Archetypes. The word is gratuitously used and abused just as badly as archetypes themselves. Most of us associate archetypes with characters: the hero, the villain. the wicked witch, the wizard and so on. But this is often confused with other terms like stereotype or trope. For us writers, whether we work with fantastical or more literary genres, understanding archetypes is imperative: it just might save our (writing) life.
What is an Archetype?
I am glad you asked.
Carl Jung [psychologist] understood archetypes as universal, archaic patterns and images that derive from the collective unconscious and are the psychic counterpart of instinct. They are inherited potentials which are actualized when they enter consciousness as images or manifest in behavior on interaction with the outside world. They are autonomous and hidden forms which are transformed once they enter consciousness and are given particular expression by individuals and their cultures…the existence of archetypes can only be deduced indirectly by using story, art, myths, religions, or dreams. “Jungian archetypes”. Retrieved from Wikipedia.
From this definition, we can see that archetypes are far more complicated than we might ken. Archetypes are not just a label or a “type”, they are active and interactive both internally and externally. And, they exist- whether we like it or not – in, and of, themselves. They are parts of our psyche, and once they are activated, watch out! Anything can happen.
Think of archetypes as a fixed container. A paper bag is a paper bag, a glass bottle is a glass bottle. A paper bag can never be a glass bottle and a glass bottle can never be a paper bag. And both are essentially static in and of themselves. But, what can they do? What can they hold? They are activated (if you will) when they are filled with something. Now, a paper bag can’t hold liquid, and a glass bottle can’t hold groceries. That is just plain silly. But, each individual archetype can hold an infinite variety of things depending on the situation, and so will act accordingly.
Take for example the hero archetype. Like a paper bag, which can only act like, and be a paper bag, the hero can only act like, and be the hero. If he/she doesn’t, then it is a different archetype and story structure will fall apart: kind of like when we try to use a paper bag to carry liquid, or try to shove groceries into a glass bottle. But what about being original, you ask? Isn’t the hero a stereotype? What if I want to break the mold? If I have a villain being the hero- the protagonist- for instance, they are still the hero archetype. A hero archetype becomes a stereotype only when we copy someone else’s content and make them act just like someone else’s hero. Even if we give them a different name and set of clothes.
We see this in Romance “tropes” all the time: the Alpha Male in modern Romance tends to be nothing but a variation on someone else’s theme. But does he have to be? For instance, let’s take the Mr. Darcy archetype. There is only ONE Mr. Darcy. Yet, stereotypical variations of him abound. Mr. Darcy, however, was not invented by Austin. She accessed this specific archetype and made him “real” through her original perspective and content. If we wish to create the Darcy archetype in writing, then we must give him original content to the situation without changing the basic function of his archetype-he must be redeemed in order to love and be loved. Not sold yet? Well, let’s look at another Alpha Male: Mr. Rochester. Both Darcy and Rochester are the same archetype: that of the “animal groom”: the male who needs some kind of redemption in order to love and be loved. Both are a variation similar to Cupid, in Psyche and Cupid, and Beast, in Beauty and the Beast. Yet, are Mr. Darcy and Mr. Rochester the same character? Hell, no!
One final analogy: think of the actors who have “played” these characters? In the many film incarnations of Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre, each actor (if they are any good) brings unique content to their portrayal of Darcy or Rochester. When we work with an archetype, we do the same thing as an actor would. We ask: “who is this character? what do they truly want and need?” But we also must ask: “what is the archetypal nature and function of this character, and how can I make it live and breath in a new way that is effective story telling?”
And that, right there, is the magic ingredient in “being unique” as a writer.
The joy for the reader is that true archetypal characters and story can only be experienced. It is why we love to read or watch the same kinds of stories over and over again. Being familiar yet innovative is why it works. When we read or write a story and feel “fulfilled” on the inside, it is because we accessed these same archetypes on an internal level. They resonate with us, and we with them.
Thanks for reading.