Character Development Keys

If there’s one question I get asked about screenwriting theory more than any other it’s what’s my deal with character archetypes? Here’s your chance to find out what that deal is with the Screenwriting Master Class course: Character Development Keys.

It’s a 1-week online class where you do pretty much everything on your own time schedule: download and read lectures, review and post comments on the public forums, upload ideas and optional writing exercises. You want to do that in bed in your pajamas sipping coffee? Be my guest!

There is one teleconference which is live, but I record and upload that, so you can even check that out on your own time, too.

As to the course itself, there are seven lectures written by yours truly:

1: Character Archetypes and Story Structure
2: Protagonist
3: Nemesis
4: Attractor
5: Mentor
6: Trickster
7: Switch Protagonist

The study script for the course: The Dark Knight, screenplay by Jonathan Nolan & Christopher Nolan, story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer, based on characters created by Bob Kane. If you’re a fan of this movie, that alone is probably reason enough to take this class because you will understand the film in a whole new way, through the lens of character archetypes.

In addition, you will get the opportunity to put the theories you learn into action by workshopping one of your own stories.

And as a bonus: I’ll be presenting a set of character development tools I have assembled over the years to help you dig into characters even further to uncover their unique personalities and voice.

This is a great chance to immerse yourself in what I consider to be one of the most fascinating and helpful ways of approaching character development and indeed, the story-crafting process as a whole: character archetypes.

All of that in only 1-week. The course runs begins Monday, March 31. And again, you can do the entire course in your pajamas! Sucking down caffeine! Devouring chocolate bon bons! The beauty of the online experience!

For more information, go here.

As always, I look forward to the opportunity to work with you!

Reader Question: Does a Mentor always have to be right?

A question from Annika:

In your five archetypes that populate almost every movie, does the Mentor always have to be right? If the issue at hand came down to heart versus head and the protagonist should be using their heart more, could being under the influence of a mentor, who approaches things from a head-centered space, actually be working against them? So, basically, can the Mentor and Attractor work against each other?

In answer to your first question, there are no rules in screenwriting, nor with archetypes. They are simply tools to help us develop and understand our stories. So can a Mentor be wrong? Yes.

Re your second question: Can a Mentor and Attractor work against each other? Sure. A perfect example is in The Shawshank Redemption. I consider that to be a Dual Protagonist narrative with Andy and Red each having their own Hero’s Journey. Looking at the story through Red’s perspective, here’s how I see the character archetype lineup:

Protagonist – Red
Nemesis – Institutionalization
Attractor – Andy
Mentor – Brooks
Trickster – Freedom (when he gets released from prison)

Brooks (played wonderfully by James Whitmore) represents what I call dark wisdom in that he’s a Mentor who shows Red the wrong path. How? By gaining his freedom, then choosing to commit suicide. The fact that when Red is released, he goes to work in the same grocery store as Brooks, lives in the same halfway house, and face the same choice Brooks does — find a way to live with freedom or turn against it — spotlights Brooks as Mentor. Indeed Red is sorely tempted to, at least, commit a crime and get sent back to prison:


	Red lies smoking in bed. Unable to sleep. 

				RED (V.O.) 
		Terrible thing, to live in fear. 
		Brooks Hatlen knew it. Knew it all 
		too well. All I want is to be back 
		where things make sense. Where I 
		won't have to be afraid all the time. 

	He glances up at the ceiling beam. "Brooks Hatlen was here." 

				RED (V.O.) 
		Only one thing stops me. A promise 
		I made to Andy. 

And what was that promise?

			(turns back) 
		Red, if you ever get out of here, 
		do me a favor. There's this big 
		hayfield up near Buxton. You know 
		where Buxton is? 

		Lots of hayfields there. 

		One in particular. Got a long rock 
		wall with a big oak at the north 
		end. Like something out of a Robert 
		Frost poem. It's where I asked my 
		wife to marry me. We'd gone for a 
		picnic. We made love under that 
		tree. I asked and she said yes. 
		Promise me, Red. If you ever get 
		out, find that spot. In the base of 
		that wall you'll find a rock that 
		has no earthly business in a Maine 
		hayfield. A piece of black volcanic 
		glass. You'll find something buried 
		under it I want you to have. 

		What? What's buried there? 

