Saturday, August 2, 2008

Character Archetypes

As y'all know, I've been very intrigued with The Hero's Journey of late. Over on the Compuserve Books and Writer's forum, I've been running a Hero's Journey workshop for the past month. In July, we worked on Character Archetypes - looking at the roles your characters play in your story. Since it's been up for over a month there, I'm going to post it here (below) if anyone doesn't want to go over there to play.

Last week I posted a worksheet to help analyze movies, books and their structure. At many of the conferences I've attended, writer's a-many have said "deconstruct a book if you want to learn how to plot". Huh? says I. I tried this, several times, but ran out of steam. Part of the problem, I think, was I was trying to track too many different things at once - layers, character development, secondary story lines, etc... Starting with the Hero's Journey format has made it much easier for me to understand how many stories are put together. In a few weeks, I'll post the worksheet for story analysis that currently posted on the forum. Or you could hop over there and check it out under "Hero's Journey 2: Story Analysis" in the Writer's Exercises folder.

Character Archetypes:
(originally posted 7/2/2008 on Compuserve Books and Writer's Forum - Writer's Exercises)

Without the characters populating our stories, the stories themselves could not exist. Like the stages of The Hero’s Journey, archetypes do not define the characters who must appear in your story, but provide you with character masks or roles that appear repeatedly throughout world literature. Understanding these masks can help to strengthen your characters and give them additional purpose or attributes.

Some archetypes may be associated with a character throughout the story. Some characters may switch back and forth between different archetypes or roles as the story progresses. Christopher Vogler identified 7 archetypes common to The Hero’s Journey:
(1) Hero
(2) Herald
(3) Mentor
(4) Threshold Guardian
(5) Shadow
(6) Shapeshifter
(7) Trickster

Are these all the archetypes that exist? Certainly not! There are hundreds of different archetypes defined in an almost infinite number of books, websites and other sources. I’ve listed a few of these for your reference at the end of this message.

I'm going to use the archetypes described by Vogler to help you brainstorm some about the characters in your story. Remember, you don’t necessarily need to include all these archetypes, or include every aspect of every archetype described. Just use the descriptions and questions below to think about ways you might be able to make your characters stronger or more interesting.

Many of the brainstorming questions below may seem more plot than character related. They are there to help you determine which characters fit these roles through their action in the plot. Don’t get too hung up on answering all these questions today! You’ll see many of them again as we move through the stages of the journey.

You will be revisiting the characters, their roles, and the archetype characteristics they assume in various points of the story as we move through brainstorming story points using the stages of The Hero’s Journey. So don’t make yourself too crazy with this at this point. I guarantee you, it will change and change again over the next few weeks. However, it will be really helpful to begin to identify the role each of your main characters plays as you start to think about scenes and journey stages.

(1) Hero - Often (but not always) the protagonist of the story. Usually the most active person in the story, the Hero’s will and desire drives the story forward. The Hero is the one who learns or grows the most in the course of the story. The mark of a Hero is his or her willingness to sacrifice or give up something of value. During the course of the story, the Hero will (1) separate from the Ordinary World; (2) sacrifice himself for the service of the journey; (3) answer the challenge; (4) complete the quest; and (5) restore the Ordinary World’s balance.

  • Who is the hero in your main storyline?
  • How does this character change by the end of the story? What important lesson does the hero learn? What wisdom does she aquire?
  • What actions does your hero take to move the story forward?
  • What sacrifice does the hero make? What of value (including his/her life – real or symbolic) is the hero willing to give up in order to succeed on the journey?
  • What universal drive is this character driven by: Desire to be loved? Understood? To succeed? Survive? Be free? Get revenge? Right wrongs? Seek self-expression?
  • How are these drives expressed at the beginning of the story (Ordinary World)? How do they grow, change or get stronger as the story progresses?
  • What does the Hero value most? What sacrifice would be most difficult for the Hero to make, but is most necessary for the success of the journey?
  • What admirable qualities does the Hero have? What qualities will the reader identify with?
  • How do conflicting traits help to define your hero (e.g., trust vs. suspicion, hope vs. despair, love vs. duty)?

