Transformational Journeys—Working With Archetypes

One day, as I was really struggling with the direction of my work in progress, I got up and began restlessly searching through my bookshelves and found an old, tattered copy of a book someone had given me years ago called, The Hero Within written by Carol Pearson. Since it was subtitled, Archetypes to Live By, I immediately thought, Archetypes = Writing. Score!

The book talked about the transformative changes we go through as we move through the different stages of our life journey. It was perfect for my needs that day and has since become one of my favorite writing books, even though it’s not a writing book at all.

Transformative change.

For some reason that phrase really resonated with me and is now always in the back of my mind as I write. Probably in no small part because I often have a sense of everything building to that big moment when my character sheds her old skin and steps into her new self. When she is truly and completely transformed by the events of the novel.

The difference between change and transformative change is this: We change every day—in surface ways. We move from happy to sad or annoyed to bitter, patient to suffering. Those movements don’t fundamentally change us; rather they are part of the human range of emotions.

The transformative part comes in when we take that grief or bitterness or suffering and let it be the catalyst that impels us to a new state of being; that instead of experiencing our emotions as random stepping stones, we allow ourselves to see the path that is forming at our feet and dare to take it, follow it to a new awareness.

The transformative part means we change who we are, instead of merely how we feel.

#

So what does all this have to do with archetypes?

An archetype is part of the human experience—it is a classic stage in emotional and psychological development and it comes to all of us at different times and in different ways. When we undergo transformative change, we move from one archetypal stage to another.

Archetypes can be a hugely helpful tool when looking at characters and their growth. We know a character must change or grow, attain some new level of awareness and archetypes can be an effective way to tap into that because they can help chart or steer our protagonist’s transformative progress.

 

 Some Common Archetypal Stages

 

The Orphan – The stage where we are faced with the fact that the world is not perfect—it is flawed—and we must try to adapt to finding a place in that imperfect world. Orphans feel powerless and are looking for easy answers or quick fixes. This can mean being taken care of by others, or a belief in a benevolent hierarchy, or a desperate search for acceptance. Orphans are often locked in denial and unwilling, or unable, to see the world as it really is.

Books: Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella, Bella in Twilight by Stephanie Meyer

Movies and TV: Private Benjamin, Meredith Grey on Grey’s Anatomy, also Mark Sloan from Grey’s Anatomy, Coredila in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dorothy in Wizard of Oz

 

The Martyr  – This is a stage where we put other’s needs and emotions and fulfillment ahead of our own, often at great cost to our selves, either physically or emotionally. It has traditionally been associated with women and the societal roles they fill, but it can happen to men as well. The executive who wakes up one day, realizing that no one has cared or noticed all the overtime and brown-nosing he’s done in the last thirty years and, even worse, he realizes he’s always hated his job.

Martyrs believe that love is about putting other’s needs before their own, but often in an unhealthy way to EARN love rather than as a genuine manifestation of their love. It’s a way to gain power over others or ‘earn’ a place in the world. Martyrs want to be good and take care of others, often at great cost to themselves, along with an often barely hidden resentment.

Books: Faking It by Jennifer Crusie, Lady Be Good by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Katniss in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins,

Movies and TV: The Runaway Bride, Callie in Grey’s Anatomy, Marie (Ray’s mother) Everybody Loves Raymond

 

The Wanderer – The stage where a person realizes they must find solitude in order to truly understand who they are and what they want out of life. This often comes after they have spent a long time tending to the needs of others or fighting battles they’re no longer sure they believe in, and they need this aloneness to rebalance and get back in touch with (or discover!) their true selves. This is the stage where we leave our current coping strategies behind and set out searching for new ones that will help us lead more balanced, authentic lives. It can be a physical wandering or simply an emotional one.

Books: Blue Bailey in Natural Born Charmer Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella, Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold

Movies and TV: Chocolat, Thelma and Louise, nearly every Clint Eastwood movie ever made

 

The Warrior – The stage most closely associated with The Hero’s Journey—where the protagonist must step outside of his ordinary world or comfort zone, and fight for what they want, then claim the prize. This stage is about using our strength to fight for things we believe in. However, we must temper our physical or societal power with wisdom or connecting with our intuition. Often, for women, an important component of this stage is not just claiming the prize/power, but facing others down in order to defend our right to use it.

