When a reader first picks up a book, they may have some expectations or specific things they’re looking for, or they may just want an interesting, compelling read. No matter what their intention, they certainly will have prior knowledge from being a part of the culture, and this will provide them with logical thinking that helps them, most likely unconsciously, understand the content of the text without them deliberately having to analyze what’s going on.
For writers, a reader’s knowledge resulting from their immersion in culture has its pros and cons.
Archetypes have been described by philosophers for hundreds of years, but it was Carl Jung in the 1920s who expanded on the phenomenon. Jung claimed that people have an innate sense of judging patterns of behavior and sorting it into prototypes. The main archetypes he described are:
The Great Mother (or Wise Old Man/Woman)
The Damsel in Distress
There are more, of course, but these are the major ones that reoccur in many instances, in movies and books and even in real life.
For a writer, developing a character is one of the most important pieces to the writing process puzzle. A character has his own distinct personality, though aspects of his behavior may lead the reader to believe certain things about them; therefore, a writer should be deliberate and tactful in the portrayal of their characters. When the reader begins the book, they will have a first impression of the major characters, and the writer should be aware of the archetypes that exist, the prototypes that people use to judge characters, even if they are unaware of it.
For example, if the first character introduced is a child, the reader will begin to form an idea of the person as innocent, childish, playful, and naïve. The writer’s portrayal of the character after the first impression will cause the reader to change their mind about the child, or it might reaffirm their belief. If the first major character introduced is a man who is muscular, ambitious, strong-willed, or obstinate, what do you think the reader’s first impression of him will be? What if it is a young, beautiful woman?
In addition to these archetypes that appear to be inborn in people, the culture and environment in which the reader grew up also influences their development of a first impression of the characters. Gender, race, ethnicity, heritage, religion, political viewpoint, social class: all of these character traits are basic foundations for building a character.
When the reader is introduced to the child, they first assume the child is playful and naïve. To add to the development of the character, the writer then reveals that the child is African-American and Christian. What opinion will the reader form about this character based on these simple facts. What if that muscular, arrogant man is a fascist? What if the young woman is extremely wealthy?
Though the types of judgments that come up in a reader’s thoughts may be offensive or prejudiced, they have become ingrained in their mind due to the culture they’ve been exposed to in their life. It is also important to note that each person has a different background, and therefore not all reader will have the same reaction. In general, though, a reader will develop an idea of the character of this character based on the stereotypes that are embedded in our culture, whether they are true or not.
It is completely possible for a writer to develop a major character based on an archetype or stereotype and not give them any differentiating characteristics. The end result, however, will be one-dimensional character. They may contribute to the plot very well, but they will not be very memorable or aid in the portrayal of a theme.
To sum up: Readers (and writers) have inborn, unconscious prototypes for people that aid them in forming first impressions of people and characters. Their prior knowledge and life experience will lead them to believe certain stereotypical aspects of a character based on their first impressions. It is up to the writer to be aware of this and to either reaffirm or challenge this first impression so as to develop unique and distinct characters.
P.S. This is part 1 of a planned five-part series about developing characters. Enjoy!