I once asked people to name some characters who couldn’t easily fit into archetypal categories. The answers surprised me.
- Randal Floyd – Dazed and Confused
- Jackie Brown – Jackie Brown
- Max Fischer – Rushmore.
- Commodus – Gladiator
- Kirk Lazarus – Tropic Thunder
- Mark Zuckerberg – The Social Network
- King Schultz – Django Unchained
- Freddie Quell – The Master
- Don Logan – Sexy Beast
- The Entire Cast of American Beauty
The problem with this is that all these characters are archetypes. They’re specifically customized, tweaked and rendered, but all have strong Jungian prototypes and their subversions and specificity works because it plays along with or counter to the archetype.
Don’t get me wrong, all of these are good characters, but they’re also archetypal characters. One could even argue they’re good because they’re archetypes. Each writer put their own stamp on them, and it’s the specific detailing that makes them good. Almost every character is based on some kind of archetype. They become complex and specific in the details.
I think beginning screenwriters often have the attitude of “formula = bad” and therefore anything good must be completely original. I wholeheartedly disagree. By learning about archetypes, you can see the underlying structure and grammar behind great characters and add greater power, meaning and specificity to your own.
Randal Floyd – A ne’er do well neighborhood Lothario. He’s that kid you knew who knew way too much about sex all grown up. There’s one in every town.
Jackie Brown – A hustler who has to pull off one last scam to leave the life. And that’s not counting all the blaxploitation tropes that this movie embraces.
Max Fischer – An outsider nerd who wants the girl. Sure, we’d never seen this kind of type-a nerd specifically wanting his teacher before, but that’s a specific choice within archetype not a subversion of it. The subversion would have been if she totally fell for him.
Commodus – A sneering, incestuous tyrannical emperor. We’ve seen his archetype everywhere from Draco Malfoy to Joffrey Baratheon. He’s also a rip on Caligua and all the other period Roman movies that predate Gladiator.
Kirk Lazarus – A method actor out of his element? Never seen that before.
Freddie Quell: A lost soul who can’t get his shit together and needs to constantly move on? See Five Easy Pieces, You Can Count on Me, and any indie movie where the hero leaves town with all his possessions in a backpack with no clear idea of where to go.
Mark Zuckerberg – A lonely, solitary genius who’s great with numbers but who can’t connect with human emotions? Don’t hurt yourself, Sorkin.
King Schultz – Okay, whoever said this one has a point. Still, he’s a white teacher who helps a black student reach his potential. Still, he’s a funny foreigner who’s very functionally similar to other flamboyant warriors who hide their lethality behind the affect of a dandy, like Doc Holiday in Tombstone, the Scarlet Pimpernel, and Shane.
Don Logan – An organized crime psycho who’s the harbinger of bad things to come. Sure, it’s a specific version of that, but the subversion would be making him the romantic lead. Even then, he’s still an archetype.
The entire cast of American Beauty: The uptight Stepford Wife, the angry white man in open rebellion, the artsy daughter, the sexy Holden Caulfied weirdo, and the tough drill sergeant dad who’s secretly closeted. How could anyone think of characters like those?