April 3, 2014

Musing on Character Archetypes

So, I was listening to one of the local radio stations this morning, and they read something called "Captain America's Top 10 Complaints" since they're giving away movie passes to Winter Soldier. One complaint stuck out: "That Iron Man gets all the girls."

Movie still from The Avengers
My first response was to roll my eyes. Both have plenty of fangirls and can do well enough in their own right. Besides, Tony's in a committed relationship. And Steve, so far as the latest movies go, hasn't been awake for long and is still grieving. It's not something I think either character would care much about anyway.

Yes, I know it was just a stupid morning drive radio thing. Still, it gets the ol' gray matter working.

The thing about works of fiction, particularly genre fiction, is they all have their character archetypes and common tropes. It's good to take a careful look at the ones in your genre if you create any kind of creative work. It can help you avoid cliches and generally strengthens your work to be mindful of them.

The comparison of Captain America to Iron Man wasn't a fluke. Both fit common archetypes in science fiction, fantasy, and the super hero sub-genre in particular. You see similar characters again and again: Superman and Batman, Cyclops and Wolverine, Duncan McLeod and Methos, Apollo and Starbuck, Wesley Windham-Price and Rupert Giles, or Buffy and Faith to name a few. One is the perfect hero, a right boy scout who is often idealistic almost to the point of idiocy, and the other is more worldly and jaded, suspicious by nature, and possessed of a sarcastic wit.

Both have their strong points and weaknesses.

The "Boy Scout" appeals to our idealistic sides. He's good to the bone. He has a strong moral compass and follows it without fail. However, this archetype is often written as self-righteous and on the sanctimonious side because he's so committed to his idea of a world sans shades of gray. Several have fallen prey to manipulators because of their blind faith in organizations or ideals.

While the "Boy Scout" archetype characters have their loyal fans, they grate on the nerves of others, which is why the "Bad Boy Hero" foil exists. They tend to attract the fans who get annoyed by the "Boy Scout," and help retain people within the fandom who would otherwise drop it.

These characters tend to have a darker past, though that doesn't mean they are or were evil necessarily. Look at Batman. He's always been a good man with a slightly questionable public persona. Others are reformed villains. Methos would be a prime example. He was only... oh, Death on a Pale Horse back in the Bronze Age.

Isn't he a peach? Still from The Four Horsemen.
Both archetypes can be written as complex, complete characters on their own, but they really shine when paired. While opposites can and do clash, when they work, they create the best teams. 

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