the story and thus, are not confined by one narrow view of what stands for a great story.
Wouldn’t it be nice if you had a set of eight basic characters from which to draw upon while writing a story? And wouldn’t it be nicer if they operated completely independent of the “hero”?
As previously explained, the character archetypes found in the Hero’s Journey mono-myth are a complete waste of time for anyone interested in writing a story. They define a vision of character that is so narrow, that they become useless to anyone trying to write a story that isn’t about a “hero’s transformational journey.” And there are a lot of writers who aren’t.
The Dramatica Archetypes on the other hand are, by design, objective and therefore can be used in any story regardless of purpose.
It should be obvious that the impetus for writing Star Wars had little to do with the intricacies of refined character development. As such, the characters in that film come off flat and to a point, obvious. Yet, they still work. Why is that?
In my classes, I present a collection of slides describing each and every Archetype. Definitions of each are provided, along with their corresponding character within Star Wars. Examples from the Robert Zemeckis film Contact are also provided.
There is balance within the archetypes. Protagonists have their Antagonists, Sidekicks have their Skeptics, and Reason has Emotion. Without that balance, a story will feel one-sided and the audience will feel cheated. You can’t have one side of an argument without supplying the other. To that end, it is important to bring up the concept of the Contagonist.
The Contagonist is solely a Dramatica innovation and one that becomes demonstrably necessary when considered within the context of balance. The Guardian character, perhaps one of the most widely used character archetypes in all of narrative fiction, cannot exist in a vacuum. That character needs their counterpart in order for their function within a story to seem genuine.
So there you have the eight basic character archetypes, defined clearly and objectively without the use of “masks.” Each has a function within the story: the Protagonist pursues the goal while the Antagonist tries to prevent that from happening. The Sidekick cheers them on while the Skeptic cynically disapproves. Reason gives level-headed advice while Emotion provides the right side of the brain with comfort. And finally, the Guardian chips in and actually helps out while the Contagonist just gets in the way.
But what makes these far superior to Tricksters or Shapeshifters is that they are defined NOT by their relation to the hero, but rather by their function towards or away from the story goal. Sidekicks don’t have to be attached to the Protagonist and Contagonists don’t have to act as servants to the Antagonist. All that matters is that they perform their functions in regards to the story goal. Regardless of what kind of story you are trying to write, and as long as you buy into the idea that stories are about solving problems (which I think everyone can universally agree on), it then becomes clear that archetypes based on the goal of a story actually serve as useful tools for a writer. Any kind of writer.
The only problem with these guys is that they’re kind of boring if used as is. Coming up next, we’ll dive into these characters in more detail, see what makes them tick, and show ways of actually making them interesting.
Archetypes and Motivations
Characters are more than the labels they are so easily defined with.
As explained in the previous article introducing the Dramatica Archetypes, each character is defined by their function within the main story line. Protagonists pursue goals while Guardians aid the effort towards that goal. While these quick definitions make it easy to understand their purpose in a story, they fall short of actually providing an author with the means to use these characters in a story.
To find those tools within the archetypes, they first must be broken down into a finer resolution.
If you want to know what motivates your character, you must move beyond the labels of Protagonist and Antagonist and look at the elements that created that label in the first place. Looking this closely at a character, we can see that there are motivations that lead to action and motivations that lead to decision making. An archetype happens when just the right action element is matched up with just the right decision element. Put the two together in the same character and the labels we’ve grown so familiar with will “ring out” as if striking the right harmonic chord.
I focus my attention on defining the elements that work well together in the second part of my presentation on Archetypal Characters.
So a Protagonist is driven to Pursue a goal (their Action element) while at the same time possessing the motivation to Consider (their Decision element) the pros and cons of attempting that goal. The Antagonist is driven to Prevent that goal and to force the characters in the story to Reconsider whether or not they should take action in the first place. Match the right Action element with the right Decision element and you get an Archetypal Character. While there may indeed be some cultural significance to these characters (as witnessed by Jung/Campbell/Vogler), their real power lies in their objective reality.
At first glance, it may be difficult to decipher the difference between Consider and Reconsider. The former describes a character who weighs their options, makes a decision and moves on. The latter describes a character who has already made a decision, but now finds themselves debating whether they made the right decision or not. It’s difficult to make sense of at first, but once you see it at work, over time it will start to become apparent (I promise).
In addition, it’s important to note that these elements do not necessarily have to be “within” the character themselves, they can be attributed to or seen as properties of that character by others within the story. The Antagonist represents the motivation to Reconsider, whether they are driven to do it themselves or whether they motivate others to Reconsider. Regardless of how it is exposed within a story, all that matters is that they represent that part of the story’s larger argument.
You’ll find examples of each Archetype broken down by their motivation elements at the end of this article.
You can see how the murder of Luke’s aunt and uncle is really an attempt by the Empire to get the Rebels to Reconsider their rebellious efforts. It’s not so much that Mr. Tarkin is pacing back and forth deliberating whether or not he made the right choice as it is that he and his compatriots represent the motivation to Reconsider. Lucky for the galaxy, Luke decided to stick with his original Consideration.
But Archetypal Characters are boring, right? For the most part, I agree. Sure, maybe one or two within a story is OK, but all eight? Probably not a good idea nowadays (unless you’re purposely trying to create a throwback to 20th century fiction). The trick is to realize that you don’t have to match up the right Action element with the right Decision element. You can mix and match to your heart’s desire. In other words, you can let your creativity take over.
Woody Harrelson’s character in Zombieland, Tallahassee, is a unique mix of elements from the Guardian Archetype and the Contagonist Archetype. As Guardian to Jesse Einsenberg and the girls, Tallahassee represents the drive to Help the group reach the amusement park. But it would be quite a stretch to say that he also represented the other Guardian element, Conscience, in the story. If anything, he is motivated by Temptation. You don’t have to look much further than his addiction to Hostess Sno Balls for proof of that. This is what makes his character so unique and interesting. The fact that he is motivated by conflicting elements creates an interestingness factor to him that Ben Kenobi can’t quite live up to.
You can even combine Archetypal Characters as they did in the original Toy Story. Woody is both the Protagonist and Reason character of the story. As Protagonist, he Pursues the goal of reuniting with Andy while also Considering the pros and cons of taking Buzz back with him. As Reason, he applies Logic (as in the opening sequence when all the other toys are freaking out during Andy’s birthday party) while at the same time maintaining Control over the group and the situation.
This understanding of Character Archetypes is precisely what makes the Dramatica theory of story superior to all previous understandings of story. As opposed to the Campbell/Hero’s journey paradigm, the Dramatica Archetypes are seen as stepping stones towards more complex storytelling. While you can use them as is, their real power lies in their ability to easily communicate a real understanding of character motivation. In fact, once you understand the elements that make up an Archetypal Character, the only limit to character development is your own imagination.