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. [Read more…]