In order to be a better reader and writer, it is vitally important to understand how and why characters are created. One important tool in an author's toolbox is the archetypal character. This refers to the kind of character who we see in texts time and time again. You can see examples of character archetypes in literature, film, and television:
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Once students can identify archetypal characters, they will become better readers. Being able to categorize a character as, for example, the hero means that the student immediately understands a great deal about the character. Without putting in a large amount of effort, the student understands that this character has likely had a traumatic event that led them to embark on a quest, that this character will likely have some sort of supernatural help or guidance, and will prove him or herself several times. Knowing this means that it is easier for the student to delve deeply into other aspects of the character and plot.
As a writer, having a strong understanding of archetypes can help a student to write stronger characters. Does the student want this character to act conventionally? In that case, the character should exhibit common characteristics of the archetype that he or she belongs to. Does the student want the character to defy conventions? Understanding the character archetypes allows the students to decide how their character will differ.
When I teach students about character archetypes, I like to use the film Shrek. Since the story is a fractured fairy tale with an unconventional hero, it is a wonderful and accessible way for students to explore character archetypes. At the beginning of the film, it is easy for students to categorize each character. By the end of the film, however, some of those characters will have defied expectations. Students can follow along the typical heroic journey and take note of instances where conventions are broken.
Food for thought... do you have any great activities for teaching character archetypes?