LESSON The Archetypes of Character

Discussion in 'DEVELOPING CHARACTERS & CULTURES' started by Asmodeus, Nov 3, 2009.

  1. Archetypes

    The Mythical Eight

    This article draws heavily on the work of Jung and Vogler, but also my own research as a writer.

    Archetypes are certain kinds of characters that reoccur in myths, folk tales and stories. They are essential not only in a structural sense (for example, every story needs a hero and villain), but in a sense of emphasizing the emotional and symbolic power of your writing.

    In this article, I will identity eight of these archetypes and the roles they play in narratives. These eight have featured time and time again in the great stories of human history, and it is my belief that with the correct combination of the mythic eight you can create truly resonating characters and storylines.

    [Disclaimer: For the purpose of writing this article, I make certain assumptions about the gender of Archetypes. This is based on precedent only and is in no way set in stone]

    Storytelling began as a way of passing wisdom to the next generation, reinforcing the bonds of community and culture. The Hero, at his most basic level, is there to draw a comparison with the audience/reader. 'Here is someone who is just like you...' By using a protagonist, the narrator can push the reader to think and feel what is necessary for the story. We look at the Hero's predicament and imagine how we would behave in their shoes. From this simple relationship, all of the tension, drama, power and entertainment of the adventure is conjured.

    The Hero, as an everyman who the readership will empathize with, is therefore a strange entity. His part in the story is to learn as the reader learns... to discover the truth about the situation and himself, and to overcome the worser parts of his being. Stories are not just educators and reinforcers, but therapeutic devices. They are the working out of a problem, a search for a solution. This is why Jung used storytelling and archetypes in his psychotherapy. The Hero is a canvas on which we can project our own quest for truth, glory, love and self-completion.

    The Hero thus begins with a flaw. There is something incomplete in him - something he has lost or something he longs for. And his story will be a means to correct or come to terms with that flaw. Some of the earliest protagonists in folklore were the Shamans or Witch Doctors of human tribes. They taught that in order to achieve power the Shaman had to travel to the Otherworld and speak with their spirit guides, of which some were good and some were evil. These spirts would often rip the Shaman apart before rebuilding him. The Shamanic creed is one of purification and facing the prospect of death. In most legends the Shaman visits the Underworld for 3 days, in which he is, for all intents and purposes, dead. The same process is seen in the story of Jesus and other messiahs. By undergoing the greatest ordeal, the Shaman can return to his people as a purified healer, wielding arcane power.

    As well as embodying a fundamental human flaw, the Hero also embodies a fundamental human drive. Without a quest that the reader can root for, the story will collapse. The Hero is thus a link to the underlying and universal drives of the human race. One of the very earliest protagonists in written text was Gilgamesh, the hero of the Sumerian epic. His story is one of a search for immortality, in which he must battle higher authorities and deal with the death of a loved one. This is an ordeal that every human on the planet can relate to and for this reason we cannot help but identify with Gilgamesh and entrust him to carry our excitements and expectations throughout the narrative.

    The archetypal hero is primordial - a boiling down of our greatest strengths and greatest frailties into a state of constant turmoil. The Hero battles with himself and his situation - a neurotic golem of questioning, emotion and impulsive heroism. It is no wonder that some of the greatest heroes are teenagers. He is a whirlwind who changes the world on his journey.

    As the Hero swirls, questions, debates and duels... the Ally remains stalwart. The Ally archetype may in some ways be derived from the idea of the soldier - the unquestioning minion - but also from the Shamanic idea of spirt guides. The Ally is the companion, more refined in his singular role. He represents a facet of the Hero - perhaps his strength, his speed, his quick-wittedness. He is something that the Hero does not have in abundance, and that virtue will be something that the Hero will depend on at some point in his journey.

    In many ancient myths, the Hero is accompanied by a band of allies with singular talents: a mighty archer, a strongman, a swift runner, a skilled sailor, etc. With the Fantasy genre this is taken to the extreme, where the very races serve as allies to humans - the swift and spiritual Elves, the hardy and resilient Dwarves, the cunning and cheerful Halflings, etc. The Ally serves to symbolise to the Hero that he is greater when he works with others - that his biggest strength lies in fellowship. The archetype perhaps originated as a lesson about hunting in groups or swearing allegiance to the alpha male. Whatever the case, loyalty is a huge part of what the Ally stands for. It is no coincidence that the Shamanic creed gives its hero animal companions. The fearsome wolf, the sharp-eyed eagle, the cunning fox, the loyal hound, etc.

    Allies do not question as passionately as the Hero. They serve their part, run errands, fulfill their singular purpose, and become extensions of the Hero's power.

    At times, however, there is one amongst the Allies whose purpose is not as singular or straightforward. He is the joker, the comic relief, the fool or madman. In some ways he is the voice or playful spirit of the author, or the character who has stepped beyond the fourth wall. He holds the place between the seats and the stage - the character who winks to the audience. His role is to make mockery of the Hero's over-serious nature - to cut him down to size.

