Character archetypes have power. They elevate characters. Model characters on archetypes and they become more than just people, they become they very embodiments of some aspect of human nature. They become large, legendary, eternal. With our human qualities exaggerated, we are able to clearly see ourselves.
Archetypal characters leave us no choice but to recognize who and how we are. Hero. Anti-hero. Mentor. Guardian. Monster. Shadow. Outcast. Outlaw. Rebel. Damsel. Temptress. Lover. Scapegoat. Fool.
Archetypal characters encompass us all, in contrast to stock characters who represent just a few of us. Absent-minded professor. Dark Lord. Gentleman thief. Girl next door. Jock. Nerd. Southern Belle. Town drunk. Village idiot. Archetypal characters always ring true, while stock characters border on, or can become, clichés.
Some archetypal characters journey. Heroes quest. Anti-heroes hide. A Shadow destroys. Fools run errands. Alternately, archetypal characters may have roles to play in the journeys of others, becoming stops on the road, taxing or collecting a toll, demanding tribute, posing riddles, requiring a test, offering a temptation, teaching a lesson or in any other way enhancing the process of human growth.
It’s good to make characters deliberately more like their underlying archetypes, but there is a problem with modeling protagonists on them: archetypes are static. They do not easily present the possibility of change. For that reason, it may be better to think of protagonists in terms of the archetypes that underlie our personalities, and in particular that represent the phases of our lives and the evolution of ourselves toward ever higher levels of maturity.
The great psychologist Carl Jung thought of people in archetypal terms. Patients with a complex to Jung are burdened by memories and stuck in behaviors derived from—or, more accurately, behaviors that in turn suggest and build—archetypes. Foundational archetypes for Jung were the anima/animus, the self, the shadow and the persona. In Jungian thinking, human beings have an unconscious understanding of these archetypes and tend to conform to them, producing a species-wide collective unconscious.
Jungian archetypes can also be elaborated into more specific personality types of some utility to fiction writers: Innocent, Orphan, Hero, Caregiver, Explorer, Rebel, Lover, Creator, Jester, Sage, Magician, Ruler. Grand archetypes are useful in pinning down where a protagonist starts and what a protagonist needs to become.
Simply put, what gives protagonist archetypes their heft is that they are dynamic, leading necessarily to change. We think of the archetypes of Hero and Heroine as engaged in an outward quest or in a struggle at home, but the deeper and truer understanding of the Hero or Heroine’s journey is as a progress through stages of the self. Looked at that way, success is not a task accomplished or a battle won—though there is nothing bad about those things—but rather a transformation into a new and more elevated state of being.
There are many resources for understanding The Hero’s Journey and the analogous, overlapping-but-different Heroine’s Journey, but for purposes of modeling protagonists on dynamic archetypes, it may be more useful to look not toward mythology or folklore (with all due respect to Parsifal and to Joseph Campbell) but toward archetypes in psychology. I am especially indebted, in this, to Carol S. Pearson’s 1989 edition of her book The Hero Within: Six Archetypes We Live By (later released in a third edition).
In Pearson’s formulation, our human evolution is presented by the archetypes of Innocent, Orphan, Wanderer, Warrior, Martyr and Magician. These represent phases of growth that we all must go through—or, Pearson says, spiral through—though of course at different rates or in different orders depending on who we are, our unique histories and, especially, on our respective genders.
The Innocent lives in a state of childlike grace. The Orphan confronts the reality of the Fall, the discovery that the parental cocoon is flawed and must fail. The Wanderer leaves or flees to find independence, autonomy and identity. The Martyr stays and sacrifices, suffering, either pleasing others or perhaps discovering the beauty of selfless caring. The Warrior finds the courage and discipline to compete, fight, win, change others or change the world.
The Magician, finally, transcends all that, transforming into a whole and balanced human whose purpose is not to defeat others but to live in harmony and in grace, thus circling back to the innocence once lost but now regained and enriched in a state of serenity in which it is possible to let go, claim the inner Shadow, name the new reality, share abundance, and accept that life ultimately must include death.
The trip of life, then, and an approach building heroes and heroines, is to take a protagonist through one or more of these stages, all of which test our resilience or become traps; either limiting or shaping; offering suffering or adventure, independence or intimacy, captivity or isolation, failure and redemption, but above all a path toward a resolution greater than victory or reward, more profound than conquering or healing; a destination that is not a church aisle, a home, a grail castle or a city of gold but a place of inner peace.
Let’s adapt this idea of moving through and between archetypal stages to make your protagonist’s journey more iconic. Which archetype best fits your protagonist?
