I start my day with an affirmation. It’s a great way to focus, and it’s something I encourage my writing clients to do as well.
“I help writers bring joy, hope, and change to the world.”
People write (and read) for different reasons. I love the feelings of escape and excitement I get when I read. As a writer and an editor, I want to share that enjoyment with others. At first blush, joy is the part of that affirmation that makes the most sense.
But what does the rest of it mean? How can your writing bring hope and change to the world?
It wasn’t until I was working on this article that the penny dropped and I began to understand how writing and telling stories does just that.
So how does that work?
Stories, fairy tales, and myths share patterns that are recognized at a gut level by almost everyone, regardless of culture. Distilled to their essence, these patterns are character archetypes, storytelling tools that can be used to create and understand the things that make us tick.
Merriam-Webster describes archetypes as “the original pattern or model of which all things of the same type are representations or copies.” In other words, a prototype.
The word can also be used to mean a representational example of a thing. “She is the archetype of a successful novelist.”
For storytellers, Carl Jung’s description is our best fit, and the focus of this post. Jung theorizes that archetypes are “an inherited idea or mode of thought … that is derived from the experience of the [human] race and is present in the unconscious of the individual.”
Think of that for a moment.
An inherited idea or mode of thought that is present in the unconscious.
Something shared by all human beings.
Character archetypes are damn close to instincts, aren’t they? Jung would call them the unconscious images of the structures and patterns of human behavior.
So, archetypes are aspects of human personality. Inside of each of us is a Hero, a Mentor, a Shadow, and more. We draw upon their strengths (or are swept away by their flaws) in response to the stimulus of our lives.
Carl Jung was an early 20th century Swiss analytical psychologist, a student of Sigmund Freud’s. He believed that the whole point of human development was for each person to uncover their truest self, to realize their highest potential through the integration of conscious and unconscious images of the self. He called the process of self-actualization individuation. It’s like our own personal Worldview story.
And those unconscious images? They’re archetypes.
You’re probably already using them without realizing it.
Context is everything
Jung wasn’t the only one -to recognize universal patterns in story and behavior. Scholarly research into shared mythic structure began in the anthropological studies of the late 19th century and focused on “hero tales.” Close on Jung’s heels, folklorist Vladimir Propp’s seminal work, Morphology of the Folktale, identified and described 31 archetypal situations and seven archetypal character functions, all of which occur in varying combinations in a representational collection of Russian fairy tales.
Joseph Campbell is given credit for the identification and description of the monomyth, which we more commonly call the Hero’s Journey. Campbell certainly brought archetypes and myth into popular culture.
Campbell’s body of work is not without its critics, however. He has come under fire for oversimplifying mythic structure and for normalizing a masculine-centric interpretation of the monomyth. Several alternatives to the Hero’s Journey from a feminine/feminist perspective have been proposed to counterbalance Campbell’s theories. Maureen Murdock’s The Heroine’s Journey and Kim Hudson’s The Virgin’s Promise are two of the best known. There is both a need and a place for alternative archetypal patterns.
Despite its critics, the Hero’s Journey remains as the heart of a shared pattern of storytelling and human development. The Hero’s Journey is not an exclusive model, but it is profoundly recognizable across cultures, genders, and time.
Over and over, people speak of how the truths of the Hero’s Journey leap out at them. Encountering it for the first time, they often describe the sensation of hearing a bell that resonates with truth. This is not a coincidence. We connect so strongly with the archetypes present in the monomyth model because they are a deep and constant part of us. They are patterns that have been observed and internalized by our primordial selves. They are mirrors of our innermost and secret selves, exposed to the light of day in the monomyth.
The Hero’s Journey itself is an archetypal form. Most of us know it as a storytelling form but it is also a model of personal development and transformation. That’s why it resonates with us. A story that incorporates elements of the Hero’s Journey can give us new ways to see our own lives reflected in the Hero’s passage. We are each the Hero of our own individual journeys.
Hollywood story analyst and author of The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler calls the Hero’s Journey and The Virgin’s Promise “theories of drama and life.”
Campbell envisioned 17 stages in the monomyth. Vogler streamlined the form with storytelling in mind, distilling 17 stages into 12 without compromising its intent. It’s a perfect example of how character archetypes can, and should, be interpreted to suit their context. Nor is it imperative that Vogler’s 12 steps take place in set sequence, although there is a very natural progression from the Ordinary World to the Return. The Hero’s Journey is a pattern that we instinctively adjust to fit our needs.
