Day 18: Archetypes
Now that we have completed our exploration of plotting, I’d like to delve more deeply into the realm of the archetypes.
Archetypes are universal ordering principles. They can be thought of as patterns of behaviors or clusters of attributes that tend to occur together. Archetypes appeal to an unconscious sense of order. When used in fiction, they work their magic by tapping into a primal way of understanding and making meaning. Something is archetypal when it expresses a universal pattern of meaning.
Archetypes show their fingerprints in many ways in fiction. They may take the shape of an overall plot structure, as in the Hero and Heroine’s Journeys. They may appear as classic character types like the Mentor or the Sidekick. They may also reveal themselves as objects such as the Grail or the Missing Key.
While they may sound like similar concepts, the archetype and stereotypes are at opposite ends of the same spectrum. Stereotypes are shallow overgeneralizations. Stereotypes cluster together typifications until they become watered down, cartoonish representations. Archetypes, on the other hand, provide specific examples as an invitation into deep exploration.
The roots of archetype are arkhe (beginning, origin, first place) and tupos (model) from the Greek. Stereotype is rooted in stereos (solid). In 1850, stereotype meant “image perpetuated without change.” Its current meaning (“preconceived and oversimplified notion of characteristics typical of a person or a group”) first appeared in 1922. The Jungian sense of archetype is “pervasive idea or image from the collective unconscious.”
In working with archetypes, it is helpful to break away from the paradigm of one archetype per character. A character is not so much synonymous with a particular archetype, rather he embodies an archetype at points during the story. The Greeks believed that they were actually possessed by the gods and goddesses. It is helpful to think of archetypal influence like that… I became under the sway of Dionysus.
Some authors put forth definitive collections of archetypes, but in truth there are thousands. And the most basic archetypes can be broken down into subtypes. The Mother, for example, also appears as the Evil Stepmother, The Good Mother, and the Devouring Mother.
When the author has an awareness for archetypes and honors their forms, it helps her to create resonance for readers. This allows the author to tap into the collective wisdom.
Christopher Vogler outlines the archetypes he feels are most useful to the writer (and we’ll recognize them all from our exploration of the Hero’s Journey). These archetypes are important for the fulfillment of roles within the classical story.
Carol Pearson presents a more personalized model of the archetypes. These archetypes are selected to represent the dimensions of an individual’s personality.
Before you chose archetypes that you might want to work within your story, it is helpful to be clear on the following:
What are your character’s goal and need? What does he fear the most? How does he usually respond to problems? What traits does he currently possess that will serve him well? What else does he need to develop?
Sketch out your answers to these questions and then see how they match up with the archetypes below. Which of the archetypes are dominant within your character? Which ones are in shadow?
Goal: Remain in safety. Fear: Abandonment. Response to problem: Deny or seek rescue. Task: Fidelity, discernment. Gifts: Trust, optimism, loyalty.
Examples: Drew Barrymore in E.T., The Little Prince, Alice in Wonderland
Goal: Regain safety. Fear: Exploitation, victimization. Response to problem: Powerlessness, wish for rescue, cynical compliance. Task: Process pain and disillusionment fully and be open to receive help from others. Gifts: Interdependence, empathy, realism.
Examples: David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum
Goal: Win, get own way; make a difference through struggle. Fear: Weakness, powerlessness, impotence, ineptitude. Response to problem: Slay, defeat, or convert it. Task: High-level assertiveness; fighting for what really matters. Gifts: Courage, discipline, skill.
Examples: Rocky, Hunger Games (Katniss), Mad Max.
Goal: Help others; make a difference through love and sacrifice. Fear: Selfishness, ingratitude. Response to problem: Take care of it or those it harms. Task: Give without maiming self or others. Gifts: compassion, generosity.
Examples: It’s a Wonderful Life
Goal: Search for a better life or a better way. Fear: Conformity, becoming entrapped. Response to problem: Leave it, escape, take off. Task: Be true to a deeper or higher truth. Gifts: Autonomy, ambition.
Examples: Thelma and Louise, King Arthur
Goal: Bliss, oneness, unity. Fear: Loss of love, disconnection. Response to problem: Love it. Task: Follow your bliss, commit to what you love. Gifts: Commitment, passion, ecstasy.
Examples: Titanic, Casablanca, Romeo and Juliet, Nicholas Cage in Moonstruck.
Goal: Growth, metamorphosis. Fear: Stagnation or annihilation; death without rebirth. Response to problem: Be destroyed by it or destroy it. Task: Learn to let go, turn it over, accept mortality. Gifts: Humility, acceptance.
Examples: Robin Hood, Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List.
Goal: Creation of a life, work, or new reality of any kind. Fear: Inauthenticity, miscreation, failure of imagination. Response to problem: Accept that it is part of the Self, part of what one has created; be willing to create another reality. Task: Self-creation, self-acceptance. Gifts: Creativity, identity, vocation.
Goal: A harmonious and prosperous kingdom (life). Fear: Chaos, loss of control. Response to problem: Find its constructive use. Task: Take full responsibility of your life; find ways to express your deeper Self in the world. Gifts: Sovereignty, responsibility, competence.
Examples: Richard III, Henry IV, Macbeth
Goal: Transformation of lesser into better realities. Fear: Evil sorcery (transformation in a negative direction). Response to problem: Transform it or heal it. Task: Alignment of Self with cosmos. Gift: Personal power.
Examples: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, The Mists of Avalon by Marion Z. Bradley, the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
Goal: Truth, understanding. Fear: Deception, illusion. Response to problem: Study, understand, or transcend it. Task: Attainment of knowledge, wisdom, enlightenment. Gifts: Skepticism, wisdom, nonattachment.
Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings and Obi Wan Kenobe in Star Wars.
Goal: Enjoyment, pleasure, aliveness. Fear: Nonaliveness. Response to problem: Play with it or play tricks on it. Task: Trust in the process; enjoyment of the journey for its own sake. Gifts: Joy, freedom, liberation.
Examples: Dirty, Rotten Scoundrels; The Witches of Eastwick
Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey
Carol Pearson, Awakening the Heroes Within
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Table of contents for other articles in the series.
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