It is a long-established tradition, within literature, that characters tend to fall into archetypes.
This is a somewhat depressing realization for a writer. Because writers, if they are any good, put a lot of thought and craft into their characters. So when, after spending such great effort, you remind them that all their characters are just slight variations of pre-established archetypes, it hurts their self-esteem.
Because their noble convict looking for redemption is just Jean Valjean.
That wise mentor they spent so much time developing is just Merlin.
And that transvestite goth vampire they’re so proud of creating is just Dr. Frank N. Furter.
It’s enough to make you just want to give up on writing anything new.
But It Gets Worse
Even more mind-blowing is the idea that real people tend to fall into character archetypes. This notion brings up all kinds of heavy ideas about free will and nature vs nurture. Because if your life is hitting what appears to be a bunch of preset story beats, then how can be sure you’re not just following a script?
But my purpose today is not to make you doubt your own existence or your own agency. As usual, my agenda is one of practicality.
Because you can use character archetypes to your advantage in real life. I don’t necessarily claim that you can change your own archetype, but it is definitely possible to recognize these archetypes in yourself and others.
Unfortunately, there are too many archetypes for me to cover in a single blog post, so I am going to combine them all into three arch-archetypes (yes, that is now a word). Hopefully, an understanding of these three rankings of people will help you identify who in your life is helpful to you, and who you are going to be helpful to, and who is incapable of helping or being helped at all.
It all has to do with the existence of rules.
Overview: The Cheater
You already know what a cheater is, right? He’s somebody who breaks the rules.
But before you leave it at that, think a little bit harder. In order for the cheater to break rules, there must be rules in the first place. And the cheater must be aware of them.
However, I am going to introduce one other condition you may not be familiar with: the cheater must also believe in the rules he is breaking. That he cheats those rules does not imply disagreement with them. And he fully agrees with the idea that what he does is wrong. In other words, the cheater knows he is a cheater.
Overview: The Idiot
Unlike the cheater, you probably don’t already know what an idiot is.
An idiot is someone who believes there are no rules, or that the rules don’t apply to them.
Because of this, the idiot either does not know or does not care what the rules are. They then brazenly violate those rules, but are not convinced that what they are doing is wrong.
And this is an important distinction because the idiot does not know he is an idiot. He thinks he is the cheater, even though the two of them have nothing in common. The cheater, meanwhile, can recognize the idiot, and will either avoid him (because he’s a pain) or exploit him. But more on that later.
Overview: The Hypocrite
The definition of “hypocrite” that I’m using here is not the one you are used to.
For the purposes of this archetype, a hypocrite is someone who enforces rules—and may even keep those rules himself—but does not believe in them.
Even if he obeys the rules, he does not believe that doing so is “right”. His obedience is merely his personal choice—a choice that he may revoke whenever it suits him. Though he may observe the letter of the law with exactness, he is flippant about the law’s existence.
Often, he is merely waiting for something better to come along. And the hypocrite may or may not be aware that he is a hypocrite, but he at least knows that he is neither the cheater nor the idiot.
Put Them all Together
So there you have it: three arch-archetypes that encompass everyone you will ever meet, and also yourself.
You likely are wondering, “Well, which one am I?” And if you’re particularly astute, you’ll notice that each of these categories is reprehensible in its own way, and wonder, “Well, which one is best? Or which one is morally better than the other two?”
Wonder no more. The cheater is the most moral of the three, and the best overall.
The Rock, the Paper, and the Scissors
Simply knowing the arch-archetypes is not enough. You must understand how they interact.
Let’s start with the position I just mentioned: the cheater is the morally superior category.
He would have to be, because he is the only arch-archetype that acknowledges the existence of morality. Neither the idiot nor the hypocrite feel guilty about what they do. The idiot flaunts the rules publicly, while the hypocrite flaunts them secretly or only in his heart. But neither can be convinced that he has done anything wrong.
But more interesting is what happens when you pit them against each other, because each group has a tactical relationship with the other.
- The cheater tends to win against the idiot.
- The hypocrite tends to win against the cheater.
- The idiot tends to win against the hypocrite.
Let’s dive into each of these.
Cheater vs. Idiot
The cheater may be willing to break the rules, but he at least knows where they are and does not deny their existence.
Since the idiot can’t see or can’t acknowledge the rules, the cheater merely points him toward the nearest pitfall, and the idiot merrily falls in. The cheater wins by trapping the idiot within rules he cannot see.
The only way the idiot can counter this is by getting lucky, which some idiots are strangely good at.
Hypocrite vs. Cheater
The cheater breaks rules. The hypocrite enforces them. Therefore, the cheater is often punished by the hypocrite.
This is the most straightforward of the of the pairings. Although counter-strategies do exist for the cheater, but all of these depend on the cheater’s cleverness.
If the cheater is observant enough, he can blackmail the hypocrite (hypocrites being vulnerable to blackmail). Or the cheater can bluff the hypocrite to make it appear like he was the victim all along (cheaters often being talented bluffers, as well).
Cheaters can also cooperate just enough with hypocrites to get some clemency from them.
Idiot vs. Hypocrite
Laws need someone to believe in them before they can have any effect.
If the hypocrite tries to trap the idiot with laws, he runs into a problem: the idiot does not believe in laws enough to obey them, and the hypocrite does not believe in laws enough to overcome the idiot’s disbelief.
As such, the idiot undermines the hypocrite’s authority by simply being a more honest version of the hypocrite.
But the hypocrite can counter the idiot with numbers. Two hypocrites together are better at keeping up the illusion that they believe in the laws. And if a hypocrite brings a cheater onto his team, the cheater can supply the necessary belief needed to punish the idiot.
Even when the idiot has an advantage on paper, he seldom wins in any real-world situation.
The Nobility of the Cheater
The cheater gives the rules some measure of respect even as he breaks them. And if he is not an idiot, then he will obey the rules in most situations.
As a writing device, the cheater is a better choice of protagonist than either the idiot or the hypocrite. Since his primary concern is finding exceptions to rules, he can even be forgiven for breaking them—but only if he truly believes in them.
Generally, the more zealously the cheater believes in a rule, the more righteous he is esteemed when he finally breaks that rule. Because that is seen as an honorable sacrifice. He gives up the idiocy or hypocrisy that he would rather have, to become a dyed-in-the-wool cheater.
And it is the same in real life. Every rule has an exception. Every set of values has loopholes. And though you may not ever break them yourself, as an intelligent adult, you realize there are scenarios where someone needs to break them.
As you begin making a home for yourself in one of these categories, I hope you will consider the benefits and drawbacks of each. And, more than that, I hope you will realize that, as there are no truly untainted options, that it is important to be forgiving towards EVERYONE, regardless of what category they choose for themselves.
That said, if you truly have a choice in the matter, then cheater is the best choice. It may be the hardest of the three options. It requires you to spend your days fighting idiocy and hypocrisy. But the reward is to both have a moral code and also mastery over it. It is the happy medium between strength and flexibility. I hope you will consider it.
Just remember what you’re cheating for.