Show and Tell: Why You Should Show, Not Tell!

Whether from a writing professor, workshop peer, or favorite author, you must have heard it before: the oft shared and somewhat dreaded advice of “show, don’t tell.” But what does this mean, and how does one approach doing it? 

The “golden rule” of writing, “show, don’t tell,” describes a creative technique, or style of writing, that enables the reader to experience the story rather than be told it. To achieve this technique, a writer must employ actions, senses, figures of speech, and other vivid details so that the reader is fully immersed in the narrative.

Even the best of the best writers struggle with showing over telling. But learning how to do it gives writing a sense of finesse, excitement, and reality no matter what genre or format it takes. Here, we discuss techniques you can use to avoid telling rather than showing and share examples of what they look like on the page. We also cover what filter words are and supply an exercise you can do to improve your writing instantly. Read on to keep learning!

The Power of Showing 

“Show, don’t tell” is not used only in literature but in every form of storytelling, including film, television, podcasts, stage plays, and more. Let’s show you the power of showing rather than telling through some classic examples from various forms of media.


In Jurassic Park, the cup of water rippling before the T-Rex shows up exemplifies the idea of “show, don’t tell.” Rather than having a character suddenly exclaim, “Look! There’s a T-Rex heading right towards us!” and pointing in that direction, the vibration of the water indicating something large headed their way and the expressions on the characters’ faces when they realize what’s coming imbues the scene with a sense of fear and anticipation. The watcher already knows danger is on the way by the time the T-Rex shows up on screen. 


Taking the same scene from the novel version of Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton writes: 

Tim scanned the side of the road. The rain was coming down hard now, shaking the leaves with hammering drops. It made everything move. Everything seemed alive. He scanned the leaves . . .

Here, the reader is placed fully in Tim’s experience of the action. Words like “shaking” and “hammering” indicate the level of powerful vibration occurring from what we later discover to be the T-Rex’s steps. We are Tim, experiencing his growing anxiety and anticipation about his surroundings. Rather than telling us that Tim is getting scared, we feel his emotional state..


Poets often use rich metaphors to show the reader what’s happening. Take “Face Down” by Kelli Russell Agodon, the second in her suite of Three Poems. In it, there is the line, “he’s joking, his elbow baring / down on some back bedroom in the house / of my spine. He asks how it feels.” 

Through the use of words like “baring” and the comparison between the narrator’s back and a house, the reader experiences both the physical and the emotional pain the narrator does. Also, Agodon playfully blends the homophones “baring down” and “bearing down” to indicate emotional exposure or reveal and applying pressure, respectively. This shows the reader multiple facets of the moment for both characters at once. 

When to Use “Show, Don’t Tell” 

While the general rule of “show, don’t tell,” should be applied to almost all of your writing, there are specific places in the text where it’s typically used best.

Character Descriptions

When introducing a new character, you need to tell readers what they look like. On a TV or movie screen, this is done easily. But even when viewers can actually see the character, there are ways to tell the viewer more about them. For example, costuming is a huge part of letting the audience know more about a character. Someone who wears designer clothing may be rich or at least trying to appear it. If they wear only bright clothing, they may purposefully be trying to stand out. A character who starts out with long hair but chops it off halfway through may be going through emotional turmoil. 

In writing, picking and choosing what to show through character description depends on who is narrating and what you want readers to pick up on instantly. Here’s an example from Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings of rich character description that supplies us with more information than just what the character looks like: 

Her skin was a rich black that would have peeled like a plum if snagged, but then no one would have thought of getting close enough to Mrs. Flowers to ruffle her dress, let alone snag her skin. She didn’t encourage familiarity. She wore gloves too. I don’t think I ever saw Mrs. Flowers laugh, but she smiled often. A slow widening of her thin black lips to show even, small white teeth, then the slow effortless closing. When she chose to smile on me, I always wanted to thank her.

An autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings follows the early years of Angelou. This moment describes her meeting Mrs. Bertha Flowers, who later becomes a mentor figure and savior of sorts to her. Examine the text and ask yourself: What does this description tell me about Mrs. Flowers as a character? What does it tell me about the narrator? What other information can I draw from it? 

Emotional Responses

The way that a character reacts to different situations says a lot about them. Describing their reactions in writing can be a tricky balance of being too on-the-nose and too vague. Rather than saying, “He was mad,” outright—telling the audience how he felt—try describing how he expressed that anger: “His face turned red and his nostrils flared. His breath blew hot against my face and I flinched back.” In the second version of the sentence, the reader sees how anger manifests in this person and also how the narrator reacts to this kind of anger, so you have two moments of characterization that you otherwise wouldn’t. Telling creates distance for the reader. Showing creates closeness, and even an emotional response, through specificity. It’s clear that he isn’t just mad, he’s livid and scary, and is potentially putting our narrator in danger. 

Taking this further, let’s examine an excerpt from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. In the first pages of the novel, we learn that a man has cheated on his wife. In this scene, she discovers it by way of a letter, and we get his reaction upon her discovery:

There happened to him at that instant what does happen to people when they are unexpectedly caught in something very disgraceful. He did not succeed in adapting his face to the position in which he was placed towards his wife by the discovery of his fault. Instead of being hurt, denying, defending himself, begging forgiveness, instead of remaining indifferent even—anything would have been better than what he did do—his face utterly involuntarily (reflex spinal action, reflected Stephan Arkadyevitch, who was fond of physiology)—utterly involuntarily assumed its habitual, good-humored, and therefore idiotic smile. 

A few questions to consider post-reading: what does this short paragraph tell you about the character of Stephan Arkadyevitch? What does it tell you about the narrator or point of view in the novel? How might you expect Stephan’s wife to react to his “habitual, good-humored, and therefore idiotic smile”? We immediately understand that Stephan, caught in his adultery, calculates how to respond to his wife, indicating some falsity in his guilt. The fact that he can only muster an idiotic smile shows us that he’s terrible at being bad and something of a pathetic figure. 

Setting Descriptions

Giving readers a sense of where and when a story takes place is essential to them experiencing it. Setting goes a long way not only in placing the reader in a time and space but also in helping them understand the mechanics of your world. When describing setting, focus on the five senses: how does this world feel, smell, sound, look, and even taste? 

The goal with “show, don’t tell” is to better engage the audience in the story by making them feel like they are living it themselves. Using language that does this—and avoiding language that doesn’t—is key to telling a story that feels like an experience.

Pachinko, a novel by Min Jin Lee about four generations of an immigrant family set in twentieth century Korea and Japan, opens by telling us about the first generation of this family. One way that Lee sets the scene is through describing their house: 

The wooden house they had rented for over three decades was not large, just shy of five hundred square feet. Sliding paper doors divided the interior into three snug rooms, and the fisherman himself had replaced its leaky grass roof with reddish clay tiles to the benefit of his landlord, who lived in splendor in a mansion in Busan. Eventually, the kitchen was pushed out to the vegetable garden to make way for the larger cooking pots and the growing number of portable dining tables that hung on pegs along the mortared stone. 

Let’s think about what this excerpt tells us about the rest of the story. What can we assume about the characters? What do we imagine the characters might do in this house? How does describing the house help place us in the story? Through “showing” language, an author can imply a great deal about the characters and world to the reader without ever saying them overtly. In Min Jin Lee’s passage, we infer the passage of time and the growing of the family because of the descriptive details about the house. We may also infer information about how rich or poor this family is and how they feel about their landlord.

