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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

45 Master Characters

Schmidt, Victoria Lynn. 45 Master Characters. Writer’s Digest Books, 2001.

The "Hero’s Journey" is a common archetype in storytelling. Mythologist Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces remains popular with fiction and screenwriters sixty years after its first publication, and classes and books on using the hero’s journey in fiction abound. Most of the time, treatment of the hero’s journey is limited to the masculine perspective, and the archetypal hero is of course only male. In 45 Master Characters, screenwriter Victoria Lynn Schmidt balances the situation by presenting both the feminine and masculine hero’s journey and character archetypes of both sexes.

Schmidt presents eight feminine and eight masculine character archetypes, drawn from Greco-Roman and Egyptian mythology. For each archetype, she first discusses the character’s positive, heroic form and then its negative, villainous form. For example, Aphrodite is shown in positive form as "The Seductive Muse;" her flip side is the "Femme Fatale."

For the heroic form of each archetype, Schmidt discusses:
  • General character traits and appearance.
  • What the character cares about.
  • What the character fears.
  • What motivates the character.
  • How other characters see the character.
  • Developing the character arc, including other archetypes that pair well with this one to spur the character’s growth.
  • Summary of the character’s assets and flaws.
The negative form of each archetype is treated less thoroughly. Schmidt gives only a general description and a bullet-list summary of character traits for the negative archetypes.

Each section concludes with examples from TV, film, and then history and literature. Literary figures tend to be thinly represented vs. TV and film. Most of the "History and Literature" examples are historical rather than literary figures.

Sixteen archetypes with two forms of each makes 32 characters, but the title promises us 45. Those extra 13 characters are provided in a separate section on supporting character archetypes. Schmidt classifies supporting characters into three categories: Friends, Rivals, and Symbols. Each category is further divided into a number of types, covered in less depth (naturally) than the main character archetypes. Again, examples are drawn almost exclusively from films. Some of the distinctions in the types are thinly drawn: The rival types "Jester" and "Joker" are almost the same thing, as she admits, and the "Symbol" character archetype is oversimplified. However, that doesn’t mean that this section of the book isn’t valuable. Each of the thirteen supporting characters can be useful in fleshing out a story’s cast.

The last section presents an overview of the mythic journeys, both feminine and masculine. Of course, given the book’s focus, the journey as plot isn’t developed as thoroughly as the characters that go on the journey, but this section provides an acceptable introduction to the concept. There are plenty of books on the journey structure if you need more information than is provided here. Of course, if you’re writing the feminine journey, there is less material out there for you, so this might well be the best you can find. An appendix provides some helpful worksheets for constructing the journeys using the three-act structure.

The book has its flaws. Chief among them is the screenwriter’s perspective. Although lip service is paid to fiction, most of the examples are drawn from film and television rather than literature. Often, the film version of a story is privileged over the book. For example, Cora in The Postman Always Rings Twice is cited as an example of the Femme Fatale, but it’s the movie version of Cora, not the book, that Schmidt is talking about. The screenwriter’s perspective, with its emphasis of what can be shown on screen, is also evident in the section on "Working with an Archetypes." The first thing Schmidt suggests that you do when creating a character is to picture what the character looks like, including her body type and style of dress. The character’s personality and motivations are a runner-up.

The book is also plagued with numerous instances of awkward writing such as this one: "The male hero was just learning to descend on his inner journey, and it would take him much later to do it." The quality of writing is uneven throughout, and the book is also rife with clichés, like this one in the description of the Ares archetype: "He lives on eggshells, as if everyone were out to get him. He’s like a ticking time bomb just waiting to go off."

The book is not without strengths, or I wouldn’t have bothered to tell you about it. The information on each archetype is very valuable. Even if you’re not consciously using the mythic journey as a plot structure, thinking about your characters in terms of these archetypes can give you ideas you might not have thought of otherwise. And Schmidt provides plenty of good advice for thinking deeply about character motivation, fears, and concerns.

45 Master Characters
isn’t a must-have book, but for the writer who is struggling to develop larger-than-life characters or wants an introduction to the hero’s journey that covers feminine and masculine archetypes, it is worth checking out.

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