Writing Excuses 17.25: Archetypes, Ensembles, and Expectations
Key points: How do you differentiate the members of your ensemble? What is the story about, and who needs to populate that world? What archetypes do you need? Archetype may not be the right word. Roles? Mix it up, make the mentor also dopey comic relief. Consider roles in the plot, along with personalities or characterization archetypes. Beware of falling into stereotypes, of making characters just like your favorites. Make sure your ensemble has to come together as a group, that they have to work at it.
[Season 17, Episode 25]
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Archetypes, Ensembles, and Expectations.
[Zoraida] 15 minutes long.
[Kaela] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Zoraida] I’m Zoraida.
[Kaela] I’m Kaela.
[Howard] And I’m Howard.
[Dan] So, we… This… I’ve been looking forward to this one all masterclass long. Archetypes and ensembles. Really what we’re talking about here is…we’ve talked in the past about making every member of the ensemble meaningful. Now we want to talk about why are they there? What do they do? How are they different from each other and what is each one bringing to the table? What skills or baggage or whatever do they have? So, when you’re looking at this, Zoraida, when you sit down to start an ensemble story, a story that has an ensemble cast, how do you start differentiating the characters in this way?
[Zoraida] It’s hard to say. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, but sometimes it’s hard for me to identify that because I think that as I write what the story’s going to be, I start with plot first sometimes, not always character. Which has changed in the last few years. I used to start with character first, and then go to plot. But again, it goes back to the question that I asked in a couple of episodes ago, which is what is the story about? So once I figure out what the story is about, I understand who needs to populate my world. Obviously, we have a leader. The leader should also have another kind of archetype, right? Like, are they important for example? Are they a mastermind? Is it the villain? Once I start identifying their archetype, that archetype for the leader, then I understand what is the actual job that needs to get done. Heists are little bit easier, because I think that in heists, you… Which is going to be my book of the week. In a heist, somebody has a very, very specific job. So what happens when you have an adventure? Right? Does somebody bring in a skill? Then, so, I think about skill sets, personalities, chaos… Right? What is the character that brings chaos and creates tension? That’s kind of where I start. In chaos.
[Dan] I like the way that you started by talking about sometimes you start with plot, and sometimes you start with character. Because I do think it’s worth pointing out that the point at which you make the decision of this needs to be an ensemble cast might be in the beginning, it might be halfway through. You might have a big chunk of your story already in mind or outlined or whatever, and realize, “Oh, you know what? This is not going to work with a single person going through this alone. I need to add in… I need to turn this into an ensemble.” Or it might be at the very beginning, you just set out like Howard did to tell a big group story solving a mystery. So that can happen at different points for everybody. Once that decision is made, Kaela, have you written ensemble stories before?
[Kaela] Yeah. Actually. When I look at it, I’m like, “Oh. Maybe I…” I never thought I was, and then I look at it, and I’m like, “Maybe I always do, actually.”
[Kaela] I think they all are.
[Howard] I don’t do this. Wait. I do it all the time.
[Kaela] Oh, my gosh.
[Dan] That’s kind of the unofficial subtheme of Writing Excuses is all of the instructors realizing we do things we didn’t know we did. So, what about the archetypes themselves? That’s in the title of our episode. What is an archetype? And how does it help us put together on ensemble?
[Kaela] They’re reoccurring. Like, they’re reoccurring characters or roles almost that you see a lot. Like, the mystical… Like, the hag or the… I don’t know why that’s the only one that comes to mind whenever someone says archetype. I’m like, “The hag!” I think because I secretly want to be the hag when I grow up.
[Kaela] That’s my dream.
[Howard] As life goals go, that’s a good one.
[Kaela] Thank you.
[Howard] I think that archetype might not be the right word for us here. Because… I mean, you look at Leverage, the opening credits for Leverage. Hitter, hacker, grifter, thief, mastermind. Those get defined in a way that kind of makes them archetypes, but Carl Yung would not define hitter as an archetype. But for our purposes, it very much is. I was reading an article just last night, I think, about how many black superheroes have electrical powers. I realized… Actually, to the point that Mark Wade years ago did a comic book story that called it out. Let’s see if I can find the line of dialogue. Yeah, the hero says, “Surprise. I’m a black superhero with electrical powers. I know, I know. Because there are so many of them.” I bring this up because when you think of, say, Elliott in Leverage, when you think of the hitter, he’s a guy who doesn’t want to use guns, but he is super good at punching, and he’s former special forces and whatever. Are there tropes there that make the definition of hitter predictable? Have you created the archetypal black character with lightning powers unconsciously? So, for me, anytime I’m creating a character that feels like an archetype, the first thing I look for is… The first thing I start doing is interrogating myself. Am I doing this because I’ve seen it somewhere before? Am I just re-creating a character from Warehouse 13 or Ocean’s 11 or Fast and Furious five?
