When we build worlds we populate them with characters, and give those characters challenges to allow stories to emerge.  To create interesting stories, the world must fit the characters and the characters must fit the worlds.  At the end of this post I will share an activity to help you design both.

There are many ways to imagine the people in your world but most of them are based on similar ideas around archetypes.  These are patterns that we can regularly observe in people whether those people are in our own lives, in books, in movies or in games.  The concept of archetypes has a long history and can traced back to Plato’s ideas of forms and the work of the psychologist Carl Jung.  Jung suggested that there were a finite set of characteristics we could observe in ourselves and other people, and that we could use these “personality archetypes” to describe and understand people and their behaviours.  

He proposed 12 key types of people in the world from Heroes and Lovers to Magicians and Jesters.  The actual names and descriptions of these “people patterns” varies in the literature but the intention is the same; to enumerate a set of characteristics (with a name) that can be used to describe the people in the world around us (including ourselves).  Jung’s theory suggests that Heroes (or the hero part of a person) will behave in particular ways when faced with a particular challenge or when interacting with other characters. 

For me, exploring archetypes comes down to understanding the links between people, their motivations and needs and their behaviours.  I’ve been interested in uncovering needs using the jobs to be done framework but also in understanding how the patterns of these needs repeat in multiple people (archetypes).  

We can see these ideas emerge in many disciplines but especially those involved in exploring the link between different types of people and what they do in the world.  In marketing for example, archetypes are used to describe different kinds of shoppers: bargain hunters, brand loyalists, show-offs.  Teams are often described using a similar set of characters (but very different language): slackers, rising stars, joyriders and steamrollers. And games players have been categorised similarly: tacticians, socialisers, daredevils etc.

It is the universality of these ideas that make them exciting for world builders and here are some suggestions as to how you might use them in constructing your worlds:

  1. Recognise that your world will have archetypes: people who behave in ways that are familiar and repeated.  
  2. In my world building template I asked the question, who lives here. Answer this question by thinking about archetypes.
  3. Use the 12 Jungian characters as a starting point and ask yourself who is playing these roles in your world.  It could be a single character or a whole species (or even a technology).
  4. Think about members of the audience for your work and what you expect from them (and their personality archetypes).  If your world is a book, give them characters to identify with, to love and to loath.  If you are designing a game then design experiences for different types of players recognising their motivations and behaviours.
  5. Design the world around the characters to give characters opportunities to express the behaviours defined in their archetypes.  Leaders need to be able to lead, caregivers to nuture.  Of course denying them the opportunity to be themselves may provide the tension that will energise your world.
  6. Remember that while our characters may express one of these personalities more prominently, other secondary archetypes will also form part of their whole being and inform their behaviour

Parallel world building: a setting and the characters that live there

This is the first draft of an idea for an activity to help a group create the foundations for a world populated with a range of archetypes.

  1. The goal is to make the world more interesting to fit the people and make the characters more interesting to fit the world
  2. We are not trying to tell stories right now.  Indeed we are trying to lay the groundwork for a million stories later.
  3. Form pairs or small groups: one will represent the world and the other or others the people (archetypes within). You can do this alone but it will be more interesting to make together.
  4. Either side can start
  5. If the world starts, choose one of the world cards (eg place, technology, shortages and rules).  These are not in any order.  Imagine and describe an interesting starting point. Discuss what is, or could be, different about the world from the one we live in.
  6. If the characters start then select an archetype card and describe the character and their motivations.  Keep notes as you describe, remembering that you can go back and change your minds at any time.  
  7. Give this plenty of time.  Each side builds on what the other has said, listening to what has already been created and finding ways to “test” and improve.  It is not a competition and there are no prizes for blocking the other side.
  8. Keep discussing until you have  brought the ideas sufficiently to life.  Then move on to another aspect of the world or another archetype.

What do you think? How could this activity be improved? How could we apply it to a business context or link it to scenario planning? I’ll post a follow-up with some ideas soon.


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