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Character Archetypes:
The Only 6 You Need to Nail a Movie Cast.

Plus character archetype examples in movies.

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by Script Reader Pro in How to Write Characters
June 10, 2020 15 comments
character archetype examples in movies

The 6 key character archetypes needed to nail the perfect cast list.

You’ve probably heard that you should develop a movie script’s characters using a seemingly endless array of “character archetypes,” such as the “outlaw,” “fool” or “shapeshifter.”

Character archetypes in movies have been popularized in books like 45 Master Characters by Victoria Schmidt.

The Hero of a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell has 12 character archetypes, and one popular screenwriting site has a character archetypes list of 201!

But just how useful is it to think in terms of character archetypes when creating characters for a screenplay?

In this post, we’ll argue that a much better approach is to create a cast list by focusing on six key character archetypes—each of whom represents an aspect of the theme.

So let’s jump on in.

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The problem with focusing on traditional character archetypes.

Here’s how many aspiring screenwriters create characters:

Think of a protagonist

Come up with an antagonist

Randomly add other “major” and “minor” characters

Possibly refine characters using character archetypes

Many wonderful spec screenplays have no doubt been written this way…

But is this the easiest way?

If you’re worried about how and where to insert traditional character archetypes such as a “fool” or “mad scientist” into your script, you’re likely to wind up with a number of random characters who probably don’t deserve to be in it.

Create a cast list, not a list of character archetypes.

While traditional character archetypes may be useful further down the road when you’re refining the characters, they’re not so helpful when starting out developing them.

A much better approach is to first create a cast list and nail down:

How many characters deserve to be in this movie?

What characters deserve to be in this movie?

Approaching character development from a cast list, rather than a random set and number of character archetypes helps avoid creating characters in isolation.

They’re not free-floating independent characters, bumping into each other. They’re part of an interlocking, dynamic cast and have a specific dramatic role to play within it.

Only six key character archetypes should make it onto the initial cast list. And they should only do so because they’re an agent of conflict in some way that reflects the screenplay theme.

character archetype examples in movies

So just who are these six key character archetypes?

The 6 key character archetypes list.

Using this method means using a character archetype in its most basic form. It’s a much simpler approach because you probably know them all already:

1. Protagonist

2. Antagonist

3. Stakes character

4. B-story character

5. Mentor

6. Supporting character

Now instead of an unlimited amount “major characters,” “minor characters” and mythical odd-balls you could create, you have just six key character archetypes in movies to focus on.

Let’s take a look at each character archetype in detail, followed by character archetype examples for each movie genre.

#1: The protagonist.

The protagonist is the one who drives the story through the painful personal and ethical choices they’re forced make.

We know what they want, why they want it, what’s stopping them from getting it and what’s at stake if they don’t. These stakes are either literal or figurative “death” stakes.

We usually also know what they really need but don’t yet know it, because they don’t yet accept the theme. And we understand why this is so difficult for this particular protagonist due to their flaw.

Some archetypal hero examples include George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, Remy in Ratatouille, and Chris in Get Out.

#2: The antagonist.

What the antagonist wants is diametrically opposed to what the protagonist wants, which is why they’re such a headache for them.

They haven’t come to accept the theme either, and so their flaw is even more exaggerated. And because of this, they’re even stronger than the protagonist.

On the other hand, if the antagonist is a volcano or a grizzly bear, then their “want” is obviously not psychological, but just as effective at making the protagonist eventually accept the theme.

Some antagonist archetype examples in movies are Fletcher in Whiplash, Del in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and the flock of birds in The Birds,

#3: The stakes character.

The stakes character is the final piece in a “three-way triangle of conflict” with the protagonist and antagonist.

The protagonist wants something. The antagonist wants or causes the opposite. And what’s at stake in this tug of war is personified by the stakes character.

It’s through this struggle with the antagonist over the stakes character that helps the protagonist learns what he/she really needs, and hence accept the theme.

(Sometimes there is no stakes character, but there’s always something at stake.)

Some stakes character archetype examples are Fran in The Apartment, Annie in Collateral, and Boy and Girl in Bird Box.

#4: The B-story character.

If the stakes character represents what’s at stake in the A-story battle, the B-story character represents how the protagonist should attempt to win it.