Books: Katniss in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Katsa in Graceling by Kristen Cashore, Eve Dallas in the J.D. Robb books

Movies and TV: Buffy in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena Warrior Princess, Luke Skywalker in Star Wars,

 

The Magician – this is the stage where we step into all that the universe has to offer us, accepting our responsibilities as well as our gifts. The end goal, if you will.

 

Some Thoughts On Using Archetypes

  •  To make the best use of this tool, it is helpful to think beyond the surface roles of the characters—the mentor, the waif, the shadow—and instead try to tap into where they are in their emotional/spiritual archetypal journey.
  •  Because plot is character, archetypes can be a fabulous way to provide structure in our stories, especially stories that are more character driven.
  •  They are not to be used as a template or a formula, but as a way to come up with the right sorts of dramatic events that your character will need to go through in order to experience transformational change.
  •  They also makes a great revising tool; if our book feels flat or lacking in narrative drive, archetypes can help us find the weak or missing spots and provide some emotional stakes as they struggle to achieve a new way of being in the world.
  •  Have a good variety of characters at different stages in their archetypal journey to provide a richly textured sense of the human condition in your story.
  •  Working against archetype can also be a great way to flip expectations on their head, and create characters whose very essence is in conflict with itself.

 

And of course, as with so many lessons that we apply to our writing, it never hurts to look at where we are on our own archetypal journey.

Are we struggling with the realities of publishing, bitter and frustrated that no one’s published our book yet? Sure there is some publishing secret no one will let us in on? Certain that the answer to our publishing woes lies in having just the right social media presence or a gajillion followers?

Or maybe we’re at that stage where we’ve truly dedicated ourselves to our craft—giving up other things in order to pursue our dream. We feel guilty at the time we’re not spending with our families, the extra work we’re not taking home from the office, or not going out for drinks with our friends.

Or are we experimenting with different ways of writing. Trying on new voices, new genres, stretching ourselves to see where our limits are, then daring ourselves to push beyond them and see where that road takes us?

Maybe we’re at that stage where we’re learning to stand up for our writing vision—daring to say no to critique partners who think we’ve broken sacrosanct writing rules, or taken too great a story risk. Maybe we’re finally learning to tell our editors, No, I simply cannot write a book I’m proud of in four months, and we’re willing to stand up for our sense of literary integrity. Or  maybe we’re finally able to claim our own core stories and not try to hide who we are or what we have to say any longer.

 

“The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.” – William Arthur Ward

The act of adjusting the sails is not just about being realistic; it is also about being open to transformative change. A mere realist would batten down the hatches and hold on. But the act of adjusting the sails, of preparing yourself to accommodate what life is about to send your way, is a much more profound act of acceptance.

For some people, those bumps on life’s road completely derail them or make them bitter or cause them to feel victimized. And while I hate tragedy and mishap as much as the next person, one of the only way I can put my head down and get through it, is to try and see the situation as an opportunity for that sort of deep rooted change. To extract the life lesson that the universe is sending me. In doing that, in finding some nugget of wisdom to take from the incident, I feel that no matter what I have lost, I have also won.

Which is why it is so vital that things in our story make sense, that the events in our stories are pushing our characters toward this transformative change. That is one of story’s most important roles in our lives, showing us what that sort of deep change looks like, feels like, and how to recognize and respond to the opportunities when they arise.

 

photocredit: Flickr’s Alice Popkorn

 

0

About Robin LaFevers

Robin LaFevers is the author of fourteen books for young readers, including the Theodosia and Nathaniel Fludd series. Her most recent book, GRAVE MERCY, is a young adult romance about assassin nuns in medieval France. A lifelong introvert, she currently lives on a blissfully quiet hill in Southern California.

Comments

  1. says

    Robin,
    Thanks for such a thoughtful and comprehensive analysis of the role of archetypes. There is a danger in relying too heavily on over-used archetypes. The key, as you have stated, is the character’s transformation. The writer must put daunting and credible challenges in front of her characters and these challenges should force the character to make a difficult choice. The choices reveal the character’s transformation. Your analysis of this subject is very helpful. Thanks again.

