To write a good story we don’t need an intimate understanding, or even a vague understanding, of archetypes. In fact, when it comes to archetypes writers probably known a lot about them although they don’t necessarily have the academic language often used to describe them. People who write about archetypes don’t have a singular language to describe them so the names we give them aren’t the important part. Writers are usually readers first and readers recognise the patterns in fiction, everyone has had a moment where they’ve figured out what’s going to happen on the basis of probability. There are even entire genres based on knowing the end and the interesting part of the story is how the characters get there. In good versus evil stories we know evil will be vanquished but how will good triumph? In romance stories we know characters will get together but what will they overcome to get there? In a crime story nine times out of ten the detective catches the villain, if not will they catch them later in the series?
Being aware of these structures can help us develop our story either by using elements of the archetypes, using them as inspiration, or blending them together. We can also use this awareness to subvert expectations, heroes don’t need lovers or teachers, or they can have elements of both of these. We can have different types of hero, or one hero who crosses multiple archetypes, or a hero who fits one archetype and then defies it. In some ways this may be easier if we don’t know the exact details of archetypes because we might be less inclined to follow and lean more towards picking and choosing elements. We could argue that knowing the way archetypes are laid on in books on them it’s easier to pick and choose elements but when we’re choosing from impressions we might be more likely to pick elements that appeal to us most on a personal level rather than assemble pieces like a jigsaw, although both ways are valid.
There’s also an argument that knowing too much about archetypes can affect our writing either because we try too hard to conform or we try too hard not to and tie ourselves in knots. This isn’t inevitable, it depends largely on our style of writing. But there has been a lot written about archetypes so although they begin as averages they can begin to appear like inescapable and rigid guidelines.
There is no easy answer when it comes to learning about and applying archetypes. It always depends on how we as writers prefer to write. If you find the concept of archetypes too restrictive go with your gut. Don’t confuse technical knowledge with technical skill, knowing more about ways of writing can make us better writers but it doesn’t automatically make one writer better than another.
- 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)