Archetypes in Fiction and the Hero’s Journey

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My last post, ‘The Power of Storytelling and Mythology’, explored the work of comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell. Campbell identified a distinct and cohesive pattern running through countless myths, legends and stories throughout time. He called this the hero’s journey–the “song of the universe” being sung by a thousand different peoples and cultures.

In addition to exploring the different stages of the hero’s journey, which is a metaphor for the human journey through life, Campbell, who was heavily influenced by the work of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, also identified several character archetypes that feature in these myths and stories.

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Archetypes are recurring human patterns or personality types that reside in what Jung called the collective unconscious. As universally occurring character traits, there are certain archetypes found in myth and all kinds of stories throughout time. Archetypes should be seen as flexible character functions rather than rigid character types. Characters might actually switch between archetypes as the story progresses.

Here are some of the main archetypes prevalent in storytelling throughout the ages.

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The hero

The hero is usually the central figure in stories. This archetype represents the human search for identity and wholeness. The hero is the audience’s window into the story; the person the reader or viewer wants to identify with, to share their adventure and experience their highs and lows. The hero typically starts off in a state of lack and incompleteness and as the story unfolds, ends up in a state of wholeness and completeness. All good stories are essentially about a journey of transformation.

The role of the hero can vary wildly. They can be almost anyone from any walk of life. They might be a willing or an unwilling hero, they might be a group-oriented hero or more of a loner. Sometimes the protagonist is a tragic hero or an anti-hero–perhaps an outlaw or villain of some kind, but with whom the audience develops sympathy.

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The shadow

The shadow is represented by the villains and antagonists, or perhaps an internal enemy such as the hero’s inner demons–the darker aspects of their psyche–qualities they’ve perhaps tried to repress or renounce, but which still lurk within; such as anger, hatred or violence. The function of the shadow in drama is to challenge, threaten and oppose the hero; to create conflict and force the hero to find and bring out the best in him or herself and to become all they are capable of being.

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Mentor

The archetype of the mentor is found in many myths and stories. The mentor is usually a guide to the hero; someone who aids or even trains the hero. The mentor is related to the image of a parent. Often heroes seek out a mentor because their own parents are inadequate role models.

The mentor helps train the hero for the adventure/ordeal ahead of them. They might provide the voice of the hero’s conscience, offer motivation or share important information. The mentor might be a ghostly figure, or may be someone with a dark secret or nefarious past–a fallen mentor, someone who’s been broken in some way but who still has wisdom they can impart to the hero.

The Herald

The herald is the character or event that initiates the call to adventure. They issue a challenge or announce the coming of significant change. The herald is usually the element that gets the story rolling. It might be a new character, a change of circumstances, or a piece of crucial information that changes the hero’s life, forcing them to embrace the adventure that lies before them. Any character can adopt the herald archetype at any time. The herald might be a positive, negative or neutral character. It might simply be someone with vital news or information, or someone who challenges the hero in some way, forcing them to get involved in a situation.

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Threshold Guardian

Threshold guardians are the forces that stand in the way at important turning points, opposing the hero and trying to prevent him or her from moving forward. They’re usually not the main villain but might be the villain’s henchmen, guards, gatekeepers or mercenaries. They might even be creatures of some kind–wild animals, monsters or even a force of nature that has to be overcome. They might even take the form of the hero’s internal demons: their fears, doubts, emotional scars or self-limiting beliefs. Any time the hero encounters a threshold guardian, they face a puzzle, test or obstacle that must be overcome in order to move forward. Their function is to temporarily block the hero’s way and force them to test their powers.

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Trickster

The trickster is a clown and mischief-maker…perhaps a comic relief sidekick. They inject an element of unpredictability into the story, cutting egos down to size, and bringing the hero and audiences back down to earth. The trickster might be a loveable rogue, or someone whose motives and allegiances are unclear. The trickster might be allies of the hero, or perhaps servants of the villain. As with the other archetypes, any character can embody the role of trickster–including the hero and villain. “Spreading strife is my greatest joy” said one trickster god in an old Nigerian story.

There are many more archetypes that can be found in stories and myths. Understanding the use and application of archetypes in storytelling can be very helpful. Archetypes reflect core human personality types and social roles and can help us understand how character dynamics drive the plot forward.

They are not rigid and set in stone, for at any point in the story a character might embody the archetype of trickster, herald or threshold guardian, or perhaps even mentor or shadow.  In my new novel, The Key of Alanar, my protagonist, David, actually moves between hero and shadow archetype! It can be fun to push the boundaries of storytelling and mix things up. If nothing else it keeps life interesting.

For more information on archetypes and storytelling, I highly recommend investigating the work of Joseph Campbell, Christopher Vogler and Carl Jung.

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