The B-story runs separately to the A-story but intertwines with it at key moments. Overall, the B-story character does the most to try and help the protagonist grasp the theme.

Often they’re the same person as the stakes character—especially in romantic comedies—but not always.

Some B-story archetype examples include Stu in The Hangover, Murray in Joker, and Rhodes in Bridesmaids.

#5: The mentor.

In lists of mythic character archetypes, the mentor is usually mixed in somewhere, alongside the “ruler,” “scapegoat,” “outlaw,” and so on.

Again, the problem here is that this makes the character feel arbitrary. As if you can take him or leave him, but in fact a huge number of movie protagonists have a mentor.

The mentor is often the same character as the B-story character—the trusty ally who actively helps the protagonist accept the theme. But again, not always.

Some mentor archetype examples in movies are Cheech in Bullets Over Broadway, Proximo in Gladiator, and Sandy in Along Came Polly.

#6: The supporting character.

As with every other character on this list, they should also only make it into a screenplay if they have a specific purpose that reflects the theme in some way.

Each supporting character should be either a “helper” or “deflector”—aiding or hindering the protagonist during their journey.

There’s no “correct” number here, but once you have all of your other movie archetypes in place, a good number of supporting characters to aim for is 2-4.

Some supporting character examples include R2D2 in Star Wars, Stan in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Dan’s mom, Nana, in Dan In Real Life.

character archetype examples in movies

Character archetypes examples in movies.

Below you’ll find some character archetype examples that illustrate in greater detail what we’ve discussed so far in order to help you craft your own cast list.

Drama – American Beauty

Protagonist: Lester (a family man going through a midlife crisis.

Antagonist(s): Carolyn and Jane (his difficult wife and daughter)

Stakes character: Angela (Jane’s school friend)

B-story character: Ricky (Jane’s boyfriend)

Mentor: Ricky

Secondary character #1 (Deflector): The Colonel (Ricky’s dad)

Secondary character #2 (Deflector): Buddy (Carolyn’s lover)

Comedy – (500) Days of Summer

Protagonist: Tom (an idealistic greeting card designer)

Antagonist: Summer (the new employee he falls in love with)

Stakes character: Summer

B-story character: None

Mentor: Rachel (Tom’s preteen half-sister)

Secondary character #1 (Helper): McKenzie (Tom’s co-worker)

Secondary character #2 (Helper): Paul (Tom’s friend)

Secondary character #3 (Helper): Vance (Tom’s boss)

Action/Adventure – Raiders of the Lost Ark. 

Protagonist: Indiana Jones (a daredevil archeologist)

Antagonist: Belloq (a rival archeologist who works for the Nazis)

Stakes character: Marion (Indy’s former girlfriend)

B-story character: Marion

Mentor: Ravenwood (unseen backstory)

Secondary character #1 (Deflector): Major Toht (Gestapo officer)

Secondary character #2 (Helper): Sallah (Indy’s friend and digger)

Thriller – Drive.

Protagonist: The Driver (a brooding stuntman/getaway driver)

Antagonist(s): Bernie and Nino (two vicious mobsters)

Stakes character(s): Irene and Benicio (a single mom and her son)

B-story character: Irene

Mentor: None

Secondary character #1 (Deflector): Standard (Irene’s husband)

Secondary character #2 (Deflector): Shannon (the auto-shop owner)

Secondary character #3 (Deflector): Cook (blackmails Standard)

Secondary character #4 (Deflector): Blanche (Cook’s accomplice)

Horror – The Shining.

Protagonist: Jack (a writer and recovering alcoholic)

Antagonist: The Overlook Hotel (where the past repeats itself)

Stakes character(s): Danny and Wendy (Jack’s son and wife)

B-story character: Hallorann (hotel chef who also “shines”)

Mentor: Hallorann

Secondary character #1 (Helper): “Tony” (Danny’s invisible friend)

Secondary character #2 (Deflector): Grady (the butler)

Secondary character #3 (Deflector): Lloyd (the barman)

Four points of clarification.

Mix n’ match at will. Not every character archetype listed above has to be in a script as a distinct character. The antagonist might also be the stakes character. Or the stakes character might also be the B-story character. Or the B-story character might also be the mentor.