Critics of the Hero’s Journey as a screenwriting tool claim that literal interpretation and unthinking adherence to the monomyth will result in a predictable and uninteresting story. But by learning its form and identifying it in the stories that move us, by seeing it in our own lives, we can create innovative variations of the model. Vogler says, “Nothing matters but the instinctive choices of the heart and soul of the artist.”
In archaeology, we say that context is everything. For a writer, the Hero’s Journey provides needed context for understanding the function of archetypal images. The monomyth gives the writer a broadly recognizable grammar. Archetypes are the semantics of that grammar. They are a springboard, not a checklist.
We are born with imprinted, instinctive archetypes. Our perception of them, and how we model them, is shaped by acquired experience. Archetypes reflect deep psychological truths. They are the keys to life.
Archetypes are why storytelling is a meaningful shared experience. They provide the building blocks that enable both the telling and the perception of a story that can stir hearts.
As we dig deeper into the meaning of archetypes, it’s important to understand that archetypes are concepts, not things. Archetypes are similar to Plato’s theory of pure forms. They exist only as divine models of which there are infinite versions and variations. You will never personally encounter a pure archetype.
To illustrate, consider the concept of Initiation. When you read that word, what comes to mind? A fraternity hazing? A Bar or Bat Mitzvah? Getting a voter registration card, or perhaps even losing one’s virginity? Or did you think of something entirely different?
We all know what initiation is, that it functions as a marker of transition. Yet there is not a single ritual or routine that can be said to be THE pure form of archetypal initiation. It exists as a shared concept and we interpret it according to our knowledge and experience of the world.
There are hundreds, if not thousands of recognized archetypes. Jung identified different types as well: archetypal events, archetypal figures, and archetypal motifs. The Hero’s Journey is a series of archetypal events that resonate with the truth of human life, employing archetypal motifs that provide context, and peopled with archetypal figures.
In The Writer’s Journey, Vogler focused on eight archetypes common to storytelling and most strongly associated with Campbell’s monomythic structure. Shawn refers to many of these archetypes in the Story Grid Podcast and in lectures for Story Grid’s Level Up Your Craft course. They’re not the only archetypes used by storytellers, but they are among the most recognizable and most commonly used.
This article focuses on those eight archetypes, and they are presented in an order that corresponds to the stages of the Hero’s Journey.
Eight Essential Character Archetypes
Often the easiest to identify, the Hero is usually (but not always) the protagonist of the story. The Hero at the beginning of the story is someone unaware of themselves and their place in the world, or simply someone who is satisfied with the status quo. Theirs is a journey of transformation. Once they embark upon adventure, the Hero faces challenges and learns lessons. They often struggle against personal flaws that hold them back from completing their quest.
Robert McKee claims that the one universal desire among all human beings is the need for meaning in our lives. That’s why the Chosen One, a version of the Hero, is a popular protagonist. We all want the certainty that that we exist for a reason, that we have been chosen to fulfil that purpose.
The Hero serves to give the reader a character through which they can experience the story themselves.
The Hero represents the part of us that bridges conscious and unconscious mind and is responsible for our sense of personal identity. The Hero’s Journey is about separating ourselves from the security of home and the expectations of family to establish an independent identity. This is why mothers are so rarely present in Disney movies, and why there are so many wicked stepmothers in fairy tales. The Hero cannot grow when they are protected and taken care of.
A Hero absorbs the life lessons taught to him or her by archetypal characters and situations they encounter along their journey. At the climax of the story, they will use what they have learned to show how they’ve grown and evolved.
The cat Fritti Tailchaser in Tad William’s Tailchaser’s Song is as much a Hero as Miles Morales in Spiderman: Into the Spider-verse.
The Shadow is a complex archetype and worthy of an entire post of its own. In Vogler’s taxonomy, the Shadow represents the forces that oppose the Hero and comprise a worthy opponent. That’s not incorrect, but it’s not entirely accurate either.
The Shadow is one half of a polarity, the opposing face of a positive archetype. A lover turning against their partner may become a jealous and vindictive person. A Mentor may become an antagonist if they feel threatened by their protégé.
