Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Characters as Archetypes

by Annette Lyon

All stories have a structure that is reflected throughout time and cultures. Whether you're a believer in Jung's philosophy about a "collective unconscious" that we draw from or not, the fact remains that from Homer to Grisham, from China to Italy, certain elements get repeated over and over again. For example, it's amazing to see how many versions of what we call "Cinderella" exist in the world, many of which were created independently of the others.

I'm currently reading The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler (2nd edition). It's out of print now, but if you can get your hands on one, I recommend it. This relatively small book has become a bible of sorts among the filmmakers in Hollywood and novel writers as well. Vogler takes the work of many others who have analyzed the structure of story and myth and put it all together in one place. It's given me lots of food for thought, and I'll likely discuss elements from the book here many times in the future.

Today, however, I thought I'd list and define some of the common archetypes found in literature. Not every story has to have them all. Some characters can assume more than one archetype, depending on their story "job" at the moment (Vogler calls these temporary archetypes "masks" that a character puts on).

Male or female, this is your main character, the person whose life is shaken up and changed at the beginning of the story and who must put things right. Vogler states that, "The most effective Heroes are those who experience sacrifice" whether it's a loved one, an item, a treasure, or a personality trait. Heroes often come full circle, ending where they began (think The Hobbit). Other times they'll stay in the "new world" they were thrust into with the story (Disney's Aladdin). Or they'll come back to the old world, only to discover it no longer exists, at least for them. By and large, the Hero teaches us how to deal with death in some form or another. The "old" and "new" worlds could be literal in a fantasy novel, or figurative in the sense of someone leaving home or even leaving their comfort zone and having difficulties to surmount that they've never faced before.

This person gives something to the Hero that will be useful or protective later, such as wisdom/advice (ala Jiminy Crickit), a helpful object (the Marauder's Map), or a skill (using a light saber blindfolded). Mentors are often old men or women, but any character can wear the Mentor's mask. Sometimes it's the Mentor that gives the Hero the kick out the door to get the story moving.

These characters block the Hero's way, but generally aren't the primary antagonist or villain. Often they are the villain's underlings, but they can also be a friend who disagrees with the Hero's quest and tries to stop them. The Hero must find a way around the Threshold Guardian, whether through attack, bribery, winning the Guardian over as an Ally, or something else. These characters essentially TEST the Hero, make them worthy of continuing the quest. How much does the Hero really want this?

Generally showing up in the first act of the story, the Herald is the one who brings the news that will disrupt the story and create change. Sometimes the Herald isn't a person, but rather a letter or other event. Regardless, after the Herald's appearance, life will never again be the same. One of Vogler's examples is in Romancing the Stone when Joan Wilder receives the treasure map in the mail, followed by a frantic call from her sister who is being held hostage in Columbia.

Like the name suggests, this is a character who is inconstant and changing, at least from the Hero's perspective. A Shapeshifter can change loyalties or be revealed as having been in disguise the entire time (think Cary Grant in Charade; you don't know until the end who he really is: a good guy? A bad guy? Hmmm.) Often, but not always, Shapeshifters are of the opposite gender as the Hero, and therefore they're often the love interest as well (which makes some sense--since when did either gender fully understand the other?). In some cases, an opposite-gender Shapeshifter can turn out to be evil (think Fatal Attraction).

In short, the Hero's Villains, Antagonists, and Enemies. Note that an Antagonist isn't necessary a bad person. It could be a close friend or family member. In the Harry Potter books, Professor McGonnogal is, at times, an Antagonist to Harry, preventing him from doing what he wants to do. Vogler uses a great analogy to explain the difference between a Villain and an Antagonist: A Hero and a Villain are like two freight trains heading for one another. A Hero and an Antagonist are like two horses pulling the same wagon but trying to go opposite directions. A strong Shadow can provide a great story. (What would Star Wars be without Darth Vader?)

This person provides impetus for change as well as comic relief. Tricksters make the audience laugh at themselves and can cut the villain's ego down to size. They often act as the Hero's sidekick. According to Vogler, many cartoon characters are tricksters, including Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and the Roadrunner.

Again, these roles are all very fluid. You can have a Trickster Hero, or a Shapeshifter Shadow, or a Herald who also happens to be a Mentor. Other archetypal characters exist as well, but these are the most common. Don't worry about becoming formulaic as you use them. There are countless ways of combining roles and creating new ways of using them. In a sense, instead of a firm recipe for a story, they're rather a great list of categories for the ingredients you can draw from to create a great dish.


Heather Moore said...

I really like the way you broke this down. As I read it, I started recognizing characters in my own books that fit each role. Very interesting!

Anna Maria Junus said...

I really liked this. I could see it in the book I had just written.

Josi said...

that is awesome. I'm going to go look for the book right now. Thanks Annette, fascinating stuff.

Julie Q. said...

Annette (I'm commenting on an old post; hope this makes sense)

Where do you recommend I find this book? I've looked at the local libraries and even BYU doesn't appear to have it. Any suggestions? It sounds wonderful - if not for my writing, at least for my teaching. Thanks.