Day 14: Archetypes
Let’s wrap up our exploration of plot and character with a look at 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.
Before we proceed, I’d like to draw a distinction between archetypes and stereotypes. 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 deeper exploration of something profoundly universal.
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.” This is much closer to the spirit of ‘archetype’ than is the current meaning of ’stereotype’: “preconceived and oversimplified notion of characteristics typical of a person or a group” which first appeared in 1922. The Jungian sense of archetype is “pervasive idea or image from the collective unconscious.” This has obvious similarities with the older sense of ‘stereotype.’
The character of Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, provides an interesting example of the differences between stereotypical and archetypal characters. Saul is the Slimy Lawyer, the kind who gives all lawyers a bad name: he will literally break the law to prove his clients’ innocence. He could easily veer into stereotype, but the show writers avoid this by giving him highly specific actions that differentiate him from the stereotype. For example, when we first meet Saul, he turns down Walt’s bribe, seemingly offended by Walt’s assumptions about his integrity. Only later does Saul step into his unique embodiment of the Slimy Lawyer, concocting schemes to free his clients from their predicaments. Again, his solutions are all highly unusual and morally suspect. The prequel show, Better Call Saul, does even more to establish Saul as an archetype, not a stereotype, showing his path to the lawyer he has become today. Saul is given further dimension by embodying more than one archetype: he is also the Fool, as we’ll see below.
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 on the topic have put forth definitive collections of archetypes, but in truth there are thousands. 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 which gives characters a familiarity to readers. This will help characters to feel real and authentic.
Christopher Vogler outlines the archetypes he feels are most useful to the writer (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.
- Threshold Guardian
Carol Pearson and Caroline Myss present more personalized models of the archetypes. These archetypes are selected to represent the dimensions of an individual’s personality. In Myss’ case, she invites readers to identify their personal constellation of twelve archetypes out of a set of eighty of the most common archetypes.
Selecting a few archetypes for your main characters can be a great way to ensure dimensionality and authenticity. Before you chose archetypes, 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? (The word shadow needs explanation. Carl Jung speaks of it in terms of what is unconscious. Caroline Myss talks about archetypes as being fundamentally neutral energies with light (positive) and shadow (negative) attributes.
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, Erin Brockovich.
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, Bridges of Madison County.
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.
Example: Amadeus, Frankenstein.
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: Non-aliveness. 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, Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul.
Looking for more archetypes? Caroline Myss has a wonderful gallery here.
Caroline Myss, Sacred Contracts
Carol Pearson, Awakening the Heroes Within
Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey
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