Character Archetypes – N for Nerd

The Nerd as modern archetype, is one often confused with Geeks, Dorks and many others. So, I’ll deal with all of these.

archetypes nerd

The Nerd, The Geek, and more

“Be nice to nerds. Chances are you’ll end up working for one.”

~ Bill Gates or Charles J. Sykes

What’s the difference between a nerd or geek? This debate has been as long-going as the two terms themselves. Some suggest one is a subset of the other, while others say they are very different.

The nerd made it’s first appearance in a Dr Seuss book, ‘If I ran the Zoo’. This was a bizarre animal with wacky hair, but aren’t they all? Listed with a ‘nerkle’ and ‘seeksucker’ we can only summise that both of these are also nerd types. The slang meaning dates back to 1951 when Newsweek magazine used it as a synonym for “drip” or “square”. It became slightly cooler, taking on a teenage trope through 1980’s movies like ‘The Breakfast Club’ , where one of the characters was differentiated as “the brain”.

The geek , etymology-wise, can be traced back to the 14th Century German word, geck, meaning court jester, freak or fool, and later, a dupe or person who can be duped.

At some point in modern times, both began to mean more than slightly wacky or off-centre, but also meant a person who has some intelligence.

Then we have the dork, commonly believed to mean a whale’s penis, but etymologists now suggest it came from the German dirk, meaning a thrusting dagger. Like the now off-trend dweeb, the dork has a slightly different meaning in archetypal form. The dork is somebody socially or physically awkward, perhaps even a little stupid rather than having a higher intelligence.

Differences Between Nerds and Geeks

It would be fair to say that if you designed a character with most of the traits listed below, most of our readers wouldn’t be able to tell the difference (or care) whether this character was called a nerd or a geek. Or both. But there are subtle differences.

A few years ago software engineer Burr Settles studied the words “geek” and “nerd” as used in 2.6 million tweets. He then extrapolated the words most associated with both, and produced a graph.

nerd and geek settles graph

After analysing the words linked to each, Settles said –

“geeky words are more about stuff, while nerdy words are more about ideas.”

“Geeks are fans, and fans collect stuff; nerds are practitioners, and practitioners play with ideas.”

Computers fall in the middle, being common to both. Geeks are more interested in brands, culture and trends (they’ll most often be the queue formers for the latest apple product) while nerds are more interested in academics, music and playing or perhaps competing in games such as chess which involve thinking.

But before we get het up about stereotypes again, Settles added –

“Of course, geeks can collect ideas and nerds play with stuff, too.

“Plus, they aren’t two distinct personalities as much as different aspects of personality.”

With the success of Bill Gates and Stephen Jobs, the nerds and geeks of the world have moved from shirked and unpopular to being very much accepted, or expected. The best Ivy League schools in the world are now full of preppy students who aren’t just class leaders and successful sports competitors but also are expected to have the high intelligence levels and cultural likings of the geek or nerd. This is a great book to read on the cultural implications:

The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory, and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School by Alexandra Robbins

But note that nowadays nerds and geeks are no longer outsiders. In fact, anyone who works in the more analytical professions such as scientists, mathematicians naturally inherit the nerd moniker, while the success of Gates and Jobs means business entrepreneurs now often take on the mantle of geek.

This whole movement of geek and nerd from a subculture which some were proud of to something much more mainstream may well see a change in the archetypes as yet. With everyone now claiming they are nerd and proud, time will tell.

Still not sure? That’s perfectly understandable, given there’s a great overlap. This Goodreads list holds over 300 books which people consider hold geek or nerd characters. Try this Venn diagram found at the Great White Snark (of course, even this diagram is hotly debated).

Venn nerd

Creating the Nerd (or Geek) Archetype

Before creating this modern archetype, pinpoint your objectives and roles for the character. Are they a mentor, a sidekick to a hero, or the hero themselves? What flaws are they going to have? What area of expertise will they have? And what won’t your extra-smart character know about or be capable of doing?

Then consider the story patterns which circle the nerd or geek. In essence these archetypes are intelligent and knowledgeable. Play around with the tropes: Knowledge is Power, and The Power of Words. Add the ‘With Great Power comes Great Responsibility’ quote attributed to Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben (Peter being the ultimate example of classic puny nerd to superhero) and then the age old belief that Power can Corrupt.

Also consider the famous quote –

Knowledge is of no value unless you put it into practise’ ~ Anton Chekhov.