These examples of “show, don’t tell,” help us understand why it’s such an important part of telling a good story. It gives mere words the power to turn into felt experiences for a reader. Next, we’ll cover ways you can start to imbue your own work with the “show, don’t tell” style of writing.

Understanding Filter Words

Filter words increase narrative distance in writing by placing the character in the spotlight rather than the experience. They put a barrier, or filter, between the reader and what the character is experiencing. Generally speaking, filter words relate to the five senses: sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch. 

Common examples of filter words include: 

  • Saw, look, see
  • Hear, heard, listen
  • Taste
  • Smell
  • Felt, feel
  • Realized, knew
  • Remembered
  • Decided
  • Noted

When looking for filter words in your writing, search for places where you say things like: 

  • I saw the open window in front of me. 
  • I tasted copper on my tongue. 
  • He remembered when his brother was alive. 
  • She noticed a piece of paper lying on the ground.

In all of these instances, the reader is being told what happened rather than experiencing it for themselves. Try to replace areas where you notice this happening with things like: 

  • A light breeze rustled my hair as I approached the window. 
  • A bloody glob of spit dripped down my chin, staining the ground copper below me. 
  • His brother had once walked these halls, the winter chill seeping through the hard granite and into his toes.
  • The paper, rough and dry against my fingers, was stained brown and wet from the mud.

In replacing these moments, remember to stay true to the experience the character is going through. For example, to build a sense of anticipation and fear in a scene, you would use different language than if you are describing a tranquil moment. 

This all said, you don’t have to ban the use of filter words in your writing entirely. They can be used intentionally to enrich your writing, mix up your narrative style, or say something simply. But in all these instances, they must have a clear purpose and should be used sparingly. For example: 

  • The midday sun beat down on his shoulders, dampening his shirt. When an arresting stench drifted up to his nose, he realized that he forgot to put on deodorant, and wondered if his date with Marguerite was already over.

In this short paragraph, we get moments of both showing and telling. Balanced together, they work to create characterization while providing us with minor expositional details at the same time. All in all, the effect is that the narrative continues moving forward while we remain fully inside the narrator’s point of view. 

Four Practical Tips for Showing, Not Telling 

Learning how to show and not tell takes time and practice. But aside from eliminating most or all filter words from your writing, you can also take these steps: 

  1. Use sensory details. 

Instead of using sensory verbs, which can become filter words, appeal to the reader’s sense of taste, touch, smell, sight, and sound through description. Some examples of sensory details include:

  • Her cheek blushed bright beneath my lips as I pressed them to her pillowy cheek.
  • A strange rustle altered me to movement. I turned. There, bathed silver in the moonlight, stood the unicorn, its long horn cutting a sharp shadow through the meadow.
  • A burning, smoky scent hit her nostrils and the back of her throat as soon as she entered the car.

In all of these examples, details relating to the senses add to the scene by avoiding things like, “I saw a unicorn in the meadow,” or “I smelled the scent of cigarettes in the car.” 

  1. Utilize dialogue. 

How characters speak can reveal many things about them, such as hints as to where they’re from, how old they are, and what they do for a living. In screenplays, the use of dialogue is often the best way to build exposition in a scene. Throwing us back to Jurassic Park, this scene exemplifies dialogue used exceptionally well to not only feed the audience important information, but also to help us understand the characters in the scene. 

  1. Use action to convey emotion. 

When a person in real life is joyful, upset, or otherwise experiencing a strong emotion, they don’t always express themselves through words or simply think “I’m sad.” Instead, what they do and say shows us how they’re feeling. Try doing this in your writing. For example, saying: “She slammed the door shut, threw herself on the bed, and burst into tears,” provides readers with a much more immersive experience than, “She was frustrated and sad.” 

  1. Create atmosphere through description. 

In literature, atmosphere is the feeling or sense evoked by an environment or setting. Why does a science fiction novel feel like science fiction? How does a writer build a sense of horror when telling a scary story? Many things can contribute to this, but one major way is through the story’s overall atmosphere. To build atmosphere, you use descriptive language. We dive deeper into this in the next installment of this series, but the simple answer is that you can use figures of speech such as metaphor, simile, and analogy as well as the sensory type details mentioned above. 

For example, Bram Stoker’s Dracula brings out the spooky atmosphere through the descriptions, figures of speech, and sensory details used. One example is: “The grey of the morning has passed, and the sun is high over the distant horizon, which seems jagged, whether with trees or hills I know not, for it is so far off that big things and little are mixed.” The words “grey” and “jagged” stand out in particular as adding a sense of building eeriness as our unwitting protagonist Jonathan Harkness nears Count Dracula’s castle. Additionally, the phrase “big things and little are mixed” speaks not only to Harkness’s perspective on the landscape, but also to his confusion about it. Most people are capable of sorting out relative size and distance when looking at a landscape—the mountains are bigger than the buildings in reality, despite appearing smaller because the buildings are closer—so knowing that Harkness cannot indicates the supernaturality of his experience.

Avoiding Common Pitfalls

As mentioned earlier, it takes time and practice to master the art of showing rather than telling throughout your writing. But there are some common pitfalls you can avoid to help yourself along the way. 

  1. Overusing adverbs and adjectives. 

Adverbs and adjectives are both used to modify, qualify, and describe other parts of speech. They can work well to enhance the experience of the reader and provide a sense of atmosphere. However, they should be used very purposefully and sparingly, as they tend to slow down the narrative and can be an indication of places where the author is telling rather than showing. 

For example, “She walked clumsily over to him,” is more simply and viscerally said as, “She stumbled over to him.”

  1. Relying on exposition instead of action.

Exposition is an essential piece of any story, but it can be tricky to implement it without giving the reader an info dump. You want to provide the reader with necessary background information as well as give them details on the setting and characters, but you don’t want them to get bored or be taken out of the story because of it. Try providing exposition through action to make it feel more natural. Some ways to do this include using dialogue, narration, internal monologue, or special devices. 

  1. Lacking subtlety in characterization. 

Authors tell us more about characters through the literary device of characterization. Physical descriptions of a character as well as their actions, dialogue, and affect on other characters all contribute to characterization. While you can use both direct and indirect characterization to describe someone, too much of either one may result in readers reading too much or too little into a character. It also feels clumsy to be too on-the-nose about who characters are. A character who is so overtly evil that they don’t feel real, for example, might take readers out of a story. 


To practice showing, not telling, take a previous piece of your writing and go through it looking for places where you use filter words or that can be strengthened through metaphor, simile, or analogy. Highlight those moments and then rewrite them to “show” better. When you’re done, take a look back and re-read those selections in context with the rest of the story. How has it transformed the delivery of your story? 

The Path to Becoming a Better Writer

Mastering how to show, not tell is a key part of taking your writing to the next level. Use filter words sparingly, deliver exposition through action whenever possible, and rely on sensory details to imbue your writing with a sense of atmosphere. And remember, in this case especially, practice makes perfect. Keep an eye out for ideal examples of “showing” in works you love and think about how the author has achieved it. Plus, keep up with our Facts of Fiction series for more storytelling tips, tricks, and know-how. 

