So, archetypal characters are types of characters who reoccur in fiction but does this help us with our writing? This largely depends on the type of writer you are. Writing extends from writers who like to plan everything before they write all the way to writers who don’t plan anything before they write. It’s not as simple as planning or not planning because some people make vague plans, some people use prompts, and others note down ideas as they come to them. Depending on how you like to write the structure of archetypes can either be very helpful or too restrictive.
Archetypes suggest a path for our protagonist to follow or a role for our characters to play whether it’s a hero who must save the world or the wise teacher who helps them do it (Frodo and Gandalf in Lord of The Rings). The primary problem with these archetypal roles is that stories are usually complex with main plots and subplots which can cause archetypes to intersect because a character can be multiple things at once. They can be hero, teacher, lover, a few or all of them. The question then is do we consider the arcs of all the characters for one character? Do we pick and choose? Do we focus on their primary ‘role’ such as ‘hero’? This depends on what works best for our writing style and it’s best to experiment with different ways to find it.
If we’re considering archetypal characters can we apply the archetypes to any story? Simply put, yes. When we read books such as The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell or The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler archetypes are framed through myths which can make them seem grandiose and detached from every day stories like an office romance. Archetypes tend to be discussed through these stories because they’re well known, even if people don’t know the stories exactly they often have a vague notion filtered through popular culture and other sources, they’re also available from numerous places, including free on the internet, so people can easily acquaint themselves with the stories. Basically it’s the same principle as me using pop culture references while sounding a bit fancier.
If we’re going to use archetypal characters do we have to use their archetypal paths? As with any archetype we can pick and choose elements. Archetypes are a foundation on which to build rather than a strict guide to follow. For instance, there’s the classic moment where the hero resists the call to action (see past articles on plot). Except, while this is heavily associated with hero quests not all heroes would resist, some heroes would jump at the chance. They don’t have to jump at the chance because they’re heroic it can be as simple and wanting to escape the circumstances they’re in or being the type of person who acts when called upon. This goes back to the idea that archetypes can have crossovers and it isn’t as simple as having one fixed way.
It’s important to remember that archetypes are an average. They’re made up of commonly appearing elements in stories so we can use them, swap them round, or cut them out. Archetypes give us possible paths, not definitive ones so we can build our story round them.
- Campbell, Joseph, The Hero With A Thousand Faces: Third Edition, (Novato: New World Library, 1949, rpt 2005)
- Vogler, Christopher, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers (Studio City: Michael Wise Productions, 1998 rpt 2007)