Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Hero's Journey--Part 2: Archetypes

The world of fairy tales and myth is peopled with recurring character types and relationships. Heroes on a quest, heralds and wise old men or women who provide them with “gifts”, shady fellow-travelers—threshold guardians—who may “block” the path, tricksters who confuse and complicate things and evil villains who simply want to destroy our hero. Jung adopted the term archetypes, which means ancient patterns of personality shared by humanity, to describe these as a collective unconscious. This is what makes these archetypes, or symbols, so important to the storyteller.

In psychology, an archetype is a model of a person, personality or behavior. For instance, a mother-figure is an archetype. Archetypes are found in nearly all forms of literature, with their motifs being predominantly rooted in folklore.

Assigning an archetype to a character allows the writer to clarify that character’s role in the story as well as determining the overall theme of the story itself. Archetypes are therefore an important tool in the universal language of storytelling, just as myth serves the overall purpose of supplying “the symbols that carry the human spirit forward.” (Joseph Campbell).

Joseph Campbell went so far as to describe the archetype as something that is expressed biologically and is wired into every human being. Before I introduce you to the principle archetypes as described by Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler, it is important for you to understand that an archetype need not be fixed; that is, a particular character may evolve and function through several archetypes. This makes characters more real, interesting and less allegorical.

Vogler lists the seven most useful archetypes for the writer, which include:

· Hero
· Mentor
· Herald
· Threshold guardian
· Shapeshifter
· Shadow
· Trickster

The Hero

Taken from the Greek root that means “to protect and to serve”, a hero is someone willing to sacrifice his own needs on behalf of others. Vogler says that the hero archetype “represents the ego’s search for identity and wholeness.” The hero provides a character for us to identify with. She is usually the principal POV character in a story and has qualities most readers can (or want to) identify with. This means someone with flaws (not a cardboard cutout of infinite virtue) like you and I. The function of the hero is to grow and change through her journey as she encounters other archetypes. Every hero is on a quest, a mission, or a journey, whether it is an actual physical journey or (and usually combined with) a psychological journey toward “home” (salvation or redemption) through sacrifice. “The true mark of the hero, says Vogler, is in the act of sacrifice, “the hero’s willingness to give up something of value, perhaps even her own life, on behalf of an ideal or a group,” and ultimately for the greater good.

Heroes may be willing or unwilling. Some can be described as anti-heroes, who are usually notably flawed characters that must grow significantly to achieve the status of true hero. Often the anti-hero starts off behaving more like a villain, like the character Crais in Farscape or Tom Cruise’s character in Rainman. The wounded anti-hero may be a “heroic knight in tarnished armour, a loner who has rejected society or been rejected by it,” according to Vogler. Examples include Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause, Robin Hood, Aragorn in Lord of the Rings. The catalyst hero provides an exception to the rule of hero undergoing the most change. This type of hero shows less of a character arc (changing very little) but precipitates significant change or transformation in other protagonists. A good example is the character, David Adams, in Ben Bova’s Colony.

In Awakening the Heroes Within, Carol S. Pearson provides further categories for hero-archetypes, including: innocent, orphan, martyr, wanderer, warrior, caregiver, seeker, lover, destroyer, creator, ruler, magician, sage, and fool. As with Vogler’s archetypes, these aren’t necessarily fixed for an individual hero, who may embrace several of these archetypes during his transformation in response to events and ordeals set before him.

Pearson grouped these hero-archetypes according to stages of a hero’s journey and elements of his responding psyche. For instance the Ego relates to the preparation for the journey and includes: Innocent; Orphan; Warrior; and Caregiver. The Soul (the unconsciousness) relates to the journey itself and includes: Seeker; Lover; Destroyer; and Lover. The Self (individuation) relates to the return from the journey and includes: Ruler; Magician; Sage; and Fool. A hero may use the various archetypes at various times in her life, but she can also use all of them within a day or an hour.

Pearson breaks these down into six main archetypes with associated task, plot structure and “gift” for our hero:

Orphan's task is to Survive difficulty; Plot structure is How she suffered/How she survived; her gift is Resilience.

Wanderer's task is to Find herself; Plot structure is How she escaped or found her way; her gift is Independence.

Warrior's task is to Prove her worth; Plot structure is How she achieved her goals/defeated her enemies; her gift is Courage.