Crafting Compelling Conflict: The Heartbeat of Storytelling

The Importance of Conflict in Storytelling

Almost every kind of story—although not all—involves conflict, or a clash between two opposing forces that creates the narrative thread for the story. Ideally, the conflict of a story makes it feel cohesive while bringing out its major themes and messaging. 

Conflict can be weighted at different levels as well depending on the genre. For example, a contemporary romance likely doesn’t need a super high-stakes conflict. A ticking time bomb, war, or dramatic physical altercation may make the story feel too melodramatic. Instead, the conflict for this kind of story should revolve around the characters and their relationships with each other. On the other hand, a science fiction epic requires a larger scale conflict with broader consequences, such as an intergalactic war. Of course, there are some successful examples of high-stakes romance, like The Titanic, and low-stakes sci-fi, like The Murderbot Diaries series, that challenge their genres effectively.

So what is conflict and how can we create it successfully in a narrative? What kinds of conflicts exist? We’ll answer all these questions and more, so read on to learn about the importance of conflict in storytelling. 

Understanding Conflict

Conflict occurs when the main character in a story struggles with something or someone, either external or internal. Conflict serves as a literary device that builds tension by challenging the main character and forcing them to test their values. Stories benefit from conflict for many reasons, but the main two are: 

  1. Providing purpose: By establishing conflict at the beginning of a story and resolving it by the end, you give your story direction, momentum, and purpose. Without it, a story may feel untethered and structureless. 
  2. Creating compelling characters: Just like how in real life going through a conflict forces you to react in some way, characters’ responses to a conflict reveal their character traits and what makes them compelling. This is key to making them feel multidimensional and relatable to readers. 

In short, conflict helps propel the plot forward and provides a backdrop for character creation. 

Types of Conflict

As discussed in our Villains’ Voices blog, conflict comes in many ways, shapes, and forms. These are the six most common types of conflict found in stories and prime examples of them in various forms of fiction. 

Character vs. Self

Character vs. self takes place within a character’s psyche. They usually struggle with something like self-doubt, a moral dilemma, or their own nature. This form of conflict is often layered with a more obvious external conflict that forces the character to confront their internal one. At its core, the story forces the character to confront their own thoughts and actions.

A strong example of character vs. self from recent media is Avatar: The Last Airbender. Although the external conflict of the series revolves around the ongoing war with the powerful Fire Nation, Aang’s internal conflict over his reluctance to accept his responsibilities as an Avatar is what sets the events of the story in motion. Ultimately, he must overcome these doubts in order to defeat the ultimate evil. (Also, if you haven’t yet, you should go watch the original cartoon version of ATLA!)

Falling into this category more obviously is The Picture of Dorian Gray, as explained by Dorian himself in our blog featuring villain’s voices. This iconic novel by Oscar Wilde truly encapsulates how a character can destroy themselves from within. 

When setting up character vs. self as the major conflict in any story, it’s important to hone in on your main character’s fatal flaw—what is it about themselves that causes or nearly causes their downfall? 

Character vs. Character

Perhaps one of the more obvious and recognizable types of conflicts, character vs. character relies on two characters struggling against each other. The conflict occurs because the protagonist and antagonist have the same goal, conflicting goals, or one has what the other wants. Confrontations between them may manifest in different ways, from physical alterations to irreconcilable differences in morals or beliefs. 

Examples of this kind of conflict include Harry Potter vs. Voldemort (Harry Potter series), Othello vs. Iago (Othello), Holt vs. Wuntch (Brooklyn 99), and Randle Patrick McMurphy vs. Nurse Ratched (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). In larger-scale stories, such as epics or episodic television shows, character vs. character conflict may be a smaller part of a larger piece—such as Katniss Everdeen vs. President Snow in the Hunger Games series. The conflict between them amplifies and connects with the larger conflict of defeating the Capitol as a whole.

In character vs. character conflicts, consider making the characters narrative foils for each other in order to further highlight why they conflict with one another as well as their strengths and weaknesses as people. Hint: If the conflict between two characters can be solved by a simple conversation, it’s probably not enough to carry an entire story. Therefore, it’s always best to have two characters conflict over something that is essential to the core of who they are.

Character vs. Society 

In this external-type conflict, a protagonist opposes society, the government, tradition, culture, or a societal norm of some kind. This opposition may spring from many sources including a need to survive, a moral sense of right and wrong, or a desire for happiness, freedom, justice, or love. Often, this kind of conflict is also layered with character vs. self as the protagonist grapples with their own motivations for their societal conflict. 

Popular examples of character vs. society include A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, the TV series Glee, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and the X-Men from Marvel comics. In all of these examples, a person or group of people is discriminated against and must band together to fight against this discrimination. Other examples include “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” a short story by Ursula K. Le Guinn, and Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare. 

Character vs. society is an incredibly important form of conflict for critiquing popular thought. Exploring this kind of conflict in your work can be tricky but also rewarding. Approach it carefully and do your research when it comes to understanding what your protagonist is working against. 

Character vs. Technology

A hallmark of the science fiction genre, this kind of conflict explores what happens when technology grows beyond its intended use. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley serves as one of the earliest and most prolific examples of this genre. 2001: A Space Odyssey, the classic Stanley Kubrick film, also features a major character vs. technology conflict in the form of HAL 9000, a computer that grows to have a human personality and ultimately murders several crew members. Both of these examples ask poignant questions about what it means to be human and what sets us apart from machines. 

Other examples of the character vs. technology conflict include The Terminator, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, and even our real life with the advancements of AI! Just kidding. Or am I? 

When thinking about this kind of conflict, consider why the technology you’re using exists: What kind of problem was it trying to solve in the first place? Then, consider the worst case scenario. When taken to an extreme, how does this problem-solving machine become a problem itself and what are the ultimate consequences of that? 

Character vs. Nature

Character vs. nature plots see a protagonist struggling against natural forces such as a storm, animals, or disease or plague. Essentially, whatever they struggle against must feel out of their control. 

We can find this type of conflict in works such as Moby Dick, Robinson Crusoe, and the Tom Hanks movie Castaway. All of these examples include the sea or a storm (and often both) as a huge source of conflict, but other places we can find this conflict is even in history itself. The Black Death, an outbreak of bubonic plague in Europe from 1346 to 1353, serves as a great example of this with real-life consequences. 

When it comes to character vs. nature as a conflict, one of the most intriguing aspects to consider is its origins. While a man-eating shark might be beyond human control, the mayor’s decision to keep lucrative beaches open for the summer, putting tourists at risk, in Jaws informs and intensifies the conflict. A real world example is the bubonic plague, which spread across Europe thanks to flea-infested rats, eventually infecting about half the population. According to scholars, climate change may have contributed to driving rodents to new places, leading to the plague. Other causes, such as the killing of cats, who were seen as the familiars of witches, and poor hygienic habits may also have affected the incredible spread of this disease. Human folly as a part of the cause of character vs. nature as a conflict can provide a unique spin to these types of stories. 

Character vs. Supernatural

In a character vs. supernatural conflict, the protagonist opposes a supernatural force of some kind. This could be fate, magical forces, otherworldly beings, religion or deities. Often, this kind of conflict is a major driving force in the fantasy genre. Similar to character vs. nature, supernatural conflicts are often layered with character vs. self as the protagonist goes through personal growth while fending off supernatural foes. The supernatural force likely highlights or brings out these internal struggles. 

