We can use character archetypes as a go-to tool to populate our stories with all the secondary and tertiary characters necessary for a world.
Using Archetypes to Populate Your World
Although many of our main characters will fit one or two character archetypes, they will need more than this to satisfy the story – personality traits, conflicts, needs, backstory, a goal…
This is why writers spend a lot of time developing our main characters.
But when it comes to populating the story world with more minor characters, using some character archetypes will speed up the process. You don’t have to work out huge amounts of personality or even backstory for these characters – they have specific and recognisable roles, looks (in some cases) and behaviours or objectives in a story, and with a few broad brushstrokes you can quickly create a character. Archetypes are useful in generating a group or ensemble of characters also.
Minions or Sidekicks
“I help” ~Minion/Sidekick motto
Minions can almost be said to have an archetype if not stereotype of their own nowadays – If you’re not picturing a little yellow guy when reading the word, you’ve been shut away from the world for a while.
Minions are typically the sidekicks or worker-bees to villains. While most as a group (see below) can remain nameless (and expendable) we often find some chief minions with a more developed personality, sometimes for comic relief, other times they may have their own character arc or provide a mentoring role for an anti-villain. Dave, Stuart and Kevin all had starring side-roles to Gru.
Taking away the evil mastermind scenario, the old school name for this villainous sidekick character was henchman. Famous henchmen who added some scare to the big bads in Bond include henchmen OddJob and Jaws. Crabbe and Doyle were henchmen to Harry Potter’s schoolboy nemesis Draco Malfoy.
On the good guy side, we have sidekicks. Other names for the protagonist’s sidekick are – companion, friend or best friend, cheerleader, consort, right-hand man, helper.
The sidekick is a crucial support role recognised through most archetypal lists such as Jungs, Dramatica and Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. But it is also a pretty generalistic character type where any sidekick varies with another in strengths, skills or capabilities. And being such a general character type, the actual sidekick role can be filled by almost all of the character archetypes:-
You can have sidekicks who are nerds, best friends, warrior princesses, healers, wise-ones, mystics, lovers, counsellors, confidantes, the sceptic, the fool or even the mentor.
Importantly, if developing rounded sidekicks you will need to provide them for a reason and structure for their support role to the main protagonist. But when in a group, medley or ensemble, many sidekick characters do not need to be as three-dimensional.
Whether round or flat, the sidekick is there with some basic purposes – to support the main character (protagonist or antagonist) and to enhance their characteristics and journey.
“We believe” ~ Ensemble or Group Supporting Characters
Medleys are groups of characters, often used in a Hero’s Journey. You may typically find the hero or protagonist perhaps with a couple of clearly defined sidekicks who are heroes in their own right, and a medley of secondary and tertiary characters who work as a support group of flat sidekicks. In comedy dramas on television, the medley or group becomes an ensemble.
It’s in this medley of more minor characters that character archetype usage comes into it’s own.
Harry Potter had Hermoine and Ron as sidekick heroes on his journey. Around them were some secondary characters who had their own character arcs – Neville and Luna come to mind. And of course there were many main and secondary characters to support, mentor and guide Harry such as Hagrid and Dumbledore.
But there was also a peripheral or medley of school peers who weren’t fully developed but were needed to tell the full story. Characters like cool-dude Lee Jordan, or the giggly Patil sisters or others who formed part of Dumbledore’s Army.
Other ensembles in Harry Potter were – The Order of the Phoenix and The Deatheaters – all contained known and fully developed characters, and minor characters who you may recognise the names but probably can’t easily picture them or remember what they did.
Robin Hood’s Band of Merrymen outlaws contains well-known sidekicks Little John and Friar Tuck but lesser known Will Scarlet, Alan of Dale and several who are seldom named. In some tales there are up to 140 merrymen.
The Star Wars franchise has an interesting assemblage of mostly-flat minor if not background characters. As a group, the Storm Troopers take on a singular entity of menace, and act as one minion-like character. It’s not until one or two of them are given personalities that we begin to see them as individuals – some henchmen, some evolve with storylines into heroes.
What brings these medleys or assembled groups of characters together is that they share a common belief and faith in the leadership and values of the hero.
There are four kinds of characters (many suggest less or more) but broadly speaking I can classify four –
- Major characters – Primary Main Characters – the protagonists and antagonists; and Secondary (Main) Characters – the support mentors, sidekicks, guides, fighters, henchmen etc. These are the round characters, who are developed with personality, backstory of some level, and have goals.
- Minor characters – tertiary characters with recurring or bit-part roles, medley characters with names, and nameless background characters or extras. These are the flat or two dimensional characters with no character development. (In fact, extras aren’t even characters, but more a part of the storyworld setting).
Minor characters are very unlikely to be viewpoint characters and rarely receive much screen-time, but can hold recurring and quirky roles. Minor characters don’t need introductions, they just appear, and from their archetype and manner, the reader is allowed to create their own backstory to them, if they wish.
Although their appearance may be brief and one-off, they can shine during it. This is where archetypes (or stereotypes) come into their own, providing a solid base to build a memorable tertiary character from. That rude shopboy or cheerful paperboy you chose can have a brief shining role in setting your hero off in another direction. The harsh head librarian can be so harsh that she could accidentally stop the villain from killing the hero. Or be revealed as the mastermind behind the whole story.
Frank Constanza, George’s father in Seinfield, is a brilliant minor character, even quirkier than his son. The Simpsons is riddled with them – Troy McClure, The Yes Guy, Database, Frankie the Squealer, Plopper the Pig, Hans Moleman, Arnie Pye, Dr Nick, The Crazy Cat Lady and many many more (and yes, as a Simpsons Tapped Out player, I have them all).
Begin to populate your story with a few minor characters with archetypes and invest a tiny bit to really get them to shine.
- 5 ways to use minor characters to add depth and complexity to your protagonist
- JS Moran lists fifty archetypes which could be used for minor characters – 50 types of minor characters (Part 1 of a 5 part series)
- At Better Novel Project, there are several articles on sidekick archetypes including starting with Writing the Sidekick Character (part 1 of 2) but I don’t necessarily agree with some of the formula predictions based on analysis of a couple of stories in this piece – Let’s Kill off the Sidekick.
- Casting Call: 7 Sidekick Archetypes » WriteOnSisters.com
- Assembly Required: Create an Ensemble Book Cast – WriteOnSisters.com
- 8 tips on How to Write a Believable Friendship or Best Friend Character
- 10 Secrets to Creating Unforgettable Supporting Characters – i09
- The Epic Guide to Character Creation, Part 6: Sidekick Archetypes
- Does Your Story’s Sidekick Serve a Purpose? – She’s Novel
- How Minor Characters Help You Discover Theme – K.M. Weiland
Part of 2016’s Character Archetype Series (A-Z) @ Hunter is Writing.