(2) Herald – Heralds issue challenges and announce the coming of significant change. They get the story rolling. The Herald doesn’t necessarily need to be a person – it could be a dream, a book, a new idea, a storm, a telegram, a phone call, the start of a war, a drought or famine, an ad in the newspaper, the character’s inner voice.

  • Who is the Herald in your story?
  • How does your Hero become aware of the need for a journey? How does your Hero receive the Call to Adventure?
  • What change does the Herald announce? What message starts the Hero on the journey?
  • How does this message upset the equilibrium of the Ordinary World? How does this message make the Hero unable to return to his “old” life?
  • How does your Hero react to the Herald’s message? How does the message transform the Hero?
  • What is the Heralds motivation for calling the Hero to an adventure? What does the Herald get out of it?
  • Does your Herald appear once in the story or at several points, each time announcing an upcoming change?
  • Is the Herald a friend, foe, or neutral character? Villian or emissary?

(3) Mentor – Mentors have two main functions (1) training or teaching the Hero; and (2) giving gifts key to success in the journey. Gifts may include weapons, medicine, food, magic, important piece of information, or other items. The gifts may sometimes seem insignificant until later in the story. The Mentor’s goal is to get the hero past the stage of doubt and fear, and committed to the journey. The role or mask of the mentor may be worn by different characters at different points in the story, and may even be represented by the Hero’s personal code or a prop (e.g., book or other artifact) that guides the Hero.

  • Who is the Mentor or Mentors in your story?
  • What important lessons does the Mentor teach in order to prepare the Hero for the journey?
  • Does your Mentor’s teaching style match any of these? Drill instructor? Squad leader? Sergeant? Old police officer? Aged warrier? Trail boss? Parent? Grandparent? Wise old man or woman? A fool? (or some other style?)
  • What gifts does the Mentor give to the Hero to help him/her be successful? In what way are these gifts critical to the Hero’s success?
  • If you have multiple Mentors, what unique skill, piece of wisdom or gift does each give?
  • What does the Hero do to earn the gifts and wisdom from the Mentor? What sacrifice or commitment does the Hero give? What tests must be passed?
  • How does the Mentor help motivate the Hero to commit to the journey?
  • How does the Mentor test the Hero’s worthiness?
  • How does the Mentor impart the Hero with courage?
  • How does the Mentor motivate the Hero when he/she is refusing the Call to Adventure? How does the Mentor give the Hero a push?
  • Is your Mentor genuinely interested in helping the Hero, or is the mask of the Mentor being used to hid an enemy?
  • Does your mentor disappoint the Hero in any way?
  • Why does the Mentor help your Hero? What does he or she hope to gain? What is their motivation?

(4) Threshold Guardian – The Threshold Guardian generally appears as the Hero attempts to Cross the First Threshold into the Special World of the journey. The Threshold Guardian protects the Special World and its secrets from the hero, and provides tests to prove the Hero’s commitment and worth. The Threshold Guardian is typically not the antagonist or enemy in the story, but may be a henchman, a neutral character or even a secret helper. May even be an ordinary obstacle – bad weather, bad luck, prejudice, oppression, or hostile people.

  • Who is the Threshold Guardian in your story?
  • How does the Threshold Guardian test the Hero’s resolve to continue on the journey? How many tests must the Hero pass?
  • How do the Threshold Guardian’s test foreshadow difficulties the Hero will encounter in the Special World.
  • How do the tests thrown at the Hero represent the Hero’s own internal demons? (neuroses, emotional scares, vices, dependencies, self-limitations)
  • Why does the Threshold Guardian want to block the Hero? What do they hope to gain?
  • What does your Hero do to overcome the Threshold Guardian? How is this determination tested?
  • When faced with a Threshold Guardian, heroes may run, attack, craft a deceit, bribe or appease, make an ally, disguise themselves as the enemy, etc… What does your hero do?
  • How does the Threshold Guardian respond?

(5) Shadow – Often times the shadow mask is worn by antagonists, villains and enemies, but it may also be worn by other characters. The character who wears this mast most often, and whose motivations are in direct conflict with the Hero’s is the villain. Shadows represent things the Hero dislikes and would like to eliminate – the dark side or suppressed monsters.

