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Writing and the Archetypes: Are They the Best for Developing Characters? — Part 1

A friend recently asked me to refer her to a “good” book on how to use the archetypes to write stories. I referred her to the book that has cornered the market on this area of writing: Christopher Vogler’s The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. Chris’s book is great, and it presents a seamless examination of how some archetypes work with the classical myth structure, specifically the hero’s journey. Based on the seminal work by mythologist and teacher Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Vogler’s book has been a staple around Hollywood for years (in fact, that’s where it was born—long story).

I’m not trying to give a sales pitch for The Writer’s Journey, though you should buy it—it’s wonderful stuff. No, my point is to explore a broader issue, an issue raised by my friend’s innocent request. The issue is: are the archetypes really the best source for developing characters and developing stories? My response to this question is a resounding, no.

But first, a digression: what the heck are the archetypes and what the blazes do they have to do with writing?

What is an archetype?

The word can be broken down into two parts: arche and type (tupos). Arche, from the Greek means origin, beginning, primal, and tupos means pattern, stamp, or model. So, an archetype is a primal stamp, the first or original pattern of “something,” usually describing a human behavior or characteristic (i.e., trickster, magician, villain, etc.).

The great psychologist Carl Jung made the term famous. Jung’s Analytic Psychology broke away from the rigorous mechanics of Freud’s Psychoanalytic approach around 1912; indeed, Freud was Jung’s mentor for many years, before the two had an intellectual falling out. Nonetheless, Jung went on to found his own “school” and is responsible more than any other person for popularizing the idea of the archetypes in everyday life (i.e., father complex, anima-animus, etc.) His version of the archetypes is the basis of the popular, and often used by writers, personality typing system call the Meyers-Briggs Typing Inventory (MBTI).

What do the archetypes have to do with writing?

A lot. There are many fine books written about the archetypes and their relationship to writing, especially in developing characters. The archetypes represent the essential patterns of human behavior and personality (according to many). The archetypes are a part of every human being, and we find them in every culture in every human anywhere on the planet. They represent part of the “monomyth,” i.e., the common myth-story that can be found weaving its way through every human culture throughout time. For Joseph Campbell (and by osmosis Chris Vogler), that monomyth is the hero’s journey. What better tool to use to create characters, right (wrong)?

For example, according to many story gurus who advocate using archetypes as foundations for character development, every story is populated by archetypes. They are the recurring patterns of human behavior symbolized by standard types of characters in any story (Source: Wikipedia):

1. Heroes: Central figures in stories. Everyone is the hero of his or her own myth.

2. Shadows: Villains, antagonists, or enemies, perhaps the enemy within. The dark side of the Force, the repressed possibilities of the hero, his or her potential for evil. Can be other kinds of repression, such as repressed grief, anger, frustration, or creativity that is dangerous if it doesn’t have an outlet.

3. Mentors: The hero’s guide or guiding principles, for example Yoda, Merlin, Gandalf, a great coach, or teacher.

4. Heralds: The ones who bring the Call to Adventure. Could be a person or an event.

5. Threshold Guardians: The forces that stand in the way at important turning points, including jealous enemies, professional gatekeepers, or your own fears and doubts.

6. Shapeshifters: In stories, creatures like vampires or werewolves who change shape. In life, the shapeshifter represents change or ambiguity. The way other people (or our perceptions of them) keep changing. The opposite sex, the way people can be two-faced.

7. Tricksters: Clowns and mischief-makers, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy. Our own mischievous subconscious, urging us to change.

8. Allies: Characters who help the hero through the change. Sidekicks, buddies, girlfriends who advise the hero through the transitions of life.

There are actually many more archetypes than eight, but even if we keep it to eight, it does not take a rocket scientist to see the potential benefits from using these “primal patterns” to shape and build fictional characters. Indeed, for many the archetypes help shape the very structure of a story itself, as in this case with Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey.

But the bolded-italicized text above (“recurring patterns of human behavior symbolized by standard types of characters”) flags the central flaw in this approach.

Any approach relying on archetypes must be reductionist, not additive. Characters are based not on human complexity, but rather on "standard types" and "recurring patterns of characteristics." This is a house of narrative cards waiting to fall, in my opinion. Where is desire? Where is motivation? Where is choice? Where is the complexity of a human personality fully formed and neurotic as all get-out? Nowhere, is where. There's nothing wrong with using patterns and recurring characteristics, but they cannot and should not be the starting point for real characters, let alone structuring a story.

The objection to my objection is obvious, “Well, Mr. Know-It-All, no one is saying don’t create complexity. No one is saying to keep characters thin and one dimensional. You add in the complexity later. You have to start somewhere.” And this is a very reasonable counter. Any reasonable person would have to agree with this. Alas, the only part I think has any real validity here is the part that says, “You have to start somewhere.” The question, however, is where?

As we shall see in Part 2 of this 3-part series, while there are some benefits from using the archetypes in creative writing, but there are also huge dangers that can derail your story and cripple your characters before they even get on the page. In Part 2 we will learn why the archetypes should not be a writer’s first, go-to resource for story or character development and why that all-important starting point should instead be reserved for something called the Enneagram-Story (yes, we are introducing the Enneagram System for writers).

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