"45 Master Characters," Victoria Schmidt

Pros: Beautiful work; magical ideas; really neat stuff; examples you can relate to
Cons: More could be done to help the writer avoid stereotyping with the archetypes
Rating: 5 out of 5

First published 7/20/2002

“45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters” was another one of those popular writing books that I kept avoiding because…. well, it was popular. I’ve just gotta get over this contrary personality streak of mine! Anyway, I’m now quite happy that I purchased this book, and I expect to get some good use out of it.

The Cool Background Story

The author, Victoria Schmidt, was apparently in film school when she was told not to write about female heroes because such scripts didn’t sell. Apparently she too has a contrary streak, because instead of meekly giving in she started doing research. She came across a quote by Joseph Campbell: “There are no models in our mythology for an individual woman’s quest.”

Could it really be? Ms. Schmidt spent the next few years researching, trying to find out whether it was really so. (I’m starting to feel better about this contrariness thing.) And finally she found it, the woman’s journey into the self: the tale of the descent of the goddess Innana, mythology circa 2000 B.C. She made the connection between this tale and certain ones that followed the same progression: “The Wizard of Oz,” “Titanic,” and other stories and films; she decided a book was in order. Jack Heffron, editor at Writers’ Digest of most of the writing books I’ve ever read and reviewed, said sure, but what about the male hero while you’re at it? And thus this book was born.

What Worried Me

“Master Characters” – sounds like a quick route to stereotyping, doesn’t it? I admit, I worried that if I got into using this book, I’d just end up creating the same old stereotypes everyone else used. Ms. Schmidt nicely makes the point that there’s a difference between a stereotype and an archetype. Stereotypes oversimplify and imply judgment. Archetypes are impartial models with a wide variety of possibilities on which you can hang different details in order to individuate the characters.

Archetypes aren’t formed from one individual’s view of people but from the entire human race’s experience of people. Judgment and assumptions are absent.

In the beginning of the book she talks a bit about individualizing characters using aspects of appearance, what the characters care about and fear, motivations, how others see the character, and so on. When providing examples of each archetype she deliberately tries to provide a wide spectrum of possibilities so that you can see some of the variations that are possible.

My only problem here is that I can still see, having read through the book, how it would be easy to accidentally get trapped into creating stereotypes using these character archetypes. Why? Because many of our stereotypes are variations on (or simplified, judgmental versions of) these archetypes, and it’s hard not to let all that history influence us. Perhaps if Ms. Schmidt had included an extra (small) section within each archetype reminding the reader to play with things and including a few further suggestions and examples for how to do so, it could have allayed this worry.

The Archetypes

The archetypes are amazingly detailed. I’ll use the first one as an example: Aphrodite. Each archetype has both a positive and a negative side; in this case, the Seductive Muse and the Femme Fatale. Each starts out with a couple of pages discussing the general archetype. You’ll also find a picture or two of examples of the archetype (“With her desire for the drama of high society and passionate affairs, Gustave Flaubert’s Emma Bovary displays the qualities of the Seductive Muse Archetype”).

A list of things the archetype tends to care about comes next – a decent variety of possibilities is included. Next comes things the archetype fears, and then motivations. The write-up discusses how others see the archetype, how the character arc might develop, and which other archetypes could best be paired with this one – and why. (“The Recluse and Mystic–can teach her how to be alone without fear of abandonment and also how to know herself deep down inside.”) Finally a list of assets and flaws is included. Then the archetype moves on to its villainous side. Less space is spent on this, probably because it’s pretty easy to see how to take all the aspects of the “good” side and twist them.

Then comes one of my favorite parts – the list of examples. Ms. Schmidt does more here to break the stereotype worry than she does anywhere else. She includes examples from TV, film, literature, and history. Since this book was written in 2001, many examples are recent enough for people to be quite familiar with them. Also, she includes a wide range of types of examples (everything from “Xena” to “Friends,” “Pretty Woman” to “The Matrix,” “Gone With the Wind” to “Anne of Green Gables”), so no matter what your viewing or reading pleasure, you’ll probably find something you can relate to here. This really helps to bring the lesson home.

We’re Just Getting to the Good Stuff!

Oddly, while the character archetypes are what sell the book, they turned out not to be the main attraction for me. There’s a great section on supporting characters that separates them out into categories (Friends, Rivals, Symbols), and within categories into their own types and archetypes (Magi, Mentor, Lover, Joker, Jester, Nemesis, the Shadow, and so on). Again Ms. Schmidt carefully includes a variety of examples and plenty of description.

But best of all, roughly a full 95 pages of the book cover the feminine and masculine archetypal journeys! This is where things really take off and catch at the imagination. We start off with an overview of some of the differences involved – gender, power, support, expectations, and so on. Then we plot out the feminine journey in nine stages, each lovingly detailed over pages and pages of material. Finally, we reach the masculine journey as well.

In each case Ms. Schmidt chooses several key examples from film, mythology & literature and follows each all the way through the various stages so you can see how they really work out. Best of all, one of her examples in each case is a “gender bender” – a man on the feminine journey (“American Beauty”) and a woman on the masculine journey (“The Long Kiss Goodnight”) – nicely backing up her assertion that the masculine and feminine labels don’t mean that only men and women can take certain journeys. Her examples also represent a variety of ways in which each journey can conclude.

She includes “craft tips” at various stages, suggestions to help you figure out how to make everything work. There’s even an appendix with a worksheet to help you figure out how your character in particular will take his or her journey, and a table detailing what some of the key differences are between the two journeys.

I admit, this is neat stuff! I expect it to be interesting to writers, people with an interest in mythology, and even folks just looking for an interesting read. I had a lot of fun looking through this book, and my husband eagerly awaits his chance to borrow it now that I’m done. The writing is largely clear, with a couple of small editing snafus here and there that confused me momentarily, but nothing major. It is detailed and well-researched without being dry and academic. It’s difficult to come up with ways in which this book could have been any better!

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