Prompt: How do all these quotes affect how your nerd will act and perform through the story?

Tip:Stay away from stereotypes. Cast your nerd or geek with only a couple of the traits listed below. And if you do feel the need to give your nerd or geek glasses, make sure there is a medical reason for them (which is easy, if they use computers all day) and that this is also used as a flaw sometime (geek loses his glasses and can’t see something important).

Recognising the Nerd

  • Nerds are more introverted than many Geeks. The introversion as a personality aspect, means they often need to withdraw to be alone with their thoughts, to re-energise. This is why they may find large crowds and professions which require being around a lot of people difficult to manage.
  • They can be socially awkward or even shy with it. Social ineptness may be something which comes not from shyness and introversion, but choice – the pure nerd may be more focussed on thoughts and concepts and not be bothered by people or social requirements at all. They do not have time nor care for activities which might make them socially popular. The Nutty Professor / Einstein stereotype is an example of this, although the true Albert Einstein had a lot of time for social activities which made him a public figure in his later years.
  • Nerds specialise on one body of thinking or knowledge. They will study and analyse this area until they become experts, and then produce associated concepts from this.
  • Because nerds are interested in thoughts and ideas, for hobbies they may tend to concentrate on topics such as science fiction, virtual reality or pure maths and science areas such as computer programming. They also enjoy games, particular ones which require solving like chess, soduku or puzzles.
  • Nerds are the inventors, scientists, computer software creators, astrophysicists, theorists, professors, engineers, biomechanics and philosophers of the world. Or they’ll work in a mundane job where they are not overlooked, and can spend time just thinking.

Recognising the Geek

  • Geeks are early adopters and users of the latest greatest things. They will be the ones prepared to queue for days for the latest upgrade to their smartphone. They will also use obscure or less common technology and be a fanatic about this (Linux being an example).
  • They will be fanatical or obsessive about this technology or lifestyle, committing to online boards, going to conferences (comic-con is popular) and wearing iconic tee-shirts announcing their fandom. The key to geek recognition is the pure obsession. A geek is capable of playing a game like D&D to the point of interfering with their personal or career lives.
  • Geeks also are aware of and a fan of cultural trends. So you may find your geek enjoys techno music, goes to underground raves, and takes risks against the common laws.
  • If they’re not wearing a fandom tee, they’ll be wearing an ironic, humorous or witty tee-shirt.
  • Geeks are likely to be extroverted, or at least proud of their status as geek, and wear a wardrobe to draw attention to and celebrate their geekiness.
  • Whereas the nerd will specialise around one area, the geek will tend to have a diverse area of knowledge which could be a knowledge-area or discipline, or something like a lifestyle.
  • Ironically, a geek can have a huge range of knowledge on one subject, but also imply having knowledge in perfectly mundane or obscure areas to bore others with.
  • Geeks and gadgets are almost synonymous nowadays. The latest gadgets are now targeted to everyone for their inner geek.
  • Geeks are collectors and probably gamers. Games chosen will be those that allow a social sharing, so playing virtual action games and retro games like Dungeons and Dragons are common hobbies, especially if such games require the collection of specific equipment and gadgets to play with. Collections are of objects, gadgets, gizmos, niche toys or something themed, but always kept in pristine condition. Some geeks who border on nerds may also collect ideas or concepts, or information, and hold huge databases or libraries on one area of expertise.
  • The geek will likely have a career in IT, marketing, graphic design, as an entrepreneur or be something like a bartender or barista which would allow them time off for other geek hobbies, but enough of a scientific application to become skilled and recognised for their work.

Nerd or Geek Culture

These days being a nerd or geek has become such a popular claim that there is a large and forceful culture your nerd may well sit within. Any large group like this, however, can provide several areas of conflict or concern.

Consider the very current real life outrage by some ribald fans when Captain America was outed as a double-agent for Hydra. The writer of that new comic has received some incredible death threats for destroying Steve Roger’s holy persona. Once he logged off from the internet because of these, a few fans started threatening people who haven’t written or done anything with the superhero for years.

What used to be the domain of solely nerds or geeks – things like superheroes, certain games, and computers, has now been corporatised, serialised and made into products to be consumed. Combined with the anonymity and accessibility offered by the internet, with the large groups which can form around a fandom, and sometimes the nerds can turn: some of them into a base of fandom which puts Stephen King’s Annie Wilke’s to shame as a displeased fan.