• The “ghost” character. Most protagonists also have a “ghost” character—the person who personifies their flaw and motivations for their behavior, such as the ex they can’t get over. However, as this character is part of the backstory, we haven’t included them here. That’s for another post.

• Incidental characters. A movie can, of course, also contain other incidental characters who don’t quite play a big enough role in the story to warrant the title of secondary character. Examples would be Dr Marcus Brody who introduces Indiana Jones to the army intelligence guys at the start of the movie. And Ullman who gives Jack Torrance the job of caretaker at the Overlook hotel.

• Two-handers and ensembles. The cast list model outlined in this post applies to the vast majority of movies, but of course not all. We’ll be covering two-handers like Before Sunrise and My Dinner With Andre and ensemble movies like Magnolia and Pulp Fiction in a later post.

Make each character archetype “human” like the protagonist.

In order for each these six movie archetypes to feel authentic and not two-dimensional cut-outs, we need to know things like:

What main problem they face

What they want to achieve

Why they want to achieve it

What’s at stake if they don’t

What their flaw is thanks to a “ghost” in their backstory

How this flaw shapes how they tackle the problem

Answer these questions for each one of the six key character archetypes, and you’ll have a strong cast list of characters on which to build a screenplay.

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Character archetypes in movies: conclusion. 

While it can certainly be useful to refine each character by giving him/her the qualities of, say, a “leader” and “wildcard,” at some stage in the writing process, it probably isn’t the best way to craft a cast list.

So forget traditional character archetypes like “maidens” “rebels” and “fools” for now.

Focus on crafting a core list of six movie archetypes list as you decide who should make the cut into the story and who shouldn’t.

That’s 6-10 characters to create, including up to four supporting characters. Good luck!

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What do you think about our method of creating a solid cast list out of six key character archetypes? Or will you stick with applying traditional character archetypes from the start? Let us know in the comments below.

character archetype examples in movies

Enjoyed this post? Read more on how to write characters below… 

Character Arc: The Secret Sauce to Demonstrating Your Hero’s Growth

How to Stress-Test Your Main Character by Adding a Fatal Flaw

Make Screenplay Character Development 100x Easier With This #1 Hack

[© Photo credits: Unsplash, Flickr]

15 Comments
  1. Grace O'Connor says:

    I am only 14 years old and have just recently started to write a screenplays after my love for filmmaking and editing blossomed. Scriptreaderpro is the best and their blogs have helped me so much with what to do with my screenplay. Thank you for the advice on how to make changes and decisions for my work!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Welcome aboard, Grace and thanks for sending in your script too 🙂

  2. William Whiteford says:

    THE GREAT ADVICE!
    THANKS.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Glad you found it helpful, William!

  3. Chidinma says:

    Very helpful

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Chidinma 🙂

  4. Keith says:

    Awesome piece. Would the six archetypes also apply to a TV pilot script? Thanks a lot.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks a lot, Keith. Yes, many elements will be the same depending on what type of show you’re writing, but this post is specifically for features.

  5. Robert Hickman says:

    This is great! I found it very insightful into character development, and there were loads of amazing tips. This course has definitely improved my craft with screenwriting so far. Great job!

  6. oscar julian lopez rincon says:

    great-job, guys!!!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Oscar, glad you found it useful!

    2. Ken Cusack says:

      Hi there, excellent tip. I had inadvertently introduced all 6 [and some more] of the main characters and another 8 to support main, unconsciously. But upon reading the ‘Character Archetypes I began to review my ‘cast’ and realized that I was repeating myself, so I’m stripping down my cast and shifting some over to support cast, etc. E.G. I had 3 protagonist, 3 antagonist, 2 mentors, Stakes characters and many B story characters which on occasions became A story Characters!Thank you. Ken

      1. Script Reader Pro says:

        Thanks, Ken – yes it definitely sounds like you had too many characters in there 🙂

  7. SASIDHARAN VATTOLY says:

    EXCELLENT
    Learning from you is something special. That it comes to mind as a film that rolls on the screen in my room, or in a large theatre.
    Once more congratulating your effort.
    Thanks
    Sasidharan Vattoly, writer, director

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks so much, Sasidharan!

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