The Shadow may be an external character, like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. Voldemort is a Shadow character, linked to Harry Potter in a very personal way.
A Shadow may also be a fatal flaw within the Hero that will bring them to their knees. As a personal demon, the Shadow arises from the place within where one’s unique gifts fail to be expressed. It’s what happens when you sell your soul for shallow gain or turn your back on your gifts. Tyler Durden in Fight Club, and Mr. Hyde in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are internal Shadows.
An internal Shadow may also be a talent or quality that remains unexpressed, the mother unable to love her remaining son, deeply wounded by the loss of another child, as in Ordinary People.
The Shadow is an archetypal aspect that prevents the protagonist from moving forward, not simply a villain or antagonist. It represents the things we don’t like about ourselves, and the things that hold us back from being our true selves.
In a complex Hero, as in each of us, there is an element of the Shadow we must face and transform.
The Call to Adventure is often issued by a character who has assumed the role of the Herald. The Herald also serves to signal challenges and changes that the Hero must face, to let them know that change is coming. The Herald represents the need for change. Star Wars’ R2D2 is an example of the Herald, as are the winged letters that Harry Potter receives inviting him to Hogwarts.
In life, it is said that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.
Mentors are guides, dispensers of wisdom, opportunity, and tools that will aid the Hero on their quest. They are often depicted as wise old men or women. They may have been Heroes themselves in the past, and are here to share what they’ve learned, to pass along the lessons of their own experiences to the next generation. John Keating, in The Dead Poets Society, plays an inspirational mentor to an entire class of students.
Not all Mentors are the avuncular sort. In the 2014 movie Whiplash, jazz conductor Terence Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons, is a violent and abusive Mentor, slapping and degrading his students in a warped desire to mold a musical genius.
The Threshold Guardian
This archetype serves to test the Hero, to make sure they are truly committed to the ordeals that lay before them. Although they may appear at first as opponents, blocking the way forward, once the Hero passes the test and proves their worth, the Threshold Guardian may sometimes end up as an Ally.
In Solo: A Star Wars Story, Woody Harrelson’s character, Tobias Beckett, initially plays the role of Threshold Guardian. At first rejecting Han’s desire to join his band of outlaws, he becomes a Mentor once Han proves his resourcefulness and tenacity. Later in the film, Beckett dons the mask of the Shapeshifter, leaving the audience to wonder where exactly his loyalties lie.
The Balrog in The Lord of the Rings is a Threshold Guardian, forcing the Fellowship to continue without their Mentor. Without Gandalf, they are on their own and must rise to the occasion or fail.
We all need help along the way.
Allies function as humanizers. They may bring out dormant aspects of the Hero, sometimes challenging, sometimes modeling changes to the Hero’s worldview. At times, the Ally can serve as the audience character when the writer must use the Hero to commit deeds that cannot be condoned. Animals and spirit guides may serve as allies as well. Sidekicks are classic Allies. Other Allies may serve only briefly as helpers, offering assistance and exiting the story. Jorah Mormont is one of Daenerys Targaryen’s steadfast allies in Game of Thrones. In True Grit, the Texas Ranger La Boeuf is a sometimes-confrontational ally to Mattie Ross, but an ally nonetheless.
Whereas the Herald announces the need for Change, the Shapeshifter embodies the urge to change, the psychological or physical process of personal transformation. The Shapeshifter archetype can also be found in characters whose loyalty is uncertain, or whose true nature is unclear.
Jung named two primal archetypes, the anima and the animus, to represent the unconscious feminine qualities of a man, and the unconscious masculine qualities of a female. As we have come to recognize that gender is best understood as a continuum, these archetypal qualities can be expressed by the writer in equally nuanced ways. The character of Robert Paulsen, played by Meat Loaf in the movie Fight Club, functions as a Shapeshifter and embodies physical and emotional qualities of the anima. His death spurs a pivotal change in the Narrator.
Tricksters function as catalysts for change, while often remaining unchanged themselves. They call attention to imbalance and injustice, prompting action or reaction from the Hero. They may serve to lighten a morally or heavily transformative story. In Norse myth, Loki is a classic Trickster, provoking the other gods and goddesses to become embroiled in often embarrassing misadventures. Doctor Who wears the mask of a Trickster. The Doctor remains unchanged – at least on the inside – while the lives of his (or her) travelling companions are utterly upended.