Prompt: Consider what your nerd may turn into if something they place emphasis on as a basis for their nerdhood is changed or destroyed. Do they have a sense of entitlement? Or do they move on and enjoy other nerdy things? What part of nerd or geek culture is important to them?

Further Reading:

Example Nerds or Geeks

geek pegg quote

The socially inept nerd taken to extremes can take on the wise-fool archetype, an ancient archetype. Steve Urkel from Family Matters was a good example of this – he was extremely smart in some ways, but completely incompetent and clumsy socially, causing much pain to many other characters. Urkel also gave us the stereotypical braces and really high pants which later became trademarks of the movie franchise Revenge of the Nerds.

Richie Cunningham of Happy Days was my own first memory of the archetype, as a counterpoint to cool dude, The Fonz.

The nerd taken to another extreme can become the cerebral Professor Charles Xavier of the X-Men, or even George Lucas’ archaeologist professor Indiana Jones, who became an action hero. Dan Brown’s Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon in The Da Vinci Code is another example of a nerd (and also geek collector of symbols) turned hero.

Hermoine Granger from the Harry Potter books, fills in most of the boxes as a nerd – she’s studious, always has her head in books, starts off very nerdy looking (although has some make-overs as she blooms into young adulthood), is obviously the smartest of the triad, and was even portrayed as being clumsy on occasion.

This type of character – nerd who will be made over as popular girl or boy, is common in many teenage movies. Examples – She’s Out of Control, She’s All That, The Nutty Professor, and Mean Girls.

The Big Bang Theory muddies many of its characters between geek and nerd, but also is responsible for another wave of geek or nerd pride. Sheldon is brilliant, quirky, obsessive and not shy at all, but he doesn’t care what people think of them. Howard is not shy either, but he does care what people think. Leonard and Raj are shy but want to be accepted by other people. The British The I.T. Crowd did something similar, playing to the trope of normal society distrusting I.T. Support.

Sherlock Holmes is a nerd of extremities – very knowledgeable in many areas, but socially inept, and unpopular with normal people.

In real life, many celebrities make claims to geekhood, but possibly don’t really match the general criteria. However, we recognise the following as true geeks and/or nerds: Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Joss Whedon, Felicia Day, Nathan Fillion, Violet Blue, Will Wheaton, Bill Gates, Chris Hardwick (of ‘The Nerdist’ podcast), George Takei, Stephen Colbert, Simon Pegg, Tina Fey, Michaelangelo, Albert Einstein.

Other Names, Associates and Origins

  • Other names: brainiac, “the brain”, dork, dweeb, intellectual, book nerd, neo-nerd, uber-nerd
  • Associations: professor, scholar, academic, scientist, inventor, visionary, librarian, overachiever, hacker, virtuous hacker, the drone, the dilbert, the cubicle, tinkerer/McGyver
  • Sub-cultures: There are many sub- and cross-cultures in the world of geeks and nerds. Geek Girl is one of them, Gamers another. Fanboys or Fangirls are a subset of the geek culture, coming from the more ancient fanatic archetype. Mops are watered down fans, helpful in accepting a new concept and making it into a thing. Hipsters took on the thick-rimmed glasses of the nerd.
    • In this baseline magazine article, eleven different sub-types to movie geeks are named with their story tropes or subtexts : the jerk technician (sub-text: everyone resents tech support because they need it so much); the dweeb (sub-text: life after high school is still high school); the virtuous hacker (sub-text: knowledge is power); the evil mastermind (sub-text: geeks don’t handle power); the rebel (sub-text: armed geeks might be useful if machines get out of hand); the reluctant hero (sub-text: they’re not laughing with you, but at you); the drone (sub-text: your personal hell is actually quite common); the hottie (making a geek attractive to sell a movie); the sidekick (a geek solves the problem, but can’t be the hero); the mad scientist (sub-text: creativity is intimidating); the tinkerer (or MacGyver).
  • Sub-archetypes / stereotypes: nutty professor/Einstein, reclusive professor, wise-fool
  • Shadows: evil masterminds, psychopaths/sociopaths, mad scientist, hermit, evil inventor, addict, hyperfocused, crazy cat lady, crazy 8 (teen trope), nerd as minion to a big bad villain.


Part of 2016’s Character Archetype Series (A-Z) @ Hunter is Writing.

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