    0
    • says

      So glad you found the post helpful, CG! And you’re right about some of the dangers of relying too heavily on over-used or shallowly explored archetypes. For me, the answer to just about everything to do with writing is always “dig deeper”. :-)

      0
  2. says

    A very thoughtful post. Although I haven’t intentionally employed the archetype for my MC, I can see where she has one anyway. But I think being more consciously aware of it is going to help me in my rewrite– to be more intentional with her transformative change. I need to accentuate this more in my rewrite. Thanks for the brain juice this morning. Now, to tackle that revision.

    0
    • says

      That’s what I love so much about archetypes, Julie! They’re part of our human experience so they not only reverberate with us, but often show up without our intending them to.

      0
  3. says

    This is a mega-useful paradigm for character positioning and evolution, Robin. I have printed it out and will absorb the perspectives you have provided. Suscinct and profound. Love it!

    0
  4. says

    Robin, I just love your posts. Thank you for joining the WU team. Please don’t ever leave–ever. ;-)

    It took me a long time to read this post, mostly because I kept stopping to take notes or to stare out the window in a deep thought, provoked by your words. I love the two words: Transformative change. Looking at my MCs in the light of those two words has been the key to this last rewrite.

    Looking at my primary characters in the light of archetypes this time around has made a huge difference. And I have to credit my writing mentor and coach, Cathy Yardley, for making it so. We were in the midst of a telephone conference (one of the unique services Cathy offers). We were talking about how my MC was a reluctant leader archetype when she told me that it went much deeper. He was not only under pressure to step up and lead, he was under pressure from two sides to be two very different leaders. The story question revolves around whether he will be Charlemagne or Gandhi. The statement made everything come clear. It was all there already, it just needed honing and clarity. Perhaps the process of discovery with this book has moved me personally a bit closer to The Magician.

    Thanks again for your moving posts. You make me dig deep each time, and I appreciate that to do so you must do the same. (And remember, you can’t leave us–ever.)

    0
    • says

      You, Vaughn? Are awesome. Every month when I start working on my WU I think, why does it take me days and days to write the dang thing, and why can’t I just write a *short* post? Ever?

      And then you always manage to say something lovely in the comments that makes me thing, That’s why. You’re so right that that going deeper thing–even in blog posts–is a squirmy place to be. :-)

      Also? Cathy Yardley sounds brilliant.

      0
  5. says

    What a great post. I especially love how you brought the use of archetypes in fiction back around to how we can use them in our writing lives. After all, our stories are about being people, and, despite what some critics may say, writers are people, too.

    0
    • says

      Jaye, that’s one of the things I adore about writing–every time I learn about something to apply to my characters, it usually is pertinent to my own life as well.

      0
  6. says

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this reminder, especially this part: “…if our book feels flat or lacking in narrative drive, archetypes can help us find the weak or missing spots and provide some emotional stakes as they struggle to achieve a new way of being in the world.” Yes! Sometimes in my life–like now–all those literature and writing and English classes I took in college seem like another lifetime ago, and I wonder as I bumble through a WIP that has all the potential for greatness but is really just a great, heaping pile of excrement, “What am I missing? What am I forgetting?” Thanks for bringing some of that training and education back from the dark recesses of my mushy brain.

    0
    • says

      So happy to be of help, Brea!

      And I’m jealous that in your college writing and literature classes you guys got to explore archetypes. If the instructors had done that in mine, I think I would have enjoyed them a whole lot more!

      0
  7. says

    This was a wonderful article, Robin. I have my own book of archetypes – 45 Master Characters – that I dip into for deeper characterization when possible. You added to it splendidly. It is my belief that all people (even regular folks) should study up on archetypes…there might actually be some personal growth in this world!

    0
  8. says

    You’re absolutely right – we need to look at our personal stories, too! Not to put ourselves in an archetype box but to learn from it. I see archetypes as guidelines, templates just waiting to revitalized with a personal touch and unique character. Thanks for getting me thinking this morning!

    0
    • says

      Jillian, I fully believe that the best authors, the ones I return to time and time again, are excellent students of human nature, so a lot of my writing study involves trying to become more knowledgeable about people and the way they interact with the world.

      0
  9. says

    Ooh, I just love this. I hosted a writers’ workshop a week ago and we discussed the importance of labels so the reader can quickly identify and resonate with characters. I wish we’d gone into the archetype and STAGES, too. This is wonderful.