Supernatural conflict is a common theme in horror stories and movies such as Dracula, The Exorcist, and, aptly, Supernatural. Teen Wolf serves as a particularly good example of supernatural forces and an internal struggle. In The Lord of the Rings, the One Ring is a supernatural evil that Frodo and other characters actively fight. 

Ample examples exist, but the crux of a good character vs. supernatural story is that the supernatural aspect of the story serves to enhance the internal struggles of the characters within it. 

Tips for Writers: Generating and Developing Conflict

Coming up with a strong conflict for your story can be difficult. Sometimes, you have the characters, setting, and theme all decided but you just can’t figure out the right way to imbue your story with a sense of conflict to keep it moving forward. Here are a few tips to help you get started: 

  1. Know Your Characters

Conflict is often best derived from a deep understanding of your characters’ goals, motivations, fears, and desires. By creating characters with strengths and weaknesses, you can better formulate what they might want and how this can become a point of conflict. A good question to ask yourself about every character you create is: What do they want? Once you figure that out, put an obstacle in their path to getting it. Boom! You have a conflict already. 

  1. Identify Sources of Conflict 

Once you know your characters, explore potential sources of conflict related to their goals and motivations. Look at how your characters can interact with each other to create conflict. For example, let’s say you have one character who desperately wants to win a contest so they can use the money to better their life. Another character therefore can easily be used to create tension by also wanting to win the same contest. 

  1. Create Tension

Introduce obstacles and challenges that hinder your characters from achieving their goals. In the story where the character wants to win the contest, spend time preventing them from even making it to the venue in the first place. By building suspense and anticipation, you escalate the stakes throughout the story. For example, maybe the money the character wants to win is to pay for their sibling’s surgery. If the sibling doesn’t get the surgery, they’ll die. This adds extra urgency to the entire situation. 

  1. Use Contrast

Sometimes, conflict between two characters exists not because they’re both after the same goal, but rather because they have contrasting desires, beliefs, or backgrounds. Conflicting values or ideologies can lead to further tension and drama. In our ongoing example, maybe the sibling has no desire to live and doesn’t want the surgery. Thus, the lengths that the protagonist goes through to attend the contest and win the money could all be for naught. 

  1. Balance Internal and External Conflict

Almost every kind of conflict is both internal and external to varying degrees. Without some of both, the story is likely to drag on or feel facetious. In our sample story, the protagonist must battle with the external forces preventing them from winning the contest while internally struggling with the fact that the person they want to win it for doesn’t want it. This naturally serves as a platform for character growth of some kind, whether bad or good.

  1. Experiment with Conflict Types

As you work on your story, consider what conflict types best help you get your message across. While you’ll have overarching conflicts that last the entire story, sometimes you may want to use other types of conflict for smaller moments. Think about an episodic TV show. Most of these types of TV shows have ongoing longer plots that span a season. For example, two people develop feelings over the course of the series and get together by the end. But in each individual episode, the characters overcome the smaller conflicts that appear only in that episode, which may be with another character, with themselves, with society, or with something else. Doing this adds layers of complexity to your story. 

That said, be careful not to introduce too many conflicts too close together. Dramatic tension is great, but you can easily confuse your reader by introducing too many conflicts and factors at the same time. You can also write yourself into a corner that way—how can all of these conflicts possibly be resolved by the end of the story? More on that later. 

  1. Maintain Consistency

Ensure that the conflicts you create arise naturally from the characters and world you’ve created. For example, introducing a supernatural conflict halfway through a romantic comedy that previously had no indications of supernatural elements likely won’t work well and will only confuse the reader. 

It’s also important to follow through with the major conflicts introduced at the beginning of the story to maintain coherence and believability throughout. Calling back to our previous example, someone has to win the contest in the story—whether it’s the protagonist or not. 

Balancing Multiple Conflicts in One Story

As mentioned above, stories often have more than one conflict in action at any given time. These conflicts include major overarching ones as well as smaller conflicts scene-by-scene. Balancing these many conflicts can be tricky. One thing to consider is how many characters exist in your story. The more characters, the more potential for conflict. Thus, in these types of stories there should be a strong and obvious overarching conflict that provides structure to the narrative and then smaller conflicts that break off from that due to characters’ relationships and actions. For example, in The Odyssey, the major overarching conflict is Odysseus’ struggle to get home over twenty years’ time. In the meantime, however, his wife Penelope at home struggles to fend off various suitors. 

Common Pitfalls to Avoid in Conflict Creation 

If the conflict in a story is weak, the story will likely fail to keep readers’ attention. Why? Because conflict is what drives the stakes up and keeps tension building. Reasons why a conflict fails in a story include:

  • The conflict feels forced, like it was added just for the sake of having a conflict. In this case, the fix is to look at your characters and setting again to make sure that the conflict feels natural when put next to them on the page. 
  • The conflict lacks stakes. If the conflict feels inconsequential to the characters, it will feel doubly that to the readers. Why does this conflict matter in the context of the world you’ve created? What will happen if it doesn’t get resolved? 
  • The conflict only exists externally. External conflicts such as wars or natural forces may seem like the best way to imbue your story with stakes. But if they don’t affect characters internally as well, they will lack emotional depth and prevent characters from important development. 
  • The conflict is never resolved or lacks consequence. If the conflicts in a story are resolved too easily or lack lasting consequences, they won’t feel earned or necessary. The reader might sit there after asking, “So why did I even read that?” Sometimes (although rarely) a conflict can be “resolved” ambiguously—but it should always serve the story in some way and doing this is very tricky to get right. 

Conflict Throughout Multimedia

Throughout our exploration of the types of conflict, we’ve provided examples of books, movies, and TV shows to showcase what conflict looks like in a narrative thread. Remember, whatever form your story takes, it needs conflict. Even poems and flash fiction, some of the shortest forms of stories, should have a clear conflict. In “Migration Season,” a poem by Kelli Russell Agodon, the conflict is that the narrator’s father is dying in the hospital. Compared to a larger work such as a short story or novel, this conflict feels brief. Nonetheless, the author creates tension and stakes through the use of metaphor and language. The desire to see what happens at the end of the poem drives the reader forward. 

Larger works require more kinds of conflicts. An epic like The Iliad, for example, features multiple smaller conflicts underneath the umbrella of a much larger one. Personal, political, and godly conflicts all come together to highlight and refine the ultimate message of the story which is about stubbornness, pride, hubris, and fate. Epic novels such as Anna Karenina utilize personal conflict—the affair between the titular character and her paramour—to dig into societal and cultural themes and questions. 

Final Thoughts on the Importance of Crafting Compelling Conflict

Just as humans in life must struggle and overcome challenges, characters in stories must do the same. The difference is that stories seek to use conflict as a tool to create a narrative thread that speaks a message or truth to the audience. If you’re struggling to imbue your stories with a sense of conflict, or find that your stories lack dramatic tension and stakes, take a step back and think deeply about your characters and their desires. Sometimes, you may need to tweak or invent characters to put them at odds with one another, with themselves, or with outside forces. Try out different things and see what sticks! And remember to continue tuning into our Facts of Fiction series to continue your writing journey.