Altruist's task is to Show generosity; Plot structure is How she gave to others or sacrificed; her gift is Compassion.

Innocent's task is to Achieve happiness; Plot structure is How she found the promised land; her gift is Faith.

Magician's task is to Transform her life; Plot structure is How she changed the world; her gift is Power.

The Mentor
The word mentor comes to us from Homer’s The Odyssey, after a character who guides Telemachus on his hero’s journey. The mentor is usually a positive figure who aids or trains the hero. The mentor often possesses divine wisdom and has faith in the hero and shows great enthusiasm, as a result. The word “enthusiasm” itself means god-inspired or having a god in you. The mentor represents the “Self”, the god within us, says Vogler; a higher Self that is wiser, nobler and more godlike.

The mentor often gives the hero a “gift”—once the hero has earned it, that is. The gift is usually something important for the hero’s use on his journey; either a weapon to destroy a “monster” or a “talisman” to enlighten the hero in deciding the path of her journey. A good example of this is in Star Wars, when Luke’s mentor, Obi Wan, provides him with his father’s lightsaber (Luke’s magic talisman).

The mentor also serves as inventor, the hero’s conscience, as motivator, or information-provider. In love stories the mentor may function in the role of initiation. Vogler describes many types of mentor from fallen mentors to dark mentors, shamans, and comics.

The Herald

The herald brings in a new force, usually in Act One of the story. This force is usually a challenge for change. Heralds announce the coming of significant change, whether the hero likes it or not (and usually they don’t).

In Act One, we usually find the hero struggling, getting by in her Ordinary World; yearning, like Luke Skywalker on Tatooine, for “more”. Often not even realizing it. The herald is a new energy, a catalyst, that enters the story and makes it impossible for the hero to remain in status quo. The herald tips the scales, so to speak. This could be in the form of a person, an event, a condition or just information that shifts the hero’s balance and changes her world, as a result. Nothing will ever be the same.

The herald delivers the call to adventure. In Star Wars, Ben Kenobi, who also serves as Luke Skywalker’s mentor, issues the call when he invites Luke to join him on his mission to Alderaan. The herald also provides the hero with motivation. In Romancing the Stone, the herald for Joan Wilder comes in the form of a treasure map in the mail, and a distressed phone call from her sister.

The Threshold Guardian
As his title aptly describes, this archetype guards the threshold of “Separation from the Ordinary World” on the hero’s journey to attain his “prize” and achieve his destiny. Threshold guardians are usually not the main antagonist. In the Harry Potter series, this role may be fulfilled by Malfoy, Snape or Filch, even; while the main antagonist is provided, of course, by the character of Voldemort.

Threshold guardians spice up the story by providing obstacles the hero must overcome. They help to round-out the hero’s journey and develop his character arc. In many cases, they may even be more interesting than the main villain. In rare cases, the threshold guardian may, in fact, be a secret helper, placed in the hero’s path to test his ability and commitment to his journey. Ultimately, this is the role of the threshold guardian: to test the hero on her path.

A hero succeeds when she recognizes a threshold guardian as providing an opportunity to strengthen her powers, or resolve her will. Threshold guardians aren’t defeated so much as incorporated by the hero, as she learns their tricks, absorbs them and goes on. “Ultimately”, says Vogler, “fully evolved heroes feel compassion for their apparent enemies and transcend rather than destroy them.”

The Shapeshifter
The shapeshifter archetype, by its very shifting nature, adds dramatic tension to the story and provides the hero with a puzzle to solve. This archetype serves as “a catalyst for change and a symbol of the psychological urge to transform”, according to Vogler. The shapeshifter ca seem one thing and in fact be another. They are often mendacious and crafty.

The shapeshifter brings doubt and suspense to the story and tests the hero’s abilities to discern her path. In many cases the hero must evolve from a naivety through her interactions with this slippery character. The character of the Palpatine in Star Wars appears good and is really evil. Even the character Yoda in Star Wars, is a bit of a shapeshifter, initially masking his ancient wisdom with a foolish childlike appearance when Luke first encounters him. The character that Mike Douglas plays in Romancing the Stone appears as a shapeshifter to Joan Wilder until the very end of the story.

Till the very end she was asking herself: Is he my ally or my enemy? Is he going to betray me? Does he truly love me?

