Michille: Archetypes

archetypesThe course I recently took at McDaniel was Jungian Psychology and the Hero’s Journey. I went through the Hero’s Journey over the last couple weeks so it’s time for the psychology of Carl Jung as it relates to fiction writing. According to Miriam Webster online, an archetype is “an inherited idea or mode of thought in the psychology of C. G. Jung that is derived from the experience of the race and is present in the unconscious of the individual.” Jung looked at myths and legends in many cultures over time and space and found that there were nearly identical tales present in all of them. He believed that these archetypes reside within the collective unconscious of man and therefore the unconscious of each individual human.

In literature, archetypes are typical characters, situations, themes, images, etc., that represent the universal patterns in human nature. Character archetypes include:
• The Hero – the good guy trying to restore order or harmony or justice (D’artagnan, Robin Hood, Ray Kinsella).
• The Wise Old Man/Woman – knowledge and good will (Obi-Wan Kenobi, Dumbledore).
• The Trickster – the antihero (Severus Snape).
• The Persona – letting the job/role take over the person underneath (Darth Vadar).
• The Shadow – the doppelganger (Dr. Jekyll’s Mr. Hyde).
• Anima/Animus – soul mate (romance fiction is littered with these).
• The Great/Earth Mother – the good mother who guides her “child (Glinda the Good Witch).

Archetypal symbols were likely drilled into most of our heads in high school English class. Things like water, sun/moon, a tree, an apple, a circle, and so on, can represent an idea or a theme. The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane was my Advanced Grammar and Expository Writing term paper my senior year in high school. I still remember little Henry Fleming facing the ‘dragon’ and the ‘serpent’ which both represented the Union troops. My English teacher graded all of our papers with green ink instead of red because that is an archetypal symbol of hope.  But, I digress.  In Dream a Little Dream, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Rachel is on a quest (situational archetype) to find the Kennedy chest because she believes it holds the key to finding a couple million dollars which would give her financial security. The box represents that security but isn’t actually the security.

The Hero’s Journey is one situational archetype and Rachel’s quest in Dream a Little Dream is also. YA books often have initiation archetypes and coming-of-age themes. Good versus evil, death and rebirth, nature versus mechanized world are common situational archetypes as well. The Red Badge of Courage was both a hero’s journey and an coming-of-age story (and many other archetypes, I’m sure, but it’s been [I won’t say how many] years since my senior year in high school).

The function of archetypes in writing is to help the reader identify with the characters and the situations they are in, the journeys they are on, and the characters they take along with them or run into along the way. After taking this course, I’m much more tuned in to the archetypes and I find myself wondering if the author did it on purpose or if it was unconscious. Can you identify archetypes in your writing? Did you use them on purpose?

6 thoughts on “Michille: Archetypes

  1. It’s really curious — which came first? I feel that for a lot of us, it’s a struggle NOT to write in archetypes because that’s not how you write a story. We tend to make stories of our lives and slot people into those archetypes. I’m sure there are villains who are also Earth Mothers, but it bucks our ideas, and makes it harder to write because those archetypes are things everyone knows — we can sketch things out in shorthand if we base our characters on archetypes. But if we base a character on a Not-Archetype, then we have to spend a lot of time explaining things.

    Being a demon isn’t really one of Jung’s archetypes. But I write about a demon who is actually a dedicated public servant, and it’s hard to get that across fast enough.

    • A demon is one of the archetypes and it can represent evil incarnate or be an evil figure with an ultimately good heart – the redeemable devil figure. The evil mother is also an archetype – evil stepmothers are in a lot of fairy tales. The terrible mother archetype embodies all the negative aspects of the earth/good mother. The class was fascinating and, with it only being a 3-credit course, we barely dipped below the surface. I plan to dig deeper in Jungian psychology as it relates to story-telling when I have the time.

  2. I always find the idea of archetypes interesting. I can see why they exist, and sometimes they can really help as a base to build a character/ But with so many stories and characters out in the world now, I think there are plenty more archetypes than the ‘usual’ ones now.

    Great post, really has me thinking! 🙂

    • There certainly are a ton more archetypes than I included. Google it and the posts are endless. John Steinbeck said, “I believe there is one story in the world and only one.” He was referring to the battle of good versus evil, I think. In our McD Romance Writing certificate program, Jenny Crusie beat the whole conflict thing into us (every scene must have it) which would support that. When I was noodling around with this post, I found this post (http://www.ipl.org/div/farq/plotFARQ.html) that I thought was great (and a little funny) on The “Basic” Plots in Literature, which are basically all archetypes.

  3. Revising against or modifying in accordance with an understanding archetypes is probably a lot like using the conflict box: it’s a great tool for checking your work, but it’s not necessarily the way you want to set up your story. If you have a hero and he doesn’t seem solid or his motivations are unclear, it might be worth checking his character against an archetype to see if his behavior falls within expected parameters and, if not, make adjustments. But probably sticking ruthlessly to archetype personalities would leave most characters a little, ah, two-dimensional. 🙂

    • That is an excellent point about using it as a check on the behavior but not as the creation of the character. We also looked at Myers-Briggs personality types (and shamanic drumming, I Ching, and dream interpretation with child tarot cards – gotta love the liberal arts). I haven’t had the opportunity yet, but I would really like to look at some of my characters and see if they stay in ‘type’ through the story. If my heroine is an INTJ, she shouldn’t suddenly start spewing lengthy explanations of an issue that is facing whatever group is facing the problem – she’d think it’s obvious to them all (because it is to her), and yet a different type would feel the need to explain everything (if it wasn’t so late in my day, I’d figure out which Myers-Briggs combo that would be – I can say it is my husband’s type, but I don’t know off the top what that is).

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