The Villains’ Voices: 4 Main Types of Antagonists

Now that we have covered creating compelling characters using archetypes, let’s take a look at one of the most important characters in any story: the antagonist. Antagonists come in many forms—in fact, they may not always be an explicit character—but they are always in direct conflict with the protagonist as the protagonist strives to get what they want. 

Contrary to popular belief, antagonists do not necessarily have to be evil. Many types of villainous antagonists exist, of course, and they are a popular way to imbue stories with an immediate sense of conflict and strife. But sometimes, the antagonist is simply someone whose actions come into conflict with the protagonist, or they are an inanimate force the protagonist must fight against, or the protagonist is their own antagonist.

Let’s explore these different kinds of antagonists through their own stories and voices. Four different types of antagonists weigh in to provide their own insight as to what makes them work so well. We’ll hear from Lady Macbeth, Mr. Darcy, the laws of space and nature, and Dorian Gray as we dive deep into the role a great antagonist plays. 

Please note that this blog contains some spoilers for Macbeth by Shakespeare, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, “The Cold Equations” by Tom Goodwin, and The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. 

The Villain: Lady Macbeth from Macbeth by Shakespeare

Macbeth tells the story of a Scottish general named Macbeth who receives a prophecy from three witches that he will become king of Scotland. Encouraged by his ambitious wife, Lady Macbeth, he murders King Duncan to seize the throne. However, Macbeth’s guilt and paranoia following this lead to further acts of violence and betrayal, ultimately resulting in his downfall. 

Lady Macbeth infamously serves as the major antagonist of the play, inciting Macbeth to his treacherous actions until her guilt consumes her and she descends into madness. In the end, she kills herself. Lady Macbeth is ambitious, manipulative, ruthless, and determined. She will do anything to increase her and her husband’s status and power, even if it means committing heinous acts. In this way, she serves as the traditional villain-type antagonist who works for evil purposes to destroy the protagonist

Here’s what Lady Macbeth has to say for herself from beyond the grave regarding her actions as a villain: 

They call me villain—I assure you I
Am not. Ambitious? Sure, I have been this,
And murderer, and more. But all for him.
If not for me, the story stalls in his
Unmoving, hesitant hands. Always feeble,
Always weak. Unlike me. So I wanted more,
For myself and for him. Is that so wrong? 
Was killing Duncan so deserving of 
This hell? Each night, I wash my hands of blood. 
And yet when I awaken, there it is
Again. The stain I can’t remove, not from 
My skin nor from my clothes. The blood from whose 
Blue veins it ran I do not know. ‘Tis mine? 
Or his? Perhaps, e’en after all this time, 
‘Tis Duncan’s still. The spot that never leaves. 
Oh well, I’d do it all again, for us.

Lady Macbeth puts it best. Without her, Macbeth may never have done the things he did and the story would not have been a story at all. But like any good villain, Lady Macbeth believes she is doing what is best for her husband, herself, and her community. She believes her ambition is just—at least, until her guilt drives her mad. Compelling villains never feel that they are actually villainous or evil, but rather that what they are doing is necessary or even good. In this way, when an antagonist is truly a villain in a story, their evildoing drives the story forward to its conclusion. 

The Conflict-Creator: Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice follows the story of Elizabeth Bennet, the second eldest of the five Bennet sisters, as she navigates the societal expectations and romantic entanglements of early nineteenth century England. When wealthy, eligible bachelor Mr. Charles Bingley moves into the neighborhood, Mrs. Bennet, Elizabeth’s mother, tries to secure him as a husband for one of her daughters. Mr. Bingley becomes enamored with Jane, the eldest Bennet sister, while Elizabeth captures the attention of his friend Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy. However, Mr. Darcy’s pride and Elizabeth’s prejudice against him cause conflict and initially prevent any romantic feelings from developing between them. 

While there are plenty of antagonistic characters in Pride and Prejudice, including George Wickham, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and Mr. Collins, Mr. Darcy serves as the main conflict-creator throughout the story. He is constantly at odds with the protagonist, Elizabeth, and the story is not resolved until he and Elizabeth become aligned.

But let’s have Mr. Darcy tell us what he thinks through the epistolary style: 

Dear Reader,

Although Elizabeth tells me it is not necessary, I am compelled to defend myself from these accusations of being “antagonistic.” I do not feel I have been antagonistic in the slightest. That is not to say that I do not have faults, but I do not think of our story as one of antagonism… rather, it was a series of grave misunderstandings. 

Elizabeth tells me I am misremembering. The ball, she says, the ball where we first met—you said I was ugly! I did not. I was attracted to Elizabeth the moment I met her, I just could not admit it to myself at the time. I have matured since then. 

The unfortunate circumstances that brought Elizabeth and me together made us stronger, did they not? At the very least, they revealed our inmost strengths and flaws and brought them out into the open. 

It is true, however, that I insulted Elizabeth and her family. This I much regret, though it is true that meeting with Elizabeth’s mother can be rather taxing. (Elizabeth agrees.) At the time, I was too prideful to see that although I may have disapproved of her family, Elizabeth was the only one for me. I should not have let myself be influenced by slander of her and her family. 

She’s smiling now, even as she says that it was she who was too prideful and too prejudiced to see past her initial impression of me. I suppose we both were blind. 

Despite my initial impression of her, I could not help but be drawn to Elizabeth. My actions did not always reflect my true heart. Sometimes it felt that everything we did worked against each other. She was influenced by others whispering falsehoods into her ears about me, and I was held back by my own close-minded thinking. 

Looking back on it, I cannot help but scoff at myself—what a presumptuous proposal I made. Yet somehow I do not regret it, for it led us to where we are today. Even after all this time, I find it easier to communicate my true feelings to her, and to myself, through writing letters. Everything is more clear when put out on the page. 

This is all to say, dear reader, that when you encounter conflict in your life—conflict you, yourself may have caused, do not shy away from it. You must struggle and overcome the conflict in order to reap its rewards. I have found the rewards to be most worth reaping! 

Elizabeth is laughing at me now. I must go. 


Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy

Conflict-creators in fiction are never outright “bad guys,” but they tend to make things complicated for the protagonist. They often represent a status quo that the protagonist actively resists or are a counterpoint to the protagonist’s worldview. No matter what, the conflicts they create press the protagonist to change—for the better or for the worse. When approaching writing them, think about their motivations: why would they want to create this conflict, either advertently or inadvertently? What character traits put them so at-odds with the protagonist? 

Inanimate Force: The Laws of Nature from “The Cold Equations” by Tom Goodwin

This short story explores the consequences of and the rigidness of natural laws. In it, a young girl, Marilyn Cross, stows away on an Emergency Dispatch Ship (EDS) from the larger ship the Stardust to visit her brother on another planet after ten years apart. What she doesn’t know is that any excess weight will cause the EDS to go into freefall, killing the pilot and ultimately the ailing people on the planet it is heading with a serum for a disease. Thus, the pilot must jettison any stowaways into space once discovered. However, upon realizing that the stowaway in question is an 18-year-old girl who is completely unaware of the dire consequences of her actions, the pilot is horrified and reluctant to follow through. He attempts to see if he can save her, but in order to save the lives of many—including his own—Marilyn must be ejected into space. 

“The Cold Equations” features a unique, non-character antagonist. It is a tragic story about the consequences of action and inaction and the laws of nature. Their oppressive existence throughout the story serves as a reminder of what’s at stake as well as Marilyn’s inevitable death. 