The Shadow

The monster under the bed, repressed feelings, deep trauma, a festering guilt; these all possess the dark energy of the shadow. This is the dark force of the unexpressed, unrealized, rejected, feared aspects of the hero and represented by the main antagonist or villain.

The shadow challenges the hero in ways far more powerful than the threshold guardian. Voldermort in the Harry Potter series; Darth Vader in Star Wars; the aliens in War of the Worlds. These are all shadows and worthy opponents for the hero, bringing out the best in her and usually demanding the ultimate in self-sacrifice (the hero’s destiny).

The shadow is a mask worn by any number of archetype characters. Vogler gives the example of the drill sergeant played by Louis Gossett, Jr., in An Officer and a Gentleman; who wore the masks of both Mentor and Shadow.

The shadow force, if internalized by the hero, may serve as a threshold guardian, to overcome; ultimately challenging the hero to overcome her greatest weakness and prevail.

The Trickster

Practically every Shakespearian play contains a jester or fool, who not only serves as comic relief but as commentator. This is because tricksters are usually witty and clever, even when ridiculous. The comedy of most successful comedians touches upon the pulse of a culture by offering commentary that is truism (often in the form of entertaining sarcasm).

See my previous post on the Hero's Journey. In my next post, I'll discuss one or two examples of the Hero's Journey Map in a book, movie and/or TV show.

This article is an excerpt from The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! (Starfire World Syndicate, 2009) (Part One of the Alien Guidebook Series).  A DVD set of this lecture series will be available for purchase in summer of 2010 on Amazon. 

Recommended Reading:

Cameron, Julia. 1992. The Artist’s Way: a Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. Penguin Putnam. 222pp.
Campbell, Joseph. 1970. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. World Publishing Co. New York.
Dillard, Annie. 1975. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Bantam Books. New York. 290pp.
Eisler, Riane. 1987. The Chalice & the Blade. Harper & Row. New York. 261pp.
Estes, Clarissa Pinkola. 1995. Women Who Run with the Wolves. Ballantine Books. New York. 537pp.
Henderson, Mary. 1997. Star Wars: The Magic of Myth. Bantam Spectra. New York. 214pp.
Murdock, Maureen. 1988. The Woman’s Dictionary of Myth and Symbols. Harper and Row. San Francisco.
Murdock, Maureen. 1990. The Heroine’s Journey: Woman’s Quest for Wholeness. Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston.
Pearson, Carol S. 1991. Awakening the Heroes Within. Harper. San Francisco.
Pearson, Carol S. 1998. The Hero Within: Six Archetypes We Live By. Harper. San Francisco. 3rd Edition.
Stone, Merlin. 1978. When God Was a Woman. Harvest Books. 320pp.
Vogler, Christopher. 1998. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. 2nd Edition. Michael Wiese Productions, Studio City, California. 326pp.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Jean-Luc Picard said...

Another classic post here that was a fine read. A Quality Post, Nina.

Nina Munteanu said...

Thanks, Jean-luc! Well, there's more to come. I will discuss a few examples of this storytelling model.

Diane Dehler said...

Hi, I stopped by to visit and read a few of your new posts. Enjoyed the robot discussion and this one also. Hope all is well with your creative life too. I was away for quite a long time this summer but plan to stay current for a while. Until I go astray again I suppose.
Take care.

Nina Munteanu said...

Hi, Princess! Nice to hear from you again. Hope your summer was joyful. I have been busy promoting my books and touring so my writing has suffered a bit. But it's been a great "ride"! I have so enjoyed meeting fellow readers and writers along the way (oh and the adventures too!) Stay in touch, Princess. :)

Greg said...

I tried to get to your post earlier, SF, and realized that this is a good read that requires time. =]

And a good read it is. One quick note... Cruise was in Rainman. I do recognize the archetypes, and reading about each one is in itself inspiring. Gets the creative juices flowing.

It does make all the difference in the world to see the formula disappear within a rich storytelling. I think of the first Star Wars vs. the second... same characters, same archetypes, same formula that should have worked just as well (or better) the second time around.

I picked up on the change in gender, nicely done. :D

Nina Munteanu said...

LOL! Yes, RainMAN, not maker! I knew it was Rain-something (changed it; thanks, Blackburn). Glad you liked the post... :)

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