First, let me talk about what I got in the demonstration then I will say a few words about Breathing Life. My hope was to see how different archetypes could color Heather and maybe figure out which one felt closest to the “real” Heather. She was by no means a blank slate when I started the exercise. I had background and motivation, family and friends, hopes and dreams (or was that Katamari Damacy?). But she had no voice. She took no actions except in the past. Her present day self was a cut-out.
I actually got the best results out of the archetype that I saw as being least like her. Femme fatale!Heather was nuanced: for all her bravado and her manipulation of others and her confident sensuality, she has a deep well of self-hatred. She had a slinky cattiness that is as far from my personality as it is possible to be. This definitely got the closest to what I wanted from Heather. She’s resourceful without being cold, calculating yet vulnerable. I think I would ultimately tone down her sensuality because I see her wanting to draw a little less attention to herself.
Vulnerable child was interesting and gave me some material to use as subtext for Heather. She would not make it out in the world if this was her dominant personality. I need her to be more driven and more confident than this version of her. But I liked the high-strung jumpiness and the nervous obsession with her cat’s bane. I think Heather would fear that this is her true self, that she really will never be more than a helpless kid trying to keep up with adults. But it’s something that she’ll keep buried very deep.
The Amazon was closest to what I thought Heather would be like but proved the least interesting. It felt like the persona she would try to project, but there was no depth to her. She’s too resourceful, too confident, and too controlled to hold my interest. The Amazon traits actually came up in the femme fatale with better results. I did like the heart problem idea. It’s a good cover for her real problem and shows that she is capable of lying and manipulating others to protect her own interests. The Amazon version of this was less obviously self-serving than the femme fatale. I want Heather to be out for herself, but not actively detrimental to others. A bit dark, but not black-hearted.
I think I have a sense of who she is now. I’ve got layers of personality to bring out at different times. I have vulnerability and drive at war with one another. I like it.
What I don’t like is the book, so let me say something on that. I see Breathing Life’s basic problem as this: if you are a beginning writer, you won’t know how to make the most of the rather vague exercises; if you are an experienced writer, you will have found better resources that cover the same topics.
Much of the material is Psychology 101 and I have seen other books that adapt that material to writers with greater skill. She tends to spend each chapter grinding away at the same small premise in slightly altered terms. And the exercises, I realized upon rereading, are truly unhelpful as written.
They are vague. They too often ask you to just “think” about something, rather than ask you to write fiction. They often generate lists and free writing. I don’t have a problem with this, except they never take the next step. They don’t tell you to put it into a scene. They might tell you to put it into a character, but I’m not sure what that is supposed to mean. Do I paste my list of archetypes into my character bio file? Is that helpful? Don’t tell me to “put [my archetypes] in some of [my] fiction characters […] and use these archetypes to make him or her come alive” (Ballon 59). Tell me to write. Tell me to give a character a trait and tell me how to show it acting on the page. Teach me the steps between idea and finished fiction; that’s why I bought the book.
If you are just starting out as a writer and are concerned about motivation and emotion and biography for your characters, check out The Writer’s Guide to Character Traits by Linda N. Edelstein, Ph. D. (That link is to the edition I have; here is the newer and more widely available edition.) It is something of a morass of information but it’s a good treatment of everything from brain development in children and their personality types to the traits associated with various professions to the psychology behind family structures.
If you’re really keen to archetypes, try 45 Master Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt. I have mixed feelings on the usefulness of archetypes in character development. I spent a lot of time beating my head against a wall when I tried to use archetypes to create characters from scratch. But, as I’ve just found out, they can be useful in fleshing out existing characters. And Master Characters gives a solid overview of archetypes: what they represent, where they’ve appeared before, and how they can be used in fiction. Neither of these books contains any writing exercises. They are strictly reference works.
And if you’re a more experienced writer, all I can say is, don’t expect Breathing Life to give you a lot of words on the page. If you want to use the exercises as a starting point and modify them, as I did, have fun. But I feel like it’s more hassle than it’s worth. I’m sorry to say that I seem to have outgrown Breathing Life in the years of writing since my days as a freshman bookworm.