    0
  10. Carmel says

    Wow, this is a life lesson as well as a way to improve my writing. I already see how I can use this — in both areas. ;o) Thanks for sharing your wisdom and knowledge, Robin. Saving this for future reference!

    0
    • says

      You’re so welcome, Carmel! Like I mentioned in another comment, that really is one of the things that fascinates me about writing–everything we learn about or apply to our characters can usually illuminate us personally, as well.

      0
  11. Elizabeth says

    Great post. I first read Pearson’s The Hero Within over 10 years ago, and it’s provided a useful lens to read books through. Somehow though, I’ve never given much thought to applying archetypes consciously in my own writing! I agree with other commenters that there’s a danger of veering into stereotypical representations of archetypes, but your suggestion of using archetypes to develop and shape character growth rather than as a static representation seems a good way to mitigate this danger. Thanks!

    0
    • says

      Elizabeth, the edition I have is her first edition. I know she’s revised it extensively a couple of times and I haven’t read the later editions, so don’t know how much they’ve changed.

      But yes, her approach is a very useful lens.

      0
  12. says

    I really liked the way you paralleled our writer’s journey with the archetypal growth progression in the end. Nice touch!

    This is terrific information. As I read I was able to see where my MCs fit in, along with how my ultimate plans for their ending will pan out realistically. Resources like this are awesome for keeping the character development well-honed.

    Thanks, Robin. I always really enjoy your wisdom.

    0
    • says

      D.D., I so love how this stuff shows up in our characters, even when we’re not consciously thinking about it. It’s like our subconscious leaves us a little trail of breadcrumbs…

      0
    • says

      Charlie, we writers are like magpies, aren’t we? We collect all sorts of snippets and bits of craft and wisdom from all sorts of unlikely places. :-)

      0
  13. says

    Once I realized that the PLOT in my novel was about my characters’ transformational changes, it all started to flow. What a wonderful guide to this process you have presented in your post. THANKS!

    0
  14. says

    Once I realized that the PLOT in my novel was about my characters’ transformational changes, it all started to flow

    Yes! This! I had exactly the same experience–once I realized that the plot was the mechanism by which the character would transform, it all came together in a much more organic way for me.

    0
  15. says

    Good post! It is very useful to think in archetypes, but I think the real takeaway here is the concept of transformative change. In Dune, by Frank Herbert, the hero’s father tells him “Without change something sleeps inside us, and seldom awakens. The sleeper must awaken.”

    If our stories don’t drive transformative change in our MCs, we miss a wonderful chance to deepen our themes and connect more strongly with our readers.

    0
  16. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    A very helpful post. And I was pleased to see that one character can be (or evolve to) more than one archetype, because in the reality of our journey though life we can pass through any multitude of these archetype stages, going forward, or sometimes even regressing.

    Thank you. This post goes in my keeper file to read over again and again.

    0
  17. says

    Loved your post. I always have to remind myself to go back to the archetypes to check that my characters are behaving in ways that are believable and meaningful. At those times, I end up in reflection about my own journey. Your post was a welcome reminder to go back and recheck my characters. Thanks for a well written and thoughtful post.

    0
  18. says

    This is an excellent post. Ever since I discovered Joseph Campbell and Clarissa Pinkola Estes, who inspired me to read Jung himself, I’ve measured my life against archetypal standards, watching my personal development, both forward and backward over time.

    It’s a little embarrassing to admit that I never held up the same plumb line to my characters. (Duh.)

    Back to the drawing board — with a whole new set of tools.

    Thanks!

    0
  19. says

    I use this book with my writing students when I teach Myths & Symbols. It’s considered old now (and some people would say outdated and new-agey!) but it is always interesting to see how many of them respond to the archetypes, both for themselves and their characters.
    We do the quiz at the back, which gets them really thinking about the material!
    Glad to know it’s not just me who thinks all this is useful.

    0
  20. Rachel Thompson says

    I’ve read a number of books on archetype from psychology and mythology. Very helpful stuff. I would suggest reading, for those interested, Joseph Campbell’s work especially “Hero With a Thousand Faces.”
    Mythic paradigm is at the core of most stories.

    0