Grab a copy my Archetypes Cheat Sheet here.
Building Complex Characters
Character dimension is one of the most difficult aspects of character creation.
There are depths to characters skillfully written to embrace both sides of a dual nature, and this allows us as readers to recognize and accept our own higher and lower selves, to be both exalted by our divinity and humbled by our shadow.
Archetypes possess plurality which expresses itself in multiple ways, as a light and dark aspect, and as an inner and outer expression. Polarity is the the best way to understand the complexity of certain archetypes, such as the Shadow.
They’re dual in nature, and reflected in us (and in the characters we write) in that no one is wholly good or bad. The trope of an evil Dark Lord is a stereotype, a cliché that has been done to death in post-Tolkien fantasy. We recognize that the best villains are those that reflect both sides. One of the most popular villains in the Marvel Comics Universe is Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, played with such depth that he was brought back in movie after movie and arguably given one of the best character arcs in the franchise (the Winter Soldier is another). Neither of these villainous characters is purely evil. In each we see opposing sides of the coin – Shadow/Hero – the dual nature of archetype expressed by character.
The fluid nature of an adversary is common in Asian storytelling. Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece Spirited Away features a rampaging monster in the spirit world bathhouse, yet No Face is transformed into a sympathetic character, not really bad, just misunderstood. In Princess Mononoke the awe-inspiring Spirit of the Forest is both a destructive and a regenerative force.
Characters can express different archetypes at different times, changing roles as if changing masks. Archetypes are a function of character, not a character itself. It is the representational values of the archetype, not the form, that is most important. The symbols of those values vary for individuals, cultures, and time.
McKee advised the writer to build complex characters through the selection of consistent contradictory traits, a mother who can be both compassionate and cruel; a doctor who is both fearless and fearful, an actor who is confident yet insecure. In the movie Kingsman: The Secret Service, Samuel Jackson’s character Richmond Valentine is motivated by a desire to save the planet, a timely and noble goal, but to do so by using the most villainous means.
Archetypal roles can be combined. A Mentor may also be a Shadow or a Shapechanger at different points in the story, or even at the same time. The juxtaposition of opposing archetypal qualities can spark original ideas that lead to characters will resonate with their audience.
Understanding the functional images of archetypes also aids in the development of a supporting cast. Each character needs to enhance and define the Hero. Yoked to a complex protagonist, secondary characters play foil to the Hero, revealing depth and dimension by action rather than exposition. In this way, too, characters are imbued with a sense of psychological truth. Characters are art, not real life, yet they are born of self-knowledge.
Change it up. Let your creativity shine. Subvert the conventions of archetype to create the unexpected. Employ misdirection to play reader assumptions against them. Innovative interpretation of archetypes is a powerful skill for the writer’s toolkit.
Joy, Hope, and Change in Your Character Archetypes
Storytelling would be nothing without the shared symbolism of archetypes. Because it exists, we can experience, enjoy and learn from stories from around the world.
James Cameron attributes the smashing success of Titanic to the use of archetypes to “incorporate universals of human experience and emotion,” archetypes that “reflect our basic emotional fabric.”
The study of archetypes and act of writing are each a journey inward as well as outward. We draw upon our experiences, interests, observations and deepest emotions to create stories.
An understanding of archetypes, your own personal image system, and your willingness to embark upon a journey of discovery and change are key to developing your authentic writer’s voice.
McKee says “Write your truth.” Enriching our stories with archetypes is one of the ways we write our truth.
Tomorrow morning when you get up, say it like you mean it:
I write to bring joy, hope, and change to the world.
More on Character Archetypes:
Check out these episodes of the Story Grid Podcast that share more on character archetypes:
- Episode 152: Hero’s Journey Archetypes – Part 1
- Episode 153: Hero’s Journey Archetypes – Part 2
- Episode 154: Hero Archetypes and Grounding in Reality
If you read only one book on archetypes, let it be The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. Based on Joseph Campbell’s research of the Hero’s Journey, it covers eight fundamental archetypes that appear in most stories. It’s a quick read and well worth it. If you’d like to go down the rabbit’s hole of my personal research on archetypes, structuralism, fairy tales, and myth, drop me a line at my website for a working bibliography.
I’d like to thank Savannah Gilbo for her editorial help. Her comments provided clarity and order to this article.