[Howard] I needed things with numbers so that that rule of three worked.
[Howard] Or am I doing something fresh? In a recent manuscript comment, Sandra said, “Oh, I like the way the dopey character puts his foot in his mouth and keeps digging and actually successfully digs his way out the other side and everybody’s like…
[Howard] Good job.” Because that’s not what we see. What we typically see is the dumb character digs his way in deeper and then we don’t on him and we move on with the conversation. So I look for opportunities to take the archetype and make it different than what I’ve seen before.
[Dan] Yeah. Well…
[Zoraida] Yeah. I mean I feel like… So, there’s like a skill, right, that character can have. Right? This is like a part of their job. But I also think that there is like a symbol that they represent. Right? Like in Star Wars, right? [Apologies] to Yung, right, and Campbell. The dreaming farmboy. The trickster in Han Solo. The mentor in Obi-Wan, right? Like those are… Those are archetypes. They, like, represent something in the story. But I definitely agree with you, like, what if like what you think is an archetype is actually maybe a stereotype, right? How do some shows that have ensemble casts or books that have ensemble casts subvert that? So that’s actually a really interesting point, yeah.
[Howard] Take the mentor… Take the idea of the mentor character and make the mentor character also be… I don’t know what the archetype would be, but the dopey comic relief.
[Howard] This is the dumb guy, but every so often, the dumb guy just drops wisdom that puts it together, so we’re all going like, “Hey. How are you… No, that’s good. I have learned it. I have now mastered the laser sword.”
[Zoraida] That’s actually…
[Dan] I want to keep this conversation going, but I am going to stop in the middle and do a book of the week.
[Dan] Sorry. It’s gone on too long with no book. Our book of the week this week, Zoraida, you are going to tell us about Six of Crows.
[Zoraida] Okay. Let’s see if I can do the book justice. Six of Crows is a book by Leigh Bardugo. It is about a group of unlikely friends. They are criminals in a fantasy world called Ketterdam. They have taken on an impossible job to break out a magical prisoner from a jail that is a literal fortress. It is one of my favorite books. It’s an ensemble cast. It… To me, this book is one of Leigh Bardugo’s best works overall. It is a masterclass in writing, in the way she introduces the stories and the characters, and to me it’s just the perfect book. It is also one of the storylines in Shadow and Bone, the TV show currently on Netflix.
[Dan] Six of Crows is one of my very favorite fantasy books. Fantasy heist is difficult to do. But she absolutely hits it out of the park. So, Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo.
[Dan] So, let’s get back into this archetype conversation, because I find it really interesting. One thing I wanted to point out listening to Howard talk about it is that there’s two different ways to think about these archetypes. Because hacker, hitter, grifter, thief, mastermind. Those are the roles that they perform in the plot. But also, when you’re dealing with an ensemble, specifically, there are archetypal personalities and roles that they can serve kind of emotionally. Characterization archetypes rather than plot archetypes. They have the very sophisticated elegant one. They have the kind of loose cannon crazy one. They have the really confident sassy one. They have the kind of quiet pragmatic one. You don’t have to have the really elegant one be the grifter, like Sophie in Leverage. You could have the really elegant one be something else. That is one way to make sure that you’re not falling into these stereotypes. But maybe your ensemble requires a leader who pulls everyone together and it requires kind of a really friendly person who is the glue that keeps them together and is the peacemaker that stops the fights. Maybe there’s another person who’s the younger one that everyone looks out for. Like there’s lots of different kinds of emotional archetypes and group dynamic archetypes that are very different from the role that they serve in the plot.
[Howard] The Doctor Who episode that I mentioned a month ago. Character’s name is Mickey. His line describes the roles that he thinks he fits. He says, “I’m their man in Havana. I’m their tech expert. I am… Oh, my God, I’m the tin dog.”
[Howard] That… If you understand what man from Havana means, you can see what Mickey thinks he is and where he arrives. There are… Oh, I had another example of it, and it’s gone now. So I’m going to hand it back off.
[Well, I think…]
[Zoraida] Oh, go ahead, Kaela.
[Kaela] No, I was just going to say…
[Zoraida] Well, if you look at Six of Crows, there are six crows, there are six people in this heist. I think if you look at… If you break down sort of their characters, Kaz Brekker is an orphan. Like, his archetype, I think to me would be the orphan, and his job is the leader. Right?Inej, who she is… Her job is, like, a keeper of secrets, but she’s also a shadow. So she like… And also the foil of Kaz Brekker. Then you have somebody like Wylan Van Eck, who is sort of a hostage, sort of a demo guy, but his archetype is the innocent. Right? So I start with… When I study this book, I feel like I’m looking at, like, okay, this is their function, and this is what they represent in a larger story. That’s sort of an interesting angle to come at an ensemble cast, I think.
