Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor

Book Review:

The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes and Heroines: Sixteen Master Archetypes

By Tami D. Cowden, Caro LaFever, and Sue Viders

Reviewed By C. M. Huard
Copyright © 2007 by C. M. Huard, All Rights Reserved

The most striking thing about the Complete Writer's Guide to Heroes and Heroines is its practicality.  There are many books intended to help writers create characters with the use of archetypes; in my experience they often tend to be rather abstract and more focused on integrating the characters into the story arc, the so-called "hero's journey."  By contrast, this handsome 200-page trade paperback uses only the bare essential concepts from Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, and takes them in a much more concrete direction.

The first two sections are devoted to profiling the archetypes, the sixteen categories that, according to the authors, all characters can ultimately be reduced to.  Section One covers the eight male archetypes (Chief, Bad Boy, Best Friend, Charmer, Lost Soul, Professor, Swashbuckler, and Warrior) while Section Two is devoted to the eight female archetypes (Boss, Seductress, Spunky Kid, Free Spirit, Waif, Librarian, Crusader, and Nurturer).  The names chosen for the archetypes are largely self-explanatory.  The differences between male and female archetypes are presented as largely a matter of cultural perceptions and social pressures.  I didn't come away with the impression that the writers would be shocked or annoyed if someone used their book to build a male Nurturer or a female Swashbuckler.

Each profile gives a broad overview, with examples from literature and pop culture, of the archetype's distinctive personality.  Then the profile goes on to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the personality type, its probable childhood background, and a variety of likely professions.  Less usefully, each profile also includes two "styles" or subtypes for the archetypes: these usually consist of one subtype that has either more emotional baggage or a more socially precarious position, and one subtype with a less troubled situation.  The main body of the text is presented in large print and focuses on the basics, while the easily readable sidebars offer examples and brainstorming suggestions.

Section Three, "Using the Archetypes to Create Characters," is the shortest and least detailed part of the book, but also the most thought provoking.  The archetype profiles have already offered many ideas for turning the archetypes into characters, so the discussion of "Core Archetypes" (characters who conform to a single archetype) is mostly confined to showing the reader examples of how such characters can be compelling and distinct from other characters based on the same archetype.

Then the authors move on to the subject of "Evolving Archetypes" (characters who change from one archetype to another over the course of the story arc) and "Layered Archetypes" (characters who fundamentally conform to a certain archetype but also show traits of another archetype).  The authors explain both concepts clearly, with examples of how they work.  They also offer a few cautions about how certain archetypes do not necessarily combine well in the same person: the difficulty of having a Waif evolve into a Boss, for instance, or the risk of making a Layered Archetype so well-adjusted that he has no room for growth within the story.  They do not offer an exhaustive list of possible archetype evolutions or layerings, perhaps to keep the book to a more manageable length.  I didn't find this to be a major shortcoming, because the book as a whole is meant more to jumpstart the creative process than to hold the writer's hand through every conceivable step.

Section Four, "Archetype Interactions," is one of the most fun and most distinctive parts of the book.  While most books deal with archetype interactions in terms of their effect on the plot, this one keeps the writer focused on the question of how well -- or not -- a given archetype plays with others.  The most useful part of Section Four takes every possible romantic pairing of the core male and female archetypes and offers general, common-sense overviews of how these characters would interact and develop under each others' influences.  As someone who tends to feel ill-at-ease writing romances, I found this part of the book enlightening and reassuring.  The "ensembles" subsection is little more than a chance for the writers to dissect their favorite ensemble-based movies and TV shows, though their thoughts on how the characters interact are still interesting.  The "friendship" subsection is more helpful but also somewhat skimpy.  It deals with partnerships between two different archetypes of the same gender, giving four examples for each gender: Best Friend and Lost Soul, Spunky Kid and Nurturer, Warrior and Charmer, Crusader and Waif, Professor and Swashbuckler, Boss and Seductress, Chief and Bad Boy, Free Spirit and Librarian.  These are well-done so far as they go, but they do not cover all the possibilities.

This is where it becomes clear that you can use the book in ways that its authors didn't necessarily intend.  If you want some thoughts on how a Seductress and a Waif might interact, for instance, you have to translate one of your characters into a "male" archetype that seems to fit them, and then turn to the appropriate "romantic pairing" section and try to imagine what a platonic version of that dynamic would be like.  Waifs correspond fairly closely to Lost Souls, while a Seductress might resemble a Charmer or a Bad Boy, based on how you are writing her.  So, depending on how you handled the "translation" of your archetypes, you would either turn to the "Lost Soul and Seductress" pairing, the "Charmer and Waif" pairing, or the "Bad Boy and Waif" pairing, and see what those offer in the way of characters rubbing each other the wrong way or finding common ground with each other.

Similarly, if both your romantic leads are Layered Archetypes but you've found their interactions so far to be rather dull, you can skim through all possible pairings of their component archetypes in Section Four with another archetype, looking for hints about how different aspects of your characters might attract or repel one another.  Also, the titular reference to "Heroes & Heroines" rather does the book a disservice.  You can build sympathetic supporting characters from the same set of archetypes without much trouble and apply the archetypes to villainous characters with only a little more imagination.  The book certainly has its flaws -- in addition to the ones mentioned earlier, there are some typographical errors and some dubious examples -- but it has one of the most important virtues a book about writing can possess: it is adaptable to the needs of the person using it.

The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes and Heroines: Sixteen Master Archetypes

By Tami D. Cowden, Caro LaFever, and Sue Viders.

Published in 2000 by Lone Eagle Publishing Company

ISBN 1-58065-024-4