  • Who are the characters in the story most set on blocking the Hero’s chosen course of action? (May be antagonists who disagree with the Hero’s path.)
  • Which characters are determined to destroy the Hero and his or her cause? (Most likely the villain and his/her henchmen.)
  • What dark characteristics do the shadow figures possess?
  • How do the Shadow figures represent aspects the Hero dislikes about his/herself? The Hero’s dark secrets? Qualities the Hero has tried to eliminate in him/herself?
  • Does the Shadow possess any positive qualities that the hero, for whatever reason, has rejected in him/herself?
  • What redeeming qualities does the Shadow have?
  • How does the Shadow challenge the hero?
  • What makes this Shadow a worthy opponent? What unique qualities does the Shadow possess?
  • How does the Shadow symbolize the Hero’s greatest fears and phobias?

(6) Shapeshifters - A character whose loyalty or sincerity, their role or personality, seem to change in significant ways throughout the story. Misleads the hero or keeps him/her guessing. Often represented by the opposite sex, a love interest. May be femme fatale/homes fatales. May also be a buddy or a magical figure.

  • What character in your story is not always who they appear to be?
  • How does this character’s loyalty or sincerity seem to change over time? How does this impact on the course of the Hero’s journey?
  • How does the Shapeshifter add doubt and suspense to the story?
  • How does the Shapeshifter keep the Hero off guard?
  • Does the Hero ever wear this mask to confuse the antagonists or to get past an obstacle?
  • How does the mentor’s use of this mask influence the story?
  • Does the Shapeshifter’s changing nature serve as a catalyst for change in the hero?
  • How does the Shapeshifter challenge the Hero (and the reader) to question their own beliefs and assumptions?
  • In the end, how does the shapeshifter either lure the Hero to his doom or to ultimate success in the journey

(7) Trickster – Tricksters are agents of change. They point out both common bonds, and folly and hypocrisy by drawing attention to imbalance and absurdity. Often mischievous – clowns, comical sidekicks.

  • Are there any characters in your story that create change by challenging the status quo?
  • How does the Trickster create chaos in the Ordinary World?
  • How does the Trickster call attention to the absurdity of the situation? Does your Trickster use word games, turns of phrase, humor, ridicule, or physical action to draw attention to the need for change?
  • Does your Trickster provide any comic relief within your story? Does this humor keep things in proportion?
  • Does your Trickster display cunning when facing a stronger or more powerful opponent?

(Note: although the research for the information above came from several sources including Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey, Christopher Vogler and Michael Hauge The Hero's 2 Journeys, and Joseph Campbell The Hero With 1,000 Faces, the question format is my own. Please credit me and link back to this blog - or the original Compuserve Post, if you care to use it - Jenny Graman Meyer (c) 2008.)

If you’re interested in learning more about various archetypes, here are some places to check:

Situational, Character and Symbolic Archetypes:
Carol S. Pearson’s 12 Archetypes:
Dramatica Archetypes:
Tarot Card Archetypes:

In Elizabeth Lyon’s “A Writer’s Guide to Fiction”, she suggests the following books:

  • The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes and Heroines: Sixteen Master Archetypes, by Tami D. Dowden, Caro LaFever, and Sue Viders
  • The Hero Within: Six Archetypes We Live By, by Carol S. Pearson
  • Awakening the Heroes Within: Twelve Archetypes to Help Us Find Ourselves and Transform Our World, by Carol S. Pearson
  • 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters, by Victoria Lynn Schmidt

EXERCISE: After reading the description of the archetypes common in The Hero’s Journey, analyze the characters in your own story. Start with a list of your main characters.

  • What roles do each of the main characters play?
  • Can you add the characteristics of any of the archetypes to strengthen characters?
  • Can any of the characters play multiple roles?
  • Do you need to add any characters to provide critical functions within your story?

Note that you likely won’t be able to answer every question in the archetype descriptions above, nor should you try. And you may find that the answers to many of these questions are not immediately apparent, or that your answers evolve as you work through the stages of your story. That’s great. Our work over the next few months should be fluid, causing you to think, re-think, and revise your story as we go.