Tag Archives: Archetypes

Archetypes and Characters in Stories

Archetypes - Gandalf in Lord of the Rings

Gandalf as one of the Mentor Archetypes in Lord of the Rings

In his book, The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler, a veteran story consultant for major Hollywood studios, offers us eight character archetypes found, in one or other combination, in many successful stories.

They are the Hero, Mentor, Threshold Guardian, Herald, Shapeshifter, Shadow, Ally, and Trickster.

Most writers are familiar with some of these archetypes, albeit by different names, such as the Protagonist (Hero), Antagonist (Shadow), and Sidekick (Ally). Others, such as the Shapeshifter and Trickster, however, are less obvious.

The Trickster and Shapeshifter Archetypes

The Trickster represents mischief and the desire for change in the story. Clowns and comical sidekicks are examples of this sort of character. A chief psychological function of the Trickster is to cut the Hero’s ego down to size, typically through humour, in order to spotlight some absurdity in his thoughts and actions.

The Trickster’s dramatic function, as distinct from his psychological one, is to add comic relief to the tale. Some Tricksters may even rise to the level of a Trickster Hero, such as Bug’s Bunny or Duffy Duck. Eddie Murphy’s character in Beverly Hills Cop, captures many of the energies of this archetype, disrupting the Californian police system, while remaining unchanged himself.

The Shapeshifter expresses the energy of the animus and anima, which, in Jung’s psychology, characterises the male and female elements in our unconscious mind. We all embody aspects of the opposite sex within us, traits which are often repressed by society. We are told that girls play with dolls and teddies, and boys with cars and guns. When they cross over, it creates conflict in the characters, which, in story terms, enriches the plot.

The Shapeshifter’s dramatic function is to bring uncertainty and suspense to the tale. When the Hero keeps enquiring, “Is he friend or foe? Does she love me? Will she betray me?” a Trickster is generally present. A famous Trickster, who also embodies the attributes of the Shadow (Antagonist), is Iago who helps push Othello to murder and despair.

Women, portrayed through sudden changes in mood and appearance, typically make great Shapeshifters. In Fatal Attraction, for example, the woman quickly shifts from passionate lover to murderous harpy when the man with whom she is having an affair tries to end it.

Wizards, witches, and ogres are typical of this archetype in fairytales. The femme fatale, found in the noir films of the forties and fifties, finds deadly expression in cop and detective stories – Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, or Kathleen Turner in Body Heat.

Archetypes, then, allow us to create more complex characters by mixing them together to create more unique characters. At the same time, they allow us to map and track the psychological and dramatic requirements of a story – a boon to any writer’s toolkit.

Summary

Understanding the psychological and dramatic function of archetypes allows us to mix specific elements from each. The result is new, exciting, and viable characters for our stories.

Understanding Archetypes II

In the previous post I began exploring Christian Vogler’s use of eight Archetypes extracted from his study of myths — specifically the archetypes of Hero and Mentor. In this post I look at two more — Threshold Guardian and Herald.

Threshold Guardian

Threshold Guardian

Threshold Guardian

Vogler sees stories as journeys to reach an important goal through obstacle-strewn terrain. Each obstacle is typically patrolled by powerful guardians. Threshold Guardians are the antagonist’s henchmen, or lesser villains, but they may also be morally neutral figures, objects, or elemental forces that are simply in the way.

Psychologically, the guardians represent the obstacles we encounter in daily life — bad luck, bad weather, hostility, repression, prejudice and the like. At a deeper level, they represent our inner demons — emotional scars, vices, and neurosis that manifest themselves more strongly at the threshold of obstacles.

At a dramatic level, the Threshold Guardians’ main function is to test the Hero — they are not necessarily evil in themselves. Indeed, they often help the Hero articulate and cross thresholds of resistance. Typically, the Hero must solve a puzzle as in the example of the Sphinx who presents Oedipus with a riddle before allowing him to continue his journey. A Hero may challenge the guardian, offer to bribe him, sidestep him, or literally get under his skin: In The Wizard of Oz, the Tin Woodsman, Cowardly Lion, and Scarecrow manage to enter the heavily guarded castle by overcoming then disguising themselves as three sentries — by donning the (outer) skin of the Threshold Guardians. As Hero’s evolve, however, they learn to recognize Threshold Guardians are not necessarily enemies but opportunities to grow and acquire new power.

Herald

Herald

Herald

Heralds typically appear near the beginning of a story to issue a challenge to the Hero in the form of a call to adventure. The Hero, who has previously lived an ordinary life, is now asked to help prevent some impending catastrophe to himself, his family, or society at large because of a new threat. Occasionally, the threat is disguised as a new opportunity, which, when pursued, turns out to be fraught with dangers. In terms of structure, the Herald functions as the Inciting Incident, kicking-starting the story at the earliest opportunity.

Psychologically, the Herald represents our unconscious need for change — the need to restore internal and external balance. It may come as a dream, a new idea, a person, or as the mysterious voice in The Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.”

At the dramatic level, the Herald provides the Hero with a new practical challenge — the motivation to commence the journey. Again, the Herald may appear as a person, or an event such as a hurricane, even as mail. In Romancing the Stone, the Herald takes the form of a treasure map that arrives through the post and a phone call from Joan Wilder’s sister, informing her she is being held hostage in Colombia.

In Summary

Threshold Guardians take the form of characters or forces that cause the Hero to confront and overcome internal and external obstacles during his journey to the goal. A Herald may appear as an event or character that imparts new information that helps to initiate that journey.

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