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.
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.
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
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
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
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