Since space and nature cannot speak for themselves, the pilot weighs in with a recording of the post-mission report: 

Mission Report for Commander Delhart EDS 34GII
Reporter: Pilot Barton; Number A8479-Y50
Mission Date: December 9, 2178


Context: On December 6, 2178, the Stardust received a request from one of the exploration parties stationed on Woden. Six men were stricken with fever carried by green kala midges and their supply of serum had been destroyed. Stardust went through the usual procedure, dropping into normal space to launch the EDS with the fever serum, then vanishing again in hyperspace. Barton was the sole accompanier of the EDS per Interstellar Regulations. 

Mission dates: December 8 and 9, 2178

Mission expected outcomes: Safe delivery of the green gala midges fever serum to Group One stationed on Woden. 

Team members: Pilot Neil Barton; Number A8479-Y50


  • Safe delivery of the green gala midges fever serum to Group One stationed on Woden.
  • Stowaway jettisoned from EDS at 1900 en route. 


  • At 1700 hours, EDS 34GII launched from the Stardust. Ran a metrics check; no reported abnormalities. 
  • At 1800 hours, noticed the supply closet temperature gauge had risen above normal and determined a stowaway had come on board. Per Paragraph L, Section 8 of Interstellar regulations, made way to the supply closet to apprehend the stowaway. Stowaway identified as young girl. 
  • At 1805 hours, returned with the stowaway to the main cabin. After questioning, cut deceleration to 0.001 m/s2. Signaled the Stardust and contacted Commander Delhart. 
  • At 1808 hours, stowaway identified as Number T8374-Y54. Name: Marilyn Lee Cross. Sex: Female. Born: July 6, 2160. Height: 5’3”. Weight: 110 lbs.
  • Ordered to resume deceleration at 1910 hours and complete mission report. 
  • At 1830 hours, requested contact with Lieutenant Gerry Cross, number: T8946-Y52.
  • At 1850 hours, Lt. Cross returned the signal and spoke with Marilyn Cross. 
  • At 1900 hours, stowaway jettisoned from EDS en route to Woden. 
  • At 1910 hours, resumed normal deceleration and submitted primary mission report. 
  • At 2000 hours, arrived on Woden with serum and delivered to Group One Captain Blysmithe. 

Findings and Recommendations

  • Finding: Green gala midges fever more contagious in closed environments than anticipated. 
    • Recommendation: To prevent future incidents of green gala midges fever, supply all ports within 56 parsecs of Earth with vaccination. 
  • Finding: Lack of knowledge regarding consequences of stowage from Earth citizen personnel. 
    • Recommendation: To prevent future stowage incidents, supply Terrans with substantial education on the dangers of stowing away. 
  • Finding: Lack of security around Emergency Deployment Ships leading up to significant launches. 
    • Recommendation: To prevent future stowage or piracy incidents, increase security around EDS launches up to 24 hours in advance of launch whenever possible. 

Barton’s report, particularly his findings and recommendations, help us understand the weight an inanimate force plays as an antagonist. In scenarios where an inanimate force like the laws of nature or societal expectations are the biggest drivers of conflict in a story, often the characters are pitted against it in a way that prevents them from having full control over their fate and the fate of those around them. The antagonists in “The Cold Equations” are faceless and have no motivations of their own, but are nonetheless extraordinarily powerful. Physics serves as one potential antagonist, as science dictates how the ship can land safely. Fate also plays a role as Marilyn faces the consequences of her ignorance and bad luck. The story also features an even more amorphous antagonist: choice. The fact that the pilot and Marilyn must confront a difficult “Trolley Problem” and choose between two bad options is, in itself, an antagonist.

Self: Dorian Gray from The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

In this exploration of a person consumed by vanity and hedonism, the young, handsome Dorian Gray is the subject of a portrait painted by his friend and artist Basil Hallward. When Dorian expresses his desire for eternal youth, wishing the portrait would age instead of him, the wish seemingly comes true. Dorian remains young and unblemished while the portrait ages. Dorian then goes on to indulge in a life of debauchery and excess, spurred by his deep insecurities and outside forces such as the hedonistic Lord Henry. As Dorian becomes increasingly reckless and immoral, the portrait grows increasingly grotesque and corrupted. Dorian fears it will reveal his true nature to the world and becomes consumed by paranoia and guilt. Finally, he destroys the portrait, resulting in his own death and restoring the portrait to its original state while his body reflects the soul inside. 

Although outside forces influence Dorian’s thinking and decisions, his ultimate downfall is himself and his vanity. His own insecurities, his inability to establish and live by his own moral code, and his emphasis on appearance over all lead to his corruption and death. 

Let’s hear Dorian’s ghost as it wanders through the halls of his mansion, remembering his life: 

I once grieved the living death of my own soul. Now I grieve the death of myself while my portrait lives on. It has surpassed me in all, in looks, in youth, and in eternity. No longer do people remember me, Dorian Gray, they only remember my portrait. What a terrible thing it is, to be so remembered for someone else’s work. 

I remain blameless. For all, I blame Basil and his damned portrait. Except for the death of the girl I once loved, perhaps… perhaps that was my undoing after all. 

What am I saying? The portrait caused everything and now it sits there, gilded and resplendent while I wander these halls unable to pass. Do I have regrets? I already set them aside, agreed with myself that I had nothing to do with the unfortunate events that unfolded during my life. 

Sometimes… sometimes I think of what happiness I might have had if not for that portrait. If not for that damnable object. The object of so many’s desire: Lord Henry, Basil himself. Perhaps even Sybil Vane had only ever truly wanted the portrait of me: the image that remains perfect even after death. No one wanted me for the person inside. 

Then again, not even I did, that vile fellow. A lord of debauchery. I lived only as I knew to live, only as I should have lived as an immortal. Now my portrait lives on in place of me, a true masterpiece. And I, I remain here, unable to move on. 

When the self is the antagonist in a story, it means that the major conflicts are caused by the protagonist’s main flaws. In Dorian Gray’s case, vanity and insecurity drive him to cause horrible deeds and ultimately to a terrible end. Characters who have an internal struggle above all may come out at the end of it better than Dorian does, but only if they’re able to learn their lesson and overcome their weaknesses. 

Final Thoughts

Conflict is an incredibly important aspect of any story, and driving that conflict will always be an antagonist of some kind. Hint: All of these antagonists come from stories that are part of our Literary Tarot deck, through which you can unlock even more secrets of classic literature. Remember to check out our next blog in this series which will cover crafting compelling conflict in greater detail! For more on the complexities of antagonists and what makes them work, check out our blog analyzing four truly memorable antagonists

12 Archetypes for Compelling Character Creation

How to develop characters that readers will recognize and love

Characters serve as a central part of any story and are often what compels a reader to continue reading more than anything else in a novel. Some readers can forgive poor plotting, pacing, and thematic weight when the characters resonate with them enough (of course, a truly good book does all of these well). Perhaps this is because we, as people, see ourselves in certain characters, or because we can’t help but be transfixed by the choices characters make. Some characters have made such an indelible impact on the world that they are recognizable even to those unfamiliar with their stories. Think of Don Quixote, for whom the word quixotic was invented, or Don Juan, known around the world for being a womanizer. These characters have transcended their work to become archetypes all on their own. 

