Books on Writing: 45 Master Characters (Victoria Schmidt 2001)

45 Master Characters

I mentioned when commenting on The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler that I found the character archetypes underwhelming. When I first starting reading books on writing, this was a recurring oversight in a lot of them. Most would focus on aspects such as story structure and comment on characterisation briefly, giving the same advice over and over again. As a result I found myself reading books focusing exclusively on characterisation. 45 Master Characters is one of these books. Similar to The Writer’s Journey it makes use of character archetypes to offer a guideline, but goes into more detail in that it offers a number of different archetypes for both heroes and villains, split also by gender. In addition to these it also contains a number of supporting character archetypes which bear a resemblance to the ones in The Writer’s Journey but expand upon them, offering a larger number of  archetypes filling a wider range of roles. For the curious the archetypes are summarised at the ever useful TVTropes and can be found here.

First off, I will comment on the main archetypes. For the male set of archetypes the roles are fairly straightforward and are very similar to those found in other books I’ve read on character archetypes. There are some odd choices in names which don’t always give the clearest indication of what the character is about such as the Businessman and The Artist. The Businessman archetype is in essence a character who is logical and work orientated like Sherlock Holmes or Spock from Star Trek, while The Artist is an emotionally charged character prone to outbursts, not easily predicted and found in characters such as Tristan of Arthurian legend and many incarnations of Spider-Man. The archetype names do not make the characters’ true nature come across. In my opinion Businessman implies a leader character similar to the King archetype rather than the often solitary logical characters that often come under the archetype. In contrast, the name Artist implies a degree of solitude when in fact a lot of the characters are actually quite sociable. As a whole though, the archetypes themselves are quite solid and reflect characters commonly found in fiction. I saw no issue with the villain counterparts, as they were generally quite self descriptive and easily brought across what type of character I was dealing with.

The female characters are a bit strange however, and my opinions of them are mixed. I feel like the Matriarch Archetype, with the way it is described in the book, is a bit sexist as does the villainous counterpart The Scorned Woman. The way it is written implies that she is dependant on her family, with specific references to a hypothetical husband and in general the book tries to paint the archetype as a housewife type character. In reality a lot of these types of characters have substitute families, such as Jean Grey of X-Men and some female supporting characters of sitcoms in relation to the rest of the main cast. While I was able to discern that the family didn’t necessarily have to be a literal one, the terminology seemed to imply a sexist portrayal of your typical housewife as the ideal version of this character. Needless to say, it rubbed me the wrong way a bit.

I disliked the Nurturer for similar reasons, since it relates the characters self sacrificing nature to caring for a child, implying once again that a mother like character is the ideal portrayal. She can also be portrayed as a bit submissive in places, which I don’t like. The villain archetypes are strong all around however, with the one exception of the Troubled Teen, counterpart to the Maiden archetype. This is because the archetype is harder to put into a main antagonist role than the others, since it almost exclusively applies to younger and inexperienced characters with a destructive streak. As a result the character benefits the story as a supporting antagonist, and is less likely to carry the story’s conflict on their own when compared to the other antagonists.

The supporting character archetypes are a good addition. Yet, like The Writer’s Journey, the archetypes relate to the character’s role in the story and do little to define the character’s personality like the main archetypes. The main positive is that they go into much more detail than the ones in The Writer’s Journey and are vastly superior when you compare the two side by side. My only problem is that the book seems to imply certain archetypes have certain genders, describing the Mentor as male and the best friend as female. Since the roles can be taken up by characters of any gender it made me feel as though the writing in the latter half of this book is a bit gender biased, with a view that certain genders belong in certain roles. This rubbed me the wrong way. This is further made apparent in the book’s description of a masculine journey and a feminine journey, which heavily trivialises the story arcs of both genders and implies that members of both genders.

As a result I couldn’t help but feel that the book biased in terms of gender roles, with rather firm set views on how both men and women should act within the story. I picked up hints of this during when reading the Heroine Archetypes and by the end I was firm set that the book was biased in that regard. I got a lot of use out this book despite this, and the archetypes can be useful if one is able to read past the book’s biased descriptions to get to the true meaning behind these archetypes. I get the impression that the book is trying to look at things from a feminist perspective but I feel that it succeeds in simply marginalising both genders through its use of genders roles. A good book for characterisation but it’s not the kind which I would follow blindly. I enjoyed it despite its heavy ideological baggage, which is something that takes a lot of skill. If you want a few good ideas for characters and you are prepared to shift your way through the ideological stuff then this a book worth reading.

SCORE: 4/5

IN A WORD: OPINIONATED

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