Understanding Archetypes III

This is the third installment in our exploration of Christian Vogler’s archetypes. In previous posts we have looked at the Hero, Mentor, Threshold Guardian, and Herald archetypes. In this penultimate post on the subject, we examine two more archetypes: Shapeshifter and Shadow.




Shapeshifters are difficult to grasp because their very nature is to change and mutate. Shapeshifters take many forms, the most common being the Hero’s love interest, often a fickle woman who toys with his goals and emotions. In Fatal Attraction, for example, the shape-shifting woman changes from lover to an unstable and murderous foe within a short space of time. In traditional fairy tales, Shapeshifters manifest as wizards, ogres, and witches.

Psychologically, the archetype expresses the energy of the anima and animus, as explained in the writings of Carl Jung. The animus is the male element in the female unconscious and the anima the female element in the male unconscious. In theory, both elements are needed for survival and to maintain a healthy internal balance. Suppressing one of them in the opposite sex, as society would often have us do, can lead to instability and breakdown. Often, repression of the anima or animus finds release in dreams and fantasies as opposite-sex gods, monsters, even family members and colleagues. The theory may also explain why we often project our ideal form of lover onto another person — as our desire to map the anima or animus within ourselves onto another. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, for example, James Stewart’s character forces Kim Novak to change her clothing and hair to match those of Carlota, a figment of Stewart’s imagination.

Dramatically, the Shapeshifter brings suspense and doubt into the story. Shapeshifters raise questions of faithfulness, love, and betrayal in the life of the Hero. Film noir and thrillers, in particular, abound with this archetype — the femme fatale as the female temptresses and destroyer, echoing the biblical characters of Eve, Delilah, and Jezebel. In the film Basic Instinct Sharon Stone’s character is perhaps one of the most famous femme fatales based on the Shapeshifter archetype. Not all Shapeshifters take the form of the femme fatale, however. In Greek mythology Zeus, a prototypical Shapeshifter, and ruler of the gods of Olympus, is a male. At a more innocent level, shapeshifting forms part of the normal game of love, in which lovers display, exaggerate, or hide aspects of themselves from each other, often dressing up for the role.




The Shadow represents the energy of the dark side -– a character’s rejected, repressed, or unexpressed thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. Psychologically, the Shadow feeds on trauma or guilt that has been suppressed and driven deep into the unconscious. From there, emotions may grow into something monstrous and destructive. Just as the Threshold Guardian represents neurosis, so the Shadow represents the psychosis that hamper and harm us.

At the dramatic level, the function of the Shadow is to oppose the Hero and provide her with a worthy adversary in her fight to reach her goal. In fact, the Shadow is none other than the antagonist who engages the Hero in the life-threatening conflict that drives the story forward.

I mention, as an aside, that each of the eight separate archetypes may find combined expression within a single character — as aspects of that character. This means that the Shadow can manifest in the Hero, and vice versa: a Hero can have dark moments, and the antagonist can, on occasion, act heroically. In the film, The Terminator, for example, the Schwarzenegger character grows from Shadow to Hero within the course of the story and ultimately saves the day. It is this mixing and blending of archetypes that ultimately results in rich and complex characters who endure. That, however, is a separate subject to be dealt with in a future post.


The Shapeshifter is the most malleable archetype in a story. It is typically found in male/female relationships, but it is also useful in portraying characters whose behaviour and appearance changes to serve the needs of the story. The Shadow, on the other hand, represents the obstacles the Hero faces in reaching the goal, but it can also represent the Hero’s hidden and repressed feelings, thoughts, and beliefs.


If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.

6 thoughts on “Understanding Archetypes III

  1. Russ Welsh

    Hey Stavros,

    When you are all finished and happy with having dealt with character archetypes, could you please post something about how to use narration. I know some lecturers frown on the use of it. But it can be quite powerful when done correctly.

    Endless thanks,

  2. Shea Moir

    This is all very helpful.
    I have greatly enjoyed this series of Blogs on Archetypes.
    I will keep those in mind when I begin my new screenplay which
    will of course circle largely around relationships. I started using tree’s to create character relationships and I must say, it’s quite helpful. Makes sorting characters out, quite a fun activity rather than one I previously would dread. All these blogs you give us are little helpful tools and I really hope they keep coming 🙂 Its becoming quite a workshop. “Please sir, I want some more.”
    Ta ta-
    Shea N Moir.


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