But what is an archetype? In general, it is something that serves as a very typical example of a certain person or thing. In storytelling, a character archetype is a character defined by particular actions or traits. Understanding character archetypes will not only help you build better, more realistic characters, but they will also help you across all forms of storytelling. Marketing and branding strategies, for example, often use character archetypes to better target audiences with messaging. 

In this blog, we’ll cover twelve of the most common character archetypes used in fiction and explain why they work. 

The 12 Mechanical Hero Archetypes

As many types of characters exist as people in the world. But here, we’ll tackle the twelve mechanical hero character archetypes that are most often associated with stories that in some way follow the Hero’s Journey. Keep in mind, however, that these types of characters don’t only appear in the Hero’s Journey story template, nor are they the only character archetypes to exist. 

The Lover 💘

The Lover follows their heart and values romance, passion, and humanism. Often idealists, they can be naïve and irrational as well as deeply committed and loyal to friends, partners, and causes. While we commonly associate the Lover character archetype with romance and relationships, they symbolize more than just romantic love. Their passion can be for a cause, nature, or even life itself.

In storytelling, the Lover often goes on a journey of growth that sees them mature and lose some of their naïevity. They may face the consequences of being too idealistic and have a tragic ending, or else face a crisis of identity and faith when confronted with a betrayal. Examples of this character archetype in popular fiction include Romeo and Juliet (Romeo and Juliet), Samwise Gamgee (The Lord of the Rings), and Don Quixote (Don Quixote), all of whom represent different types of Lovers. Romeo and Juliet embody a passionate at-first-sight romantic love with tragic consequences whereas Samwise Gamgee represents a stalwart and loyal friendship-focused love. Meanwhile, Don Quixote depicts the lustful, passionate, and irrational side of the Lover character archetype. Jane Bennet from Pride and Prejudice also fits into this archetype.

The Hero 🦸

In the Hero we have the protagonist, a character who rises to meet a challenge and save the day. As a character, the Hero demonstrates courage, perseverance, and honor, confronting major obstacles with a strong moral compass. However, the Hero can succumb to the pitfalls of overconfidence and hubris. Think of popular protagonists throughout history including Achilles (The Iliad), Harry Potter (Harry Potter series), Luke Skywalker (Star Wars: A New Hope), Eleven (Stranger Things), Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games), and Miles Morales (Spider-Man).

A narrative with the character archetype of the Hero typically revolves around their journey, challenges, and growth. They may sacrifice themselves for the greater good or overcome tests and obstacles and return home with a reward. In the classic Hero’s Journey story template, the Hero’s character arc serves as the pivotal arc of the story. 

The Magician 🧙‍♀️

A powerful figure shrouded in mystery, the Magician enables transformation and change. They often possess supernatural abilities, occult knowledge, or extraordinary skills. But while they are extremely powerful and may seem omnipotent, they are susceptible to arrogance and corruption. Popular examples of the Magician character archetype include Prospero (The Tempest), Gandalf (The Lord of the Rings), Howl (Howl’s Moving Castle), and Morpheus (The Matrix). 

In storytelling, the Magician often serves as a catalyst for change and may provide guidance and mentorship to other characters, especially the Hero or protagonist. Because the Magician wields enormous power, they are also often a figure of authority. Thematically, they often symbolize the balance of light and dark, creation and destruction, or order and chaos. 

The Outlaw 🤠

The Outlaw character archetype is a rebel—defiant and nonconforming to fictional societal standards. Sometimes an antihero, they are usually morally ambiguous, especially in contrast to a character like the Hero’s stricter moral compass. They may represent freedom, independence, and resistance and are often seen as an outsider by other characters. In many stories, they serve as a foil for a more moralistic character, proving that not everything is black and white. Some Outlaws go through a redemption arc or have a tragic ending. 

Popular examples of Outlaws include Robin Hood (English folklore), Han Solo (Star Wars: A New Hope), Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Caribbean), and Killmonger (Black Panther). 

The Explorer 🧗

The Explorer character archetype embodies the spirit of adventure with a deep sense of curiosity and yearning to discover. Open-minded about new experiences, they often embark on quests in search of knowledge or personal growth. Because Explorers have such a strong connection to nature and yearn for freedom above all, they find it difficult to stay in one place and get bored easily with daily life. They are never satisfied with themselves, their surroundings, or others. Often, their journey symbolizes more than just the physical world—it is a way to explore the inner world as well. 

Indiana Jones (Indiana Jones series), Lara Croft (Tomb Raider), Odysseus (The Odyssey), and Arya Stark (Game of Thrones) are popular examples of the Explorer character archetype. 

The Sage 🦉

Imagine a character like Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars, Merlin from the Arthurian legends, and Professor McGonagall from Harry Potter. What do all of these characters have in common? They fit the Sage archetype. 

The Sage is characterized as having a lot of wisdom and knowledge that they use to take on a mentor role for the protagonist or other characters. While they are somewhat similar to the Magician character archetype, they are less defined by having omniscient power and more by incredible wisdom. They also tend to hold back from the action, heeding a more cautious approach, which can backfire on them. In storytelling, they usually help the protagonist navigate challenges, make important decisions, and grow throughout the course of their journey. They may be an authority figure and often have some kind of deep insight into the future or truths of the world. 

The Innocent 🧒

The Innocent represents purity, naïvety, and a sense of wonder in fiction. Inherently trusting, they are vulnerable to exploitation and manipulation. Like the Hero, they have a strong moral compass and always strive to do what is right. In a story, they may serve as a beacon of light in dark situations. 

If the Innocent is at the center of a story, they may embark on a journey of self-discovery and personal growth where they are forced to navigate the complexities of the real world. Other characters feel a sense of responsibility over them and seek to protect and guide them. In many narratives, the Innocent experiences a loss of innocence which serves as the turning point for their character arc and results in growth and maturity—in a best case scenario. This loss of innocence may also lead them to becoming cynical or having a darker, more tragic end. 

Examples of the Innocent character archetype include Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, Pippin Took from The Lord of the Rings, Buddy the Elf from Elf, and Gavroche from Les Miserables

The Creator 🧪

The Creator imagines, innovates, and brings ideas to life. As visionaries, they often express themselves through artistic endeavors such as writing, painting, sculpting, and inventing. Throughout the narrative, the Creator solves problems with creativity and ingenuity, thinking outside the box to find solutions to overcome obstacles. They often strive for perfection and value freedom and autonomy over everything else. 

The Creator character archetype looks like Daedalus from Greek mythology, Sokka from Avatar: The Last Airbender, and Iron Man/Tony Stark and Shuri from Marvel comics and the MCU. 

The Ruler 👑

The Ruler is, quite simply, a character who exerts legal, emotional, or sometimes spiritual power over others. They might be a regent of some kind, an authority figure like the principal of a school or police officer, or a parent. They are characterized by having a leadership role that puts them in a position of authority over others and by the way they govern. 

Often associated with stability, order, and responsibility, the Ruler may experience conflict with other characters due to an imbalance of power or because of the way they rule. They may undergo a redemption arc where they learn the responsibilities of leadership, confront their own shortcomings, and strive to be a better ruler. Alternatively, they may give into absolute power and become the ultimate antagonist. 

