Any time I’m wondering what characters I should add to a story, I look to the archetypes to give inspiration. In a game like Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), the main characters are designed by the players, who can draw upon their own inspiration. For non-player characters (NPCS), it’s good to be sure that you have all sorts of characters available for the players to interact with. Whether the players need support, teaching, challenging, or any sort of development, NPCs are a pivotal tool to move plot and story.
Archetypes are the way to identify these fundamental characters. For as far back as we have recorded stories, every story has some variation of these archetypes. There are three major names for people that identified these archetypes: Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and Christopher Vogler. These three worked over time a sort of psychology of storytelling, looking at mythology, the structure of our stories, and a sense of spirit that stories can tell. Each of them contributed to the development of the archetype, which is the quintessential concept of a character.
There is a plethora of character archetypes, but I find that these ones are the most crucial. There are also a lot of sub-archetypes of each of these, so I will be speaking rather broadly, When looking to see what kind of NPC my campaign needs, I look to these and see if they are all there, or if they are needed. The specific character in that archetype will be unique to each story, but they all serve a similar broad purpose.
The wise sage, teacher, professor, parent, or friend. Mentors act to prepare the hero for the adventure that they will go on. A campaign always needs a mentor, someone to tell the stories of the world to the hero. They can teach the basics, or what to expect, but they are also good for showing us who the heroes were before they went on adventures. At the start of a campaign, you will likely need an NPC to guide the heroes through a new setting, introducing them to other characters, to other heroes, and to the world in general. Examples include:
- City tour guide
- Forest ranger escort
- Parent or family
If you don’t have a mentor, the heroes will likely be confused. This is a mistake that I often make. I try my best to give agency to the players and ensure that there is no coerced way of playing the game. But, the heroes also need some trajectory, some sense of direction. The only thing as bad as railroading is an ocean wide sandbox.
If you have too many mentors, then you’re likely railroading the party, or smothering them with exposition. Too many mentors can quickly become condescending, as though the party is completely helpless without support. A game with too many will likely be easy to identify, as the party of heroes is likely difficult to view as heroes because they are so often treated like children.
A heroes call to action, the beginning of their quest, can come in the form of an inciting incident, a herald, harbinger, or some combination. This is the archetypal character who is likely first inviting the heroes on an adventure, warning them, or first trying to kill them. They are great for establishing expectations, the tone of what the story will be, and the kind of challenges that lay ahead. Examples include:
- Town crier
- Contractor (eg. bounty, delivery, temporary job)
- Street thief
If you don’t have a herald or harbinger, then it might not be a problem, but it might not be clear when the adventure starts. A lot of stories do not necessarily need this archetype, but it definitely helps to make it clear when a story has begun. A story without a herald likely has heroes going about on their own, trying to find where to go, or what to do. Heroes will look for that old creepy man in the corner of the tavern, a town crier announcing a city crisis, or some ruffian causing trouble. Without these, it will be a challenge to tell where the story is going. It can be done, and often is, but doesn’t need to be that complicated.
If you have too many heralds, then it will be a problem for a campaign. To the DM, this might feel like you have thoroughly prepared many adventures for the party to go on, with each and every NPC willing to offer an adventure for the heroes to quest upon. To the heroes, this is overwhelming. It will be difficult to tell which path is ideal, where their time is best spent, or who is really worth the time talking to. Mentors can help with this, if you are willing to cut off some content, which is why it’s usually better to just do this from the start, and focus more energy on a select few heralds.
Allies had a large subset of archetypes, coming in many different forms, but they all ultimately serve to focus the story on the main character. The ally is the one who will confirm what the situation is, validating the emotions that are expected to be felt. If the heroes need to be questioned to give a chance to explain their reasons, to develop as a character, the ally can encourage that. Allies can change over a story, and they can live their own stories too. As for primary focus of your campaign, the ally is the one who can help the heroes get through a challenge, ensure that they know that they have the strength, or work to cause drama. Examples include:
- Other players in the group (ie. long term friend)
- Training partner
- Romantic interest
- Escort or guide
If you don’t have allies in your campaign, then your heroes are on their own! They will have no one to rely on, to offer insight, or help make decisions. This can work, as survival themes are very common, but even nature itself can be seen as an ally. You’ll have to get creative to show how and where the heroes are getting support, and the tone of the story will be difficult to convey.
If you have too many allies, then the heroes will likely be bombarded with dialogue. While a world full of rich characters seems ideal, with each person being a story to unfold, this does not mean each one of them has to be in the heroes face, desperately trying to unwind their backstory. In this case, less is more, and gives more focus and depth to other allies.
