How to Fix Your Story with Archetypes

Greek statues


In their book, Dramatica, Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley present a system for crafting stories, which, although somewhat counterintuitive, brims over with important advise. Here is a look at their archetypal characters, some of which vary in naming convention from those put forward by the likes of Joseph Campbell and Christian Vogler.

The Protagonist (hero) and Antagonist, whom we recognise from other writers on the subject, form the first pair. The function of the protagonist is to pursue his goal identified towards the end of the first act and, hence, drive the story forward. The function of the antagonist is to try and stop him at all costs.

The next pair is Reason and Emotion. Reason is calm and collected. His decisions and actions are based solely on logic. Star Trek’s Spock is a typical example of this archetype. Bones, the ship’s doctor, on the other hand, wears his heart on his sleeve. Although a medical man, his opinions and actions are deeply emotional. He presents the emotional dimension of the moral premise.

The Sidekick and Skeptic represent the conflict between confidence and doubt in the story. The sidekick is the faithful supporter of the protagonist, although he may attach himself to the antagonist since his function is to show faithful support of a leading character. The skeptic on the other hand is the disbelieving opposer, lacking the faith of the sidekick. His function in the story is to foreshadow the possibility of failure.

The Guardian and Contagonist form the last pair of archetypal characters. The job of the guardian is that of a teacher and protector. He represents conscience in the story. Gandalf is such a character in Lord of the Rings. He helps the protagonist stay on the path to achieve success. By contrast, the contagonist’s function is to hinder the protagonist and lure him away from success. He is not to be confused with the antagonist since his function is to deflect and not to kill or stop the opposing character. George Lucas’s (Star Wars) Jabba the Hut is such a character. As with the sidekick, the contagonist may attach himself to the protagonist.

As a group, the archetypal characters perform essential functions within a story. Because they can be grouped in different ways, versatility can be added to their relationships.

Their usefulness becomes apparent when editing your manuscript, especially such argument sagas as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.

Does your story ‘feel’ wrong?

Do your characters drift?

Identity your characters in terms of function to see if they belong to one or other archetype. Re-examine their function in your story. Are they doing their job as per their definition?

Of course, the task becomes more complex when the archetypes are mixed to create more complex and realistic characters, but even then, you may be able to pin-point their essential combinations and, therefore, work to improve their shared functions—but that, perhaps, is the subject of another article.


Understanding archetypes and their function in your story will assist you in troubleshooting loose and imprecise aspects of your tale.


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Image: Jason Vance

2 thoughts on “How to Fix Your Story with Archetypes

  1. Wilene van Driel

    A really great post! An archetype I tend to forget about is the Contagonist. From my tutor at university I remember what you call the Guardian as the Elexir in the story. He is the guide, the one who keeps the protagonist focused on the goal. It sounds like the same thing to me.

    The novel I’m writing now is for pure exhilaration and exploration, and one thing that I’ve been playing with a lot is challenging these common archetypes. I’ve found that sometimes when you break the “common rule” regarding a specific archetype that it just doesn’t work. It looks stupid no matter how you look at it. But then I’ve had cases where challenging the norm, regarding a specific archetype, has wielded some fascinating results. The characters almost “explode” with sensuality and uniqueness.

    Another thing I’ve been challenging is the “ratio” of archetypes in a story. Do you need only one Contagonist? What happens when you create a second one? Can you add a third? Is it possible to leave one of the “group” out and add a duplicate of another one?

    I’m a great fan of the quote: “Learn the rules like a pro, so that you can break them like an artist,” by Pablo Picasso, and although I’m not very experienced I find great delight in challenging these “rules”. I think that when it comes to archetypes you definitely need to understand the norm regarding that archetype, before you can start to mix it for more complex and realistic characters as you mentioned Stavros.

    So I have a question for you: Do you think it is possible to generate a great story without a “full” set of archetypes as described above?

    1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

      Thanks for the question Wilene. The eight archetypes are part of what Dramatica calls the grand argument story. The archetypes explore the argument of the tale from eight different perspectives. That is their function. Is to possible to tell a good story without representing all perspectives? I think so, especially if you combine aspects of different archetype together. How about a guardian who is sometimes overly skeptical or a person who starts out as a guardian then becomes a skeptic? It gets complicated, I know, but that example does present two perspectives of the argument, does it not?


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