Characters who fit this archetype include King Viserys from House of the Dragon, Aragorn from Lord of the Rings, President Snow from The Hunger Games, Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada, and Napoleon the Pig from Animal Farm

The Caregiver ❤️‍🩹

The Caregiver is a character who supports others and makes sacrifices on their behalf, often embodying honor, selflessness, and loyalty. With a nurturing and compassionate nature, they provide physical, emotional, or spiritual care and support to others. They often put the needs of others before their own and tend to lack personal ambition or leadership qualities. They protect others and provide unconditional love, demonstrating empathy and understanding. For a protagonist or other characters, the Caregiver character archetype may represent home. 

Examples of this kind of character include Mary Poppins, Charlotte from Charlotte’s Web, Miss Honey from Matilda, and Marlin from Finding Nemo

The Everyman 👤

When you think of a normal, everyday person, who do you think of? Or, rather, what traits make this person normal and everyday to you? In character archetypes, the Everyman represents the common person. They often serve as the relatable and ordinary protagonist who the audience sees themselves in. The Everyman typically shares the same moral values and principles as the general intended audience and may serve as a foil for extraordinary characters. Their normality contrasts the exceptionalism of others. Typically, the Everyman embarks on a quest for identity seeking purpose and belonging. Despite their ordinary status, they often serve as an agent of change within the narrative, inspiring and transforming other characters. 

Characters such as Bilbo Baggins, Alice from Alice in Wonderland, Arthur Dent from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Homer Simpson fit the Everyman character archetype. 

The Jester 🤹

Finally, we have the Jester, a character archetype who provides comedic relief as well as key insights. Sir John Falstaff from Shakespeare’s Henry V and King Lear’s Fool from King Lear are two canonically important examples of the Jester. While these characters are, quite literally, fools, their jokes often reveal essential narrative truths throughout their respective plays. In this, we see what the ideal Jester character should be—someone who lightens the mood amidst tension and drama but who also provides satire and social commentary on the events taking place. 

The Jester also often engages in tricks and pranks, adding playfulness and unpredictability to the narrative like Puck does in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A Jester may serve as a narrative foil to more serious or stoic characters, such as Jaskier does in The Witcher compared to Geralt and other characters. While typically seen as comedic relief, they also incite the protagonist to change. Other popular examples of the Jester character archetype include the Weasley twins from Harry Potter, Dustin Henderson from Stranger Things, and Winston Bishop from New Girl.

Building Compelling Characters

Now that you know what the twelve mechanical hero archetypes are, let’s build some of your own characters using these questions and identifiers. 

Character Building Questions

  1. Who is your character? (name, age, basic information)
  2. When and where does your character exist? 
  3. Where has your character just come from? 
  4. What does your character want? 
  5. Why do they want what they want? 
  6. Why do they want it now? 
  7. What will happen if they don’t get it now? 
  8. How does your character intend to get what they want? 
  9. What obstacles/challenges do they need to overcome to get what they want? 
  10. What are your character’s greatest strengths? 
  11. What are your character’s greatest weaknesses?
  12. How do their strengths and weaknesses play into trying to get what they want? 
  13. What are your character’s core values? 
  14. What archetype, if any, does this character fall under based on the above answers to those questions? 

Character Identifiers

  1. Linguistic fingerprint: Determine at least one speech habit specific to your character. In real life, people have habits they fall into when they speak. Providing this to your characters will make them feel more realistic and identifiable.
    1. Example: A character who often trails off at the end of their sentences. 
    2. Example: A character who constantly gives other characters nicknames and uses them. 
  2. Style of dress: Keep your character’s outerwear relatively consistent so that it becomes a part of who they are. This helps readers imagine and identify them throughout the text. It should also reflect their personality—if they value comfort, they shouldn’t wear constrictive clothing. If they care a lot about what others think of them, they may try to dress in a way that will make others admire them. 
  3. Favorite color: How does this affect the way they dress, the things they buy, and the setting around them? 
  4. Hair: Provide readers with the style, length, and color in the text. Make sure whatever you pick matches the character. A character who wants to blend in probably wouldn’t dye their hair a bright color unless that’s what everyone did. 
  5. Facial features: Have at least one identifiable and unique feature per character and mention it at least three times when they are initially introduced in the text. This sets up the identifier as a way for readers to immediately know which character is being described.
    1. Example:
      1. The man before her had a large scar cutting diagonally across his face.
      2. The scar splitting his face twisted as he smiled. 
      3. A bead of sweat dripped over his face, falling down from the side of the scar like a drop of blood. 
  6. Body type: What is your character’s height and weight? How does this affect their movement and presence? Are they traditionally beautiful, plain, unattractive, or interesting?
  7. Smell: What does your character smell like? They could have a distinct body odor or perhaps use a certain kind of soap or perfume. Their breath might smell. Think about how their world may shape the way they smell. 
  8. Food and drink preference: What does your character order at a restaurant? Are they the type to eat the same thing every day? Do they enjoy alcohol? If so, what kind? Are they a coffee or tea kind of person? 
  9. Sexuality: Beyond just what their sexual orientation may be, think about how they approach sex: are they sexually active? Have they ever been sexually active? Are they monogamous or polygamous or something else? Are they very faithful or a cheat? Are they more conservative or more promiscuous? How they approach sex may be important to their interactions with other characters so it’s important to think about this.
  10. Music preferences: What kind of music does your character enjoy? What would they put on during a long car drive or at a party? Do they play any instruments? Again, think about how their personality matches their music preferences and go beyond the obvious. Maybe someone who presents themselves as very cheerful actually listens to extremely sad, depressing music—hinting at a deeper layer to their personality.
  11. Religion: In a fantasy or made-up world of some kind, this can sometimes be tricky as you have to determine if religion exists and what it looks like. But religion can be a very essential and prominent character trait and is important to think carefully through as it may affect other character identifiers from music preference to what they wear to how they speak. 
  12. Politics: Where does your character align on a political spectrum? How does this affect their actions throughout the story? For example, in a feudal world, a character who grows up as a noble may have a very different view about the reigning monarch than a character who is a peasant. 
  13. Education and class: Think about your character’s social and economic status and how that has affected their education. If they’re poor, perhaps they weren’t formally educated but managed to steal books and learn to read. How does this help or hinder them throughout the challenges they face? 

While it’s important to know these character identifiers, you don’t have to state all of them directly in the text. They may be better revealed through subtext or, in some cases, not at all. Sometimes a bit of ambiguity allows the reader to imprint on a character and while you as the writer may know all the answers to these questions, it can be good to let readers’ imaginations fill in some of the gaps. 


Pick one of the twelve mechanical hero archetypes and create a character based on them. Now, use that character to answer the character building questions. Assign character identifiers. At the end of the exercise, write a short paragraph in which this character is actively doing something.


The twelve mechanical hero archetypes offer storytellers a tool to use when building characters in any world. But even when a character fits into an archetype, it doesn’t mean they have to exactly follow every part of it. Think about the various examples given above for each character archetype and how they differ from one another. 

Archetypes are just a place to start as you begin to explore your world and use characters to uncover the best ways to tell your story. Experiment with as many of the character archetypes as you can to find out which ones serve your narrative purpose best—and which ones you enjoy writing the most! Remember, while you can use these archetypes, character building questions, and identifiers to start, your characters must feel unique in order for them to truly compel and gratify readers. Once you have some spectacular characters in an equally enthralling world, don’t forget to submit your work to F(r)iction!