Coming in many different forms, and often without a clear goal, the trickster foments the story, poking it, and doing whatever they can to cause chaos and change. Tricksters can be allies, enemies, or both. Their ambitions can change on a whim, as their intention is usually to cause disruption. They challenge the order and structure of the world and, therefore, the story itself. They are great for causing doubt in the campaign, but also a way to subvert expectations. Tricksters are a fabulous tool, and every campaign should have one to really ensure the story has some mystery and intrigue to it. Examples include:
- Merchant (eg. fence, pawn shop, etc.)
- Authority figures
- Fortune teller
If you don’t have any tricksters in your campaign, it would be easy to become naive. In a world without tricksters, everyone can be trusted. No one changes their mind or impulsively takes action for no apparent reason. People are predictable and willing to explain themselves. It’s possible that a story has no trickster, but it would mean that the story is not relying on issues of trust or chaos.
If you have too many tricksters, then there is no order to the world. Heroes won’t know who to talk to, and will likely end up by themselves, not willing to risk throwing their lot with anyone. A world could be full of tricksters, and there are many famous ones that do, which means that the world is completely chaotic. In that case, would the world be a trickster?
It’s almost impossible to not have a story without a threshold guardian, as these are the characters that stand in the way of the main heroes journey forward. A threshold guardian can come in many forms: whether it be the easily distinguished dragon protecting the hoard, a guard protecting a door, or something more convoluted, like a character embracing their own weakness, or taking responsibility for their past mistakes. They serve to act as a speed bump, an obstacle to test the heroes and what they have learned so far, and see how they develop. Examples include:
- Dragon, big bad evil guy, monster, etc.
- Puzzle or trap (in the form of a character)
- Disapproving authority figure
If you have no threshold guardians, then the campaign can have no tension or development. Without being tested, there is no chance for the characters to grow or learn. For a story to be interesting, it depends on these thresholds to exist in order to show how the heroes make decisions. And if there’s nothing to challenge the heroes, then there’s really nothing to be done. Stories do exist without guardians, but often exist in the form of some sort of fantasy without guidelines, like a music video or documentary, where it really becomes questionable if it is a story to begin with or just an educational lesson.
If you have too many threshold guardians, the campaign can feel tedious. Too many obstacles can literally feel like a road full of speed bumps, which pointless or trivial issues every few moments. Character development feels trite and meaningless as there is no time to really relish the lessons learned from the previous challenge. Stories cannot really work with too many threshold guardians as they really become some sort of strategy game, where story and character is not relevant.
Every story needs a good villain, and the best villains are a direct opposition to the heroes, like a shadow that they cast. Many antagonists can have very shallow depth and be no different than a threshold guardian, existing as just another obstacle in their way. The shadow archetype is the character that embodies everything that the hero dislikes about themselves, opposes in the world, and morally conflicts with. There are countless interpretations of the shadow and my very short summary here is impossible to do them justice, but I’d focus on the shadows ability to make a villain in the campaign. Look at what the heroes are not, what they are seeking, and why. Then, take the inverse of that, and you have your antagonist. Examples include:
- Opposing group, company, or faction
- Domineering or enslaving force
- Rival or enemy
- Old love interest, or wronged friend
If you do not have a shadow in your campaign, it would feel similar to having no threshold guardian; there may be no tension or development. The best way to see a character grow is to see the decisions they make, especially in lieu of the characters another makes. While the hero chooses to save the victim crying for help, the shadow looks to squash that victim and relish in their anguish. Without the existence of a shadow, we may not really know what makes a character distinct in the world. A story can exist without a shadow, and often does, but usually means that the character is simple, two dimensional, and doesn’t have many weaknesses to face, which embodies in the shadow.
If you have too many shadows, then your hero will likely fail. They can be outnumbered by their own weaknesses and flaws, unable to face the world and the overwhelming strength it has over them. It will feel helpless, powerless, and hopeless. Too much time will be spent on why the characters have no chance, which can lead to some very depressing stories. This can work, but is often not fun and more intent on demonstrating tragedy or horror.
With a balanced approach to archetypes, I’ve found that they can act as a great set of tools to make a story. The depth of archetypes in literary theory is enormous, and this is only the tip of the iceberg. Of the three major authors mentioned earlier, here are the books I recommend to look to for further reading:
Let them be a herald to your own adventure. The profound depths they contain are threshold guardians themselves, but the author can help mentor the process, to find allies to help better understanding, as we deal with the greatest challenge of all: yourself.