    The tradition of the Trickster is as ancient as stories themselves. From the times of the mad soothsayers and the court jesters, the clowns and village idiots. There is a belief that the ability to laugh at something is the greatest human virtue, and that victory can only be assured in realising that everything is a joke. In Shakespeare the fools are the ones with the greatest wisdom, who amongst their babble and wordplay speak nuggets of enlightenment. The joker knows his own inadequacy - he is humbled, unlike the other Archetypes, and thus has realised the greatest prize.

    In some myths the Trickster has a darker edge, representing death and betrayal. Often the crow is the symbol of the trickster. But even in this the Archetype serves the greater good, for he stands to remind the Hero of the chaos beyond all things. The Trickster is completely unbiased - he does not involve himself in the petty moral squabbles of the heroes and villains. He serves the random, the anarchic, the preposterous and stupified.

    Without the Trickster, everything is black and white. Everything is simple, boring, and over-serious. He hovers on the boundary between laughter and tears, comedy and horror, transparency and deceit, foolishness and wisdom.

    In many belief systems is the idea that the perfect soul has a unified gender. Ancient gods and angels embodied this quality, and we see its reflection in the modern-day fascination with elves, vampires and such fictional creatures. To equate perfection with dual-gender is to see the Hero's flaw in a whole new light. Kaballah philosophy states that true alchemy and redemption cannot be achieved without the cooperation of both genders. As such, the parts of himself that the Hero has not embraced are those parts of his "other" gender, and it is for this reason that he remains incomplete.

    The Soulmate, sometimes known as the Goddess or Shapeshifter, is a character who embodies that otherness. As the love-interest or special friend, she exists to show the Hero another side of things. She grants him a reprieve from action, or challenges his assumptions. There are elements of Trickster, Ally and Mentor in her, but her purpose is not as clear-cut. She does not exist to teach the Hero something or to channel chaos or to run errands for him. She simply exists for her own sake in a state of opposition. She is the polar reflection of the Hero, as much antagonizing as enabling. She will defy expectation, change her form, reverse her moods, be deceitful and unpredictable - frustrating the Hero's every assumption in order to humble him.

    Many great plots have a "B-Story" - a romantic or emotional subplot that at times may seem frivolous or distracting. But the underlying thread of the Soulmate is an essential lesson in the necessity of union and harmony. The Hero cannot triumph with strength alone. To achieve perfection of will and deed, the Hero must embrace his total self. In this way the Soulmate is a fragment - the pieces of the Hero that he needs to return to himself.

    In stories, the final kiss (or in Buddy Movies, the final explosion) is a celebration of that alchemical fusion. When the Hero and Soulmate come together against adversity, they give birth to the child that is love, hope and resurrection. But the path to this victory may be long and winding. The Hero and Soulmate may spar and scorn one another, as each remains in denial of their fragmented selves. Whatever quest the Hero is on - whatever great darkness he is facing - there is always this sub-battle going on, between the two halves of his nature.

    As the Soulmate ensures the "child" of the future, so the Mentor channels the "voice" of the past. The Mentor is a character from the tradition of passing on wisdom and granting gifts, a lesson in respecting the elder traditions. He is the father figure who understands that he must teach others to be greater than he ever was.

    He is often a Failed Hero who has been on the same path as the new Hero but faltered at some point. Like the Ally he can perform a specific errand or grant a certain gift, and unlike the Trickster his wisdom is clear and direct. He will often instruct the Hero in detail about how to better himself and as such is often the deus ex machina of the author himself.

    But like the Ally, the Mentor understands that he can only get the Hero to a certain point, and that the protagonist must face his greatest battle alone. He is not a physical aid like the Ally or a confrontational energy like the Trickster or Soulmate. He is constructive and patient - the mouthpiece of the world that the Hero is defending.

    In Arthurian legend the Hermits were a race of old and reclusive dwarves who kept the traditions of the Old World. This is the Mentor in his element - a man who has been "out there" and experienced a great many things, returning with secrets and lessons for the Hero to come.

    Many characters are instruments of the author's will. The Hero carries the thesis, the Trickster ridicules the argument, the Soulmate confounds the answer and the Mentor preaches the solution. But the Herald - often the most minor and overlooked character - is perhaps the most unbiased of the Archetyes. The Herald exists as a relay of information - a tool of exposition and juxtaposition. The Archetype derives, of course, from the medieval idea of bards and heralds - the artists who would explain or elaborate upon great events.

    The Herald puts things into proper perspective. In many stories his appearance may be fleeting and purely functional: the messenger who dies with a mysterious note in his hand; the prophet who announces the end of the world; the reporter who delivers fantastical news. The Herald is a powerful driver of the plot, who frames information in such a way that informs both the reader and the Hero of the greater stakes. They are linked to the wider world of the narrative, in tune with the repercussions of great changes and the foreshadowing of great events. And in their role, unlike the mentor, they are inert and objective, forcing no agenda. How the Hero chooses to react to a Herald is his own business and not the Herald's.

    As an archetype the Herald was put to great effect by Shakespeare, who when faced with a finite number of actors and stage space could use the Herald character to show the audience what the rest of the world was thinking. And even longer ago the Herald was reflected in the Chorus of the Greek Plays, in which he assumed the status of a supernatural, godlike mirror to mortal action.

