Have you ever watched a TV show and thought a character was just like you or someone you know? Maybe you’re best friends with a Phoebe or a Chandler, or maybe your boss is actually a Michael Scott. Finding these real-life connections to on-screen characters is part of the appeal of television. But have you ever considered the similarities characters on different shows have to one another?
Television (and film, literature, and other media) is full of what we call character archetypes – molds that help shape and define our favorite individuals on screen. Here’s a few examples you’ll recognize:
The Anti-Hero has become an increasingly common protagonist character. He’s not a hero in the traditional sense – he may be immoral, unstable, deluded, or struggling with a dark and troubled past – but we accept these flaws and root for him anyways.
A few recognizable Anti-Heroes include Tony Soprano on The Sopranos, Dr. House on House, Don Draper on Mad Men, and Walter White on Breaking Bad.
The Fool never seems to have any idea what’s going on. He can usually be found tripping over his own feet or bumbling his part in the plan to catch the bad guy. He may unintentionally create trouble, but nothing bad ever seems to happen to him – he’ll always duck to pick up something shiny on the ground just as the villain swings his sword. The Fool’s cheerful disposition and tendency to make a mess of even the simplest of tasks combine to make him the most lovable of idiots.
Some examples of TV Fools include Gilligan in Gilligan’s Island, Maxwell Smart in Get Smart, Joxer the Mighty in Xena, and Ron Stoppable in Kim Possible.
The Chosen One
Harry Potter wasn’t the first and he won’t be the last.
The basic premise of this character type can be summed up in one sentence: “Only you, The Chosen One, can save the world from demons/vampires/evil/[insert other applicable peril here]!” This is often one of the least difficult archetypes to spot because the character(s) in question is almost constantly being referred to as “the chosen one” by other characters.
Some TV Chosen Ones include the Halliwell sisters from Charmed, Buffy on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Winchester brothers in Supernatural, and Emma Swan in Once Upon a Time.
There are plenty other character archetypes on screen, from “The Cynic” to “The Eccentric Mentor” to “The Dumb Muscle” (find a list with more archetypes and examples here), and frankly, it probably isn’t news to most of us that these archetypes exist. In fact, sometimes we even acknowledge them.
One of my favorite “call out the archetype” moments happens in the 1976 film Network. A woman relays pitches for new TV shows to a network executive. While the ideas are supposed to be for different shows, the woman uses the phrase “crusty but benign” to describe an elderly gentleman character over and over again – each “unique” show pitch fell back on the same type of characters.
The scene’s humor comes from the audience’s recognition of the common character tropes on television, but this brings us to another question: if we recognize the characters on our favorite TV programs are often essentially the same, why do we continue to watch them?
“The world can only be known in relation to peoples’ experience of it, not independently of that experience.” – Tom Andrews, Grounded Theory Review
In the context of television programming, this means writers must create characters that fit into the social context in which viewers expect to see them. If a character does not fit into a socially constructed archetype, the audience may find them harder to understand and relate to, making the program less interesting and enjoyable overall. In essence, the relatable character (even the archetyped one) is the most loved.
If you need more proof, think of that TV character from earlier who reminds you of yourself or someone you know. This character is your TV spirit animal. My TV spirit animal is Liz Lemon from 30 Rock (who is played by my real-life spirit animal, Tina Fey). Our fascination with relating to these characters leaks into the online world through Buzzfeed articles like 21 Ways You Are Definitely Leslie Knope or 29 Reasons Why You Are Liz Lemon.
You might be thinking that character archetypes would make media boring, but that doesn’t have to be the case. I think they are actually essential to successful TV because they help create bonds with the audience. We can’t always relate to the situations TV characters find themselves in (I don’t have any experience slaying vampires or being the mother of dragons, for example), which is why it’s so important to be able to relate to the characters themselves on such a human level.
Don Draper and Walter White may both be Anti-Heroes, but in the end, we actually like it that way.