In my post about the Hero’s Journey (which you can read here,) I mentioned a few characters, specifically the Hero and the Mentor, who fall into the category of archetypes. Archetypes are a main tenet of the theories contained in Joseph Campbell’s watershed work, THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES. Most writers are familiar with the idea of archetypes and many may be interested in finding out how archetypes could function in their own writing.
Yet, doesn’t the term “archetype” bring to mind the term “stereotype?” How do we define the difference? How can it be that archetypes are good, while stereotypes are bad? And most importantly, how can you get all the benefits out of the use of archetypes without falling into the trap of using stereotypes?
One way to see the difference is to imagine an archetype as a base to build upon. An archetype is a prototype of a character. On the other hand, a stereotype is an overly simplified concept of a character, with overly simplified opinions or behaviors. A stereotype is two-dimensional and generally stays that way.
An archetype works best as a pattern upon which an original character can be built. Take, for example, the archetype of the Mentor. In the HARRY POTTER series, Professor Dumbledore fits into this category, but so does Glynda the Good Witch in THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ, and Haymitch in THE HUNGER GAMES. All of these characters have, at their foundation, the archetype of the Mentor. Yet no one would ever confuse them for stereotypes of the same character.
According to Christopher Vogler, who took Joseph Campbell’s theories and applied them to the craft of writing in his book THE WRITER’S JOURNEY, and Stuart Voytilla, who expanded on Vogler in MYTH AND THE MOVIES, an archetype can be imagined as a mask a character wears that fits the role that character is playing in the story. Sometimes a character wears the same mask throughout the story, but not always. For instance, Obi Wan Kenobi wears the mask of the Mentor through most of STAR WARS, but he must wear the Hero’s mask when he sacrifices himself to Darth Vader to allow Luke and Leia to escape. Voytilla also uses another film reference to demonstrate the sharing of a mask between several characters. In CASABLANCA, Voytilla points out, Rick is generally seen as the Hero. Yet the mask of the Hero is originally worn by Victor Lazlo, then passed to Ilsa, who passes it to Rick. In many ways, Rick would have been a much less effective hero had he not had the Hero’s mask passed to him through this progression. (If you’ve never seen CASABLANCA, go add it to your Netflix list right now! You don’t know what you’re missing!)
A list of the most frequently occurring archetypes in fiction, and the roles they play, would include:
1. Hero “to sacrifice and serve”
2. Mentor “to guide”
3. Threshold Guardian “to test”
4. Herald “to warn and challenge”
5. Shapeshifter “to question and deceive”
6. Shadow “to destroy”
7. Trickster “to disrupt”
When deciding how to use these archetypes (or any of the many additional archetypes) in your own writing, or which characters should wear which masks in which scenes, try asking yourself these questions:
• What is this character’s function on the Hero’s Journey?
• What is this character’s goal?
• What means will the character be using to achieve this goal?
Do you use archetypes in your own writing? Have you ever completed a story and then recognized the presence of archetypes you hadn’t intentionally included? Do you think archetypes are too limiting to a writer? Please tell me what you think in the comments!