    By collecting and recording deeds, the Herald produces heraldy - a total symbolic record of history, prophecy and intent. With heraldy the factions are aligned, the contenders identified, the darkness defined and the stakes intimated. Through this the events are the story are not singular incidents, but deeds that resonate with greater questions and struggles.

    The Herald is artist and echo, translating the Hero's actions into the bigger picture of the setting.

    While the Ally symbolises a part of the Hero that he must rely on to succeed, the Guardian is a part of the Hero that obstructs him. Derived from the term Threshold Guardian, this Archetype encompasses all the hurdles, monsters, minions and distractions that the Hero must deal with on his journey. If we perceive stories in the Ancient Greek sense of a series of challenges to be overcome, then each challenge is presided over by a Guardian.

    The Hero's perfection does not come all at once in the story's conclusion. Instead, it is a step-by-step process in which he must overcome his fears, frailties and delusions. The Guardians embody these faults. They are the Hero's neuroses made manifest. One may be fearful, one may be ignorant, one may be wrathful, one may be proud, and so forth. They are the externalized inner demons of the Hero, there to drag him down into doubt and injury. In many ways these characters are extreme, like the Allies, their single facet exaggerated into a twisted mirror of that specific part of the Hero. This is why they are often portrayed as monsters and abominations.

    They may be static or recurring, servants of the Enemy or neutral aggressors. In the Shaman's journey through the Underworld he is the plaything of the demons, who tear him apart not for any grand design, but simply because it is in their nature to do so. They guard their place on the path, be it literal or metaphorical, yielding the threshold only when the correct rite of passage is presented.

    The Guardians represent the obstruction and hostility of the world through which the Hero travels, each one greater than the last and more necessary for the Hero to overcome.

    If the Guardian represents a piece of the Hero's neuroses, then the Shadow represents the totality of psychosis. He is not the opposite of the Hero, like the Soulmate, but rather the WORST of what the Hero could become. Should the Hero abandon his Allies, spurn his Soulmate, defy his Mentor, ignore his Herald, scathe his Trickster and yield to his Guardians... then the Shadow is his fate.

    Like the Mentor, the Shadow could be a Failed Hero - one who has been on the same path as the Hero but become irrevocably corrupted or damaged by it. This is a pattern shown in Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, where the only divergence between Hero and Shadow is the redemption of fellowship. The Shadow is, in many ways, highly relatable for the audience, not just because he is a semblance of the protagonist but because unlike the Guardian he has absorbed a whole bundle of neuroses and fashioned them into a functioning human-being. The line between Shadow and Anti-Hero can often be a narrow one, and thus the greatest villains attract a morbid fascination from the reader.

    The Shadow is the ultimate threat and antagonist to the Hero, more than any force of nature or politics that may exist in the setting. This is because, at heart, all stories are about human conflict and the inner turmoil of the Hero. The true "darkness" is the question of what the Hero may become, not the question of what may happen to his world. For example, in the film Aliens, the true Shadow is Burke, the Company representative, and not the demonic aliens themselves. This is because whilst the aliens are motivated by blind instinct and reproductive drives, Burke has made a conscious and human choice to betray his fellow man, and as such is the dark mirror and nightmare fate for Ripley.

    This third dimension - this person-like collaboration of neuroses - is what distinguishes the Shadow from the more two-dimensional Monster-Guardians. And this is what makes him hard to defeat. The Hero will struggle to second-guess and outwit the Shadow, or at heart may sympathize with part of his enemy's cause. This relateable, unerstandable, genius-like nature of the Shadow's behaviour makes him all the more seductive and impervious to the protagonist's quest.

    We hate him because, in some ways, he is right, and he shows us a certain logic in evil deeds. In rooting for the Hero to defeat him, we are rooting for those devilish impulses within ourselves to be suppressed.

    So these are the fundamentals of the mythical eight. By understanding these Archetypes you will have the building blocks of truly resonating and moving characters. These symbolic figures are hard-wired into the human psyche, planted there by both the tradition of folklore and the nature of psychological development. In working out human problems, we identify our villains, our obstacles, our allies and our mentors. We are the heroes of our own struggles, and by using Archetypes we simplify the questions we are faced with.​

    Storytelling and psychotherapy are one and the same in this respect.​

    So for a story to be effective, it has to address these universal conflicts and these universal drives. The Archetypes are your key to doing this. By understanding each one, you can begin to combine and rework them into your own unique cast.​

    As many before you have done...​

    Han Solo: The Trickster-Ally, taking nothing too seriously, but providing essential help when it is needed.​
    Doctor Watson: The Herald-Soulmate, recording Holmes's exploits, while also being his moral compass and greatest friend.​
    Bill from Kill Bill - The Shadow-Mentor, the beloved teacher to Beatrix, but one who denies her a life of contentment.​
    Lucy from Dracula - The Guardian-Soulmate, an innocent girl who is loved by all, but becomes a minion of the darkness.​

    Build a character from these blocks, and you are building them from raw pieces of the zeitgeist. You cannot go wrong!
    #1 Asmodeus, Nov 3, 2009
    Last edited: Nov 1, 2014
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