Using reality TV to write better characters
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Build compelling characters using reality TV archetypes

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For guaranteed drama, take a leaf out a casting director’s book and use reality TV archetypes to build fascinating characters for your novel or short story.

I’ve already outlined the lessons that writers can learn from reality TV. That was big-picture stuff. This is more granular, as I will outline specific types of people you’ll find on reality TV and how you can use them as inspiration.

It was a couple of years ago that I started scrutinizing reality TV personalities to help build my own characters for my fiction. I moulded my characters around established archetypes for a few short stories. Then a few more. Then I found I was doing it for every short story I wrote.

For me, it’s a shortcut creating characters with different worldviews and diverse personality traits. We’ve all fallen into the trap of accidentally writing about the same types of characters (often ones who resemble us) over and over again. These archetypes help snap me out of those patterns.

Survivor archetypes

Boston Rob
Survivor has the best characters, don’t @ me

I owe a debt of gratitude to Survivor fan Angie Caunce for putting together the below list of reality TV character archetypes that I typically use. These “Caunce character types” are specific to Survivor and, if you watch Survivor, it’s worth checking out Angie’s spreadsheet of which contestants fit into each category. Angie also appears regularly on Rob Has a Podcast, explaining her character types.

Even if you’ve never seen Survivor, I think you’ll still recognize the archetypes on list from other reality shows and beyond. There are nods to movies and scripted drama on the list, which also rely on archetypes. (See: Breaking Bad; Die Hard; Erin Brockovich.)

Try combining personality types for unusual characters

The way I typically use the Caunce character types list is to pick two or three archetypes and smash them together.

Lean into the contradictions and try and figure out how (for example) a Surfer Dude might also be an Alpha Male Control Freak. Maybe he’s a guy who adopts a “chill, man, whatever” pose to disarm his business adversaries in the boardroom. Or maybe he works as a corporate lawyer, but only because his mother is sick and he needs to pay for her care; his real passion is surfing.

The Caunce list is divided by gender, but it’s often interesting to imagine a female character with the traits of one of the male personality types, or vice versa.

A note of caution

The Angie Caunce list is inevitably America-centric. You’ll find fewer Good Ol’ Boys or Surfer Dudes in the UK. However, it’s worth reimagining these types with your own culture in mind.

Additionally, a few of Angie Caunce’s character types point to a certain race. It’s an uncomfortable fact that the quirky girl on a reality TV show is likely to be Asian and the pop-off queen is likely to be Black. However, I would caution writers not to fall into racially-insensitive character clichés when using these archetypes for their own fiction.

Caunce Character Types

(Men)

Good Ol’ Boy – Southern accent, country roots, often a farmer/rancher, social, loyal, easy to get along with

Know It All – highly intelligent, understands strategy, often well educated, funny, can be arrogant

Walter 'Heisenberg' White
Walter ‘Heisenberg’ White from Breaking Bad

Seduce and Destroy – Young professional (marketing/sales), “ladies man”, super arrogant, thinks he’s very charming

Social Butterfly – Sometimes gay, super social, witty, extremely likeable

Alpha Male Control Freak – CEO or doctor, rich and powerful, bossy, controlling

The Specialist – Eccentric, little crazy, full of himself, huge character with huge stories, a legend in his own mind

True Grit – Retired pro athlete or military guy, cop, firefighter. Bloody minded, single purpose, tough, not social

John McLane – 25-35 regular Joe (blue collar job), aggressive, intense, funny, social, athletic

Surfer Dude – Long hair, easy going, very athletic, new agey, social, flakey job, calls you bro

Mr. Miagi – Kind, wise, intelligent, well spoken, not intense, highly reflective, easy going

Heisenberg – Intense middle aged man. Usually blue collar job. Very aggressive and high energy. Can be strong but not athletic. Critical and cut throat. Willing to do anything.

Ponyboy – The weirdo, has a strange job, seems the odd person out, nice, not strategic, likeable

(Women)

Tough Old Broad – wiry, very athletic, loyal, sometimes too nice, emotional

Mommy Dearest – Mom, may or may not be athletic, either very maternal or very cutting

Oh No You Didn’t! – Loud, bossy, big opinions, outgoing, explosive, social, strong

Siren – Very social, charming, pretty, talks about how she flirts all the time

Erin Brockovich
Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich

Little Red Riding Hood – Very young, gorgeous, pageant girl, can be tough but not particularly smart.

I Can See Your Periscope – Lawyer/cop/firefighter, very good at reading people, bossy, intelligent

Secretly Smart Bikini Babe – Often law/med student, very pretty, very intelligent

Meredith Grey – Doctor, lawyer, cop, teacher. Smart, intense, high energy

Erin Brockovich – Regular-ish job, very social, athletic, smart, competitive

G.I. Jane – Extremely tough and athletic, likes to hunt/fish, sometimes a pro athlete

Lady Gaga – Flakey, new agey, not mainstream, not strategic, spacey

Chelsea Handler – Very witty, critical, doesn’t have to be gorgeous, highly intelligent, very social

Culturally Awkward Girl – Outsider, nice, not strategic, shy, often Asian, sometimes has a weird job

Crazy Cat Lady – Older, unstable, emotional, loud, off-putting, rough around the edges

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Nicola Martin is the author of #DeadRinger, a psychological suspense novel about what happens when you meet your doppelganger.

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