What once represented perfect safety? How was that utterly destroyed? What ideal has been shattered? How do we see that your protagonist is numb, or angry, or in denial, or waiting for rescue? How does he or she seek protection, ease, quick fixes, gamble, or have faith in some promised and certain salvation? How is he or she rigid, rule-bound, clinging, dependent, or in thrall to authority? He or she feels undeserving—of what? What is his or her addiction?
When and how does your protagonist mourn his or her lost innocence? What begins his or her turn away from helplessness? What refuge becomes unsafe? What savior is shown to be hypocritical or flawed? What romantic myth disappoints? Who, on the other hand, turns out to be trustworthy? What opportunity to trust and hope arises? What does your protagonist decide is worth fighting for? How does your protagonist reject the role of victim? What is his or her first baby step? To whom does your protagonist tell his or her story? How do we see that your protagonist, finally, has taken responsibility for his or her own happiness?
How is your protagonist captured or trapped? To whom is he or she obligated? For whom is your protagonist a caretaker? Whom must he or she appease? What must your protagonist give up, repress, sacrifice, or pay in tax? How is sacrifice a virtue? What reward awaits? What meager pleasure is taken away? How does he or she starve in order to become more beautiful or worthy?
How does your protagonist’s hidden anger erupt? What can no longer be tolerated? How does he or she walk away from his or her responsibility, and what goes wrong to call him or her back? How does it become apparent that your protagonist has avoided his or her life journey? What makes it glaringly apparent that your protagonist is stunted? What or whom truly deserves your protagonist’s heart? Who gives your protagonist an undeserved gift, chance or spotlight? What else does your protagonist discover that he or she has to give? What loss shows your protagonist that death needn’t be feared?
What made your protagonist leave home, wander, or flee? From what is he or she escaping? What allows him or her to survive? Why does he or she distrust others and act alone? How does he or she rebel, innovate, invent, DIY? For what or whom does your protagonist search but never find? What romantic ideal is out of reach? What is so dangerous about intimacy? Why is independent the best way to be? What would be horrible about settling down, going along or conforming? Why can no place be home?
What whispering does your protagonist begin to hear in his or her fortress of solitude? Who cracks open the door and slips in? What makes the role of knight or renegade begin to feel false? What captor or villain did your protagonist not really leave behind? How does he or she begin to separate now? What test or trial must your protagonist pass to be admitted to the community? What must he or she risk?
What is or becomes your protagonist’s mission, cause or sacred trust and responsibility? Who is out to rob, plunder, conquer or destroy the weak and helpless? What skill must your protagonist master? What is his or her inborn talent? What regimen does he or she follow? For what is he or she training? What emotion must be controlled? What luxuries are earned—and savored? What esteem is sought and humility to be shown? What weapons or symbols of power are won? What tests must be passed?
Who mentors, sees the good in, sees through or believes in your protagonist? Who is out to prove your protagonist wrong? Who detracts, defames, undermines or betrays him or her? What weakness does your protagonist cover up? How is his or her greatest fear realized? How is a weakness exposed? What is the worst and most public way for your protagonist to fail? What does he or she lose as a result? Who gives up on him or her? How does your protagonist find the courage for one last try? What ability does your protagonist gain that was out of reach before? What dragon does your protagonist slay—and what dragon inside?
How does your protagonist lay down arms, find compassion, and resolve to fight no more? What does he or she negotiate instead? How does your protagonist eat, kick addiction, change a habit or do things differently to heal? What does he or she discover in common with others? Whom can he or she not bear to let go? What enemy becomes a friend? What work does your protagonist find joyous, and why? What faith arrives? In what does your protagonist gain trust? What does he or she share with others? What former dislike is now seen as a needed part of life? How has adversity, disappointment, failure or sorrow become liberating? What beauty does he or she see in the world that was invisible before? What does he or she look forward to learning? What’s the new horizon? What new adventure awaits?
As you can see, while archetypes elevate protagonists their true power lies in the possibility they present for change. In life’s journey we must progress through these stages, or we may get stuck. We cannot progress to one without first passing through another. We may cycle, as well, returning to one stage or another as circumstances necessitate. Always we are striving to grow. We must, or we die.
Are archetypes primitive? Do they miss the nuance and textured nature of real humans? Adhered to strictly, I suppose that archetypes could result in cartoonish characters. On the other hand, archetypes are tools we can use to focus characters’ struggles and make their journeys universal.
In a way, you cannot build your protagonists too big. Their struggles and transformations are everyone’s. If it feels presumptuous to see your protagonist as iconic, or to raise his or her story to a mythic scale, I ask why not? High ambition is for heroes and heroines, but it is also for you.
Archetypes are timeless tools. Why not use them?
Which archetype fits your current protagonist and how can you make that character more iconic?
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