		You'll just have to pry up that 
		rock and see. 

	Andy turns and walks away. 

Right there we see the choice crystallized: Go the route of the Mentor (Brooks) or Attractor (Andy). And Red’s connection to Andy proves stronger than the dark wisdom of Brooks.

Sometimes in a story, the Protagonist faces a choice: Follow their head or follow their heart. In cases like that, we can use the Mentor and Attractor archetype to physicalize that choice.

[Originally posted May 14, 2011]

Tools, not rules

In my current Write a Worthy Nemesis class, the subject arose about Helen’s character in Bridesmaids. Throughout the story, she functions as a Nemesis in relation to Annie, who is the Protagonist. But by the end, Helen mends her ways and joins together with the other bridesmaids to help save Lillian’s wedding, even going so far as to help nudge along the budding romance between Annie and Nathan. Michelle, a writer in the class, asked:

I’m glad you mentioned Helen as the Nemesis in Bridesmaids in this lecture. I’ve heard/read a lot that the Nemesis doesn’t arc in the end (for the most part). They get hit by the karma train and that’s that. In Bridesmaids, Helen and Annie end up teaming together, becoming friends in the end. It makes me wonder if she is first Nemesis and then trickster?

That spawned an energetic discussion and had me digging back into some lectures I’d written years ago, so I posted this:

I used to be pretty hard-assed about a character never changing their primary archetype function. The real reasons for this was I found two things with young writers: (1) They didn’t take the time to really drill down into their key characters to determine what was at their root, what was their core essence. That almost always indicates what their narrative function [archetype] is. Instead they would say, “Oh, he’s a Trickster-Mentor-Attractor.” That doesn’t provide clarity, rather confusion. (2) Per this last point, some would get confused, rather than helped by using archetypes.

So I’d just say flat-out: Whatever primary archetype your character is, they are throughout. They may change masks, but their primary archetype never changes.

That sounds an awful lot like a rule, doesn’t it? And over time, I have found myself moving further and further away from anything that sounds like a rule.

Stories are organic. We need to find our way into their heart and soul to make them come alive.

With screenwriting gurus trumpeting so many formulas and paradigms, that has led to a proliferation of formulaic scripts.

So I have strained out anything I say that can be construed as a rule. Principles, yes. Conventional wisdom, yes. Rules, no.

Circling back, is it possible for a character to change primary archetypes in a screenplay? While atypical, it can happen.

If we look at Bridesmaids and consider Helen’s character as a Nemesis, when she turns at the end, does she transform into a Trickster or more aptly an Attractor? You could make that argument.

Again archetypes are tools, not rules. [Mantra time!]

So that is a brief summary of how my thinking has evolved, mostly in response to the formulaic tripe that comprises a vast majority of the screenplays written in large part due to these formulas and paradigms that have been promulgated, and the writer not going into their story sufficiently enough to connect with the characters and allow them to breathe life into the narrative.

Archetypes are wonderful, but like anything else, when we try to codify them into rules, we run the risk of strangling creativity, spontaneity and squeezing the life-blood out of our stories.

So whatever approach you have to writing, archetypes or otherwise, remember: They are tools, not rules.

U. of Tennessee appearance: Friday, March 1, 2013

For any of you GITS readers who happen to live near Knoxville, Tennessee, I will be speaking there this Friday.


If the Hero’s Journey can be said to be a universal structure for story, is there an associated structure of character types? By analyzing several movies, we will explore five primary character archetypes and key concepts articulated by Carl Jung as they relate to narrative, film analysis, and screenwriting. It’s a synthesis of the foundation to character-based screenwriting and much of what I do in the way of teaching at Screenwriting Master Class and the ongoing conversation about the craft here on the blog.

The event this Friday will be an hour-long presentation followed by a Q&A, then reception, and it’s open free to the public.

By the way, if you are affiliated with a film studies or screenwriting program at a university or college, and might be interested in a presentation like this one, get in touch with me. I am passionate about these ideas because I believe they can help take us away from formulaic writing by focusing our attention first and foremost on characters, everything in our stories flowing from there. It’s also a fresh way to do film analysis. So I am excited to promote these concepts wherever I can.

For those of you who will happen to be in Tennessee on Friday, hope to see you there!