Monday, 26 September 2011

Archetype-Bending | Characters

We know the cliches: the noble savage, the old, scholarly wizard... I could go on. I wouldn't, of course: boredom can be terminal, and these are cliches for a reason! So let's ask a new question: where - and what - are the best twists on those archetypes? The whiny teenager who yes - actually is treated as the most selfish protagonist in history? The noble swordsman who slips cyanide into his opponent's coffee?

Well, here are my choices:

The Wizard Mentor - Bayaz
An impression of Bayaz from - not as convivial as he looks!
Bayaz seems your average mentor - kindly, mysterious, ancient. Full of words of wisdom for Jezal dan Luthar- until you notice that those words emphasize reputed charity: not the reality! He's close-mouthed and insistent regarding his version of events. Others, however, don't seem to take Bayaz's word as such clear-cut truth: and what really happened with Juvens, anyway?

Bayaz is the First of the Magi from Joe Abercombie's The First Law - and it's quickly apparent that he goes far beyond the archetype. Manipulative, devious - and very hard to defy, what with the exploding enemies - Bayaz is a protagonist you'll love to fail to predict.

The Dark Lord (really, what's with the constant motif of gloom?) - The Lord Ruler
 Happy place.
 Of course the Lord Ruler owns the world. He did save it, after all.

The Lord Ruler is the antagonist of Mistborn: The Final Empire - and, as the name suggests, he rules the world. He's also God - or more correctly, part of him. He saved the world from the Deepness, and has ruled it ever since. So how did the Hero of Ages become a despotic tyrant? Can you really rebel against God and his proclaimed natural order? ...And the questions go on.

The Lord Ruler is one of the more interesting antagonists of the series - and recent years. A hero who becomes a villain, but really did alter the world. Though initially seeming as evil as they get (kick the dog moments, anybody?), the more we learn, the more human he seems: and that's pretty human. And he ties into the central mysteries of the book - if he isn't God, how does he do... well, what he does?

The Animal Companion - Nighteyes

Far from being a token character,  Nighteyes is a twist on the archetype simply by the existence of his characterisation. Not a human, but not entirely a wolf, he and FitzChivalry share such a deep Wit-bond that neither one belongs entirely to their species - and my, does it show. Nighteyes isn't a human in disguise with a few animal yearnings, either. He struggles to live his own life, and sees things... Well, differently.

Not to mention amusingly. Nighteyes shows what the frequently-used animal companion could be - well, if the author tried, that is. There are some hilarious Fitz-and-Nighteyes moments - and some touching ones. And that Hobb manages to make a wolf a true character in a book populated by humans... Well, it's impressive. Read it! (Well, imperatives are always fun. You don't have to. Really.)

What about your picks? Comment below and tell me!


  1. Ah archetypes! That seems to be the biggest complaint of some of my reading acquaintances when it comes to fantasy -- they always say the characters are just "archetypes". But when I try to think of a truly unique character, it's very hard! You can't help but fall into archetypes, I think, especially in this genre.

    Anyway, onto your question, it's hard for me since I haven't read too many fantasy series yet. I always thought Tyrion was a pretty unique character, just 'cause he's a small person and all, and you don't see many of those in stories (I mean, I know the characters call him a dwarf, but I don't think he really is one in the "magical" sense).

  2. A very impressive blog. Does your interest in archetypes extend to Jung?

    Why do you use Flickr instead of Picasa? Some of your images won't load ...

  3. @ Jinny: Haha, yes - and that's the motive behind my post. :P Ie. to find the characters than don't just meet the archetypes, but invert, subvert, or just -expand- on them! Tyrion's definitely unique - and, well, he doesn't seem like a Tolkien-esque dwarf to me either. Let alone a Norse dwarf... Have you read Robin Hobb yet, by the way?

    @ Pete: Thank you - and as for Jungian archetypes, I have to admit I haven't read much on them, but it's an intriguing concept: and you can certainly see the influence in narrative.

    As for the images - ah, that's a pain. I'll see if I can change them round! Thanks for telling me.

  4. I'd like to be able to say that I can think of many fantasy characters who don't fall into standard archetypes, but being relatively new to the genre (in adult form, at least), I don't think it would be fair of me to make such claims. I can, however, think of some examples in other genres and about the subject as a whole.

    In general, I think that there's something to breaking traditional character archetypes - much like we expect our writers to tell us new stories (or at least to tell us a familiar story in a new way), I think it's legitimate to expect a writer to introduce us to new and realistic characters. Archetypes fall into neither category: they are neither original nor can they be believed. I would like to see more of these ubiquitous character formulas broken. I'd like to see individual and original characters, to encounter different approaches to characterization and storytelling.

  5. Oh, I can think of many who don't fall into them - but here I was looking for the characters who could circumspectly fall into an archetype, then completely subvert it: or at least our expectations. I completely agree, though: while there might have been some truth to one or two of our fantasy 'formulae', the simple fact that they're overused cliches now destroys belief. :P You summed it up far better than I could! I'll admit a fondness for an archetype played for laughs, though...