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.
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