[Dan] Yeah. Definitely. Now, when… A concept that Dave Wolverton used to talk about when I was taking writing classes from him is called braided roses. The idea is that your characters all have this wonderful rose that makes them vital and important, but they also are covered with thorns. When you braid them together, they poke each other. So when you are putting together an ensemble cast, to what extent are you doing it on purpose to create conflict? Not just people who will inevitably work well together, but people who will inevitably butt heads. Because every ensemble we’ve talked about involves characters fighting and arguing and… They have to come together as a group, they can’t just start together as a group.
[Kaela] That’s one of my favorite things about ensembles. Like I mentioned earlier in an earlier episode about the sandpaper. Like, that’s the thing that I’m there for. Admittedly, I’ve said that about like everything about ensembles. But…
[Kaela] I love angling them so that they rub against each other the wrong way in a way that will ultimately make them better. Like, again, bringing up Guardians of the Galaxy again, the transition from Guardians of the Galaxy One to Guardians of the Galaxy Two is so interesting, because we get the coming together of the group, which has plenty of thorns, as you’re trying to get these people together. But then you also get the way that those thorns keep moving as they grow as people, because all of them have grown by the end of the first episode. I mean, not episode, movie. In the second movie, you watch how they’re still the same people, so they’re still going going to going to be rubbing each other the wrong way in ways that make each other better. That’s… Character growth wise, I just find that so fantastic that they end up being the river stones that end up smoothing each other out. They end up… They always…
[Howard] The moment where in Avengers: Infinity War, when they find Thor and everybody’s talking about Thor and saying, “Oh, my gosh. It’s like a pirate had a baby with an angel.”
[Howard] Starlord is like, “What am I? Chopped liver here?” Well, you are getting a little soft. You’re one sandwich away from another chin. The… That bit of characterization where we see that Starlord, even though he’s ostensibly their leader, feels threatened any time he sees someone who’s better looking than he is…
[Kaela] Or more competent. Or stronger. Or…
[Zoraida] Yeah. That’s vain.
[Howard] Even with just one eye.
[Zoraida] I mean, it has to go into your character work. Like making sure that there’s cohesion. But cohesion doesn’t always mean harmony. Right? Like, these people can work well together, but they don’t all have to be friends. Or they have to work to be friends.
[Dan] Well, this doesn’t mean that every character has to conflict with every other character.
[Zoraida] Right. Howard has been very excited.
[Dan] Danny Ocean has his sidekick… I can’t remember Brad Pitt’s name in that series. They are inseparable. They never butt heads. They agree with each other almost all the time. Even when they disagree, they don’t fight about it. That helps give a lot more texture to what’s going on.
[Howard] I just remembered a… It’s a piece of biology that has stuck with me forever. When you have a fertilized egg cell that then divides, those two things are genetically identical. Okay. Yet, they’re going to grow into an organism that has bazillions of cells, all of which have differentiated. The genetics did not tell which cell to do what. They didn’t tell a cell, “Oh, you’re going to go be the nervous system.” No. You know how they developed that? They fight. They argue over resources and push each other to the outside. The ones that get pushed the furthest to the outside? Hey, congratulations, you’ve become the largest organ in the body. You’ve become skin and so on and so forth. So this idea that the ensemble comes together through conflict is in biology.
[Dan] That’s fantastic.
[Incredible. I’m made of ensembles.]
[Dan] All right, Kaela, you have our homework this week. What is it?
[Kaela] I do. Today, I want y’all to identify the archetypes of each character in your work in progress. Take whatever you’re working on, figure out, like, what each archetype is, what role they’re serving, stuff like that. But I want you to try something out. Change that archetype or give them a sub archetype to try to branch out and create rounder, unexpected characters. Like we were talking about earlier. I think one of my favorite things is when you have a… Like a role and you expect it to be a certain way. You have a stereotype in your mind or something like that, but then you combine it with this emotional archetype that’s not always together. Like the cold, emotionless warrior like, let’s say. But they turn out to be the maternal figure, like the mother of the group. I love that combination, because you don’t always see it, but they work together. Like new ways of exploring to give your characters more humanity, I suppose. More nuance.
[Dan] Sounds great. This is Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.
[Mary Robinette] The Writing Excuses 2022 cruise and workshop aboard the Liberty of the Seas is filling up fast. If you want to join us, go to writingexcusesretreat.com and register today. Looking forward to seeing you.