For years I have been a writer, an editor and a teacher of creative writing. Now I want to share some of what I have learned along the way. Write On The Fringes is a blog about the dangers, the disappointments and the rewards of writing. It's a record of the writing of a novel, from the tantalising first inklings of an idea, through to the final draft. But above all it's an exploration of the art and the craft of writing and the nature of story, as well as a search for the essence of creativity and the complex nature of truth.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Juggling Archetypes: Heroes, Villains and Shapeshifters

'Archetypes are part of the universal language of storytelling, and a command of their energy is as essential to the writer as breathing.'

Christopher Vogler, The Writer's Journey

An understanding of archetypes is a useful tool for writers. Perhaps because archetypal characters have always inhabited our myths and fairy stories, they resonate deeply within our psyches. As Catherine Anne Jones writes in The Way of Story, 'if you can create a character which conveys a universal archetype, the collective will identify and respond more deeply to your story.' It is important, however, to ensure that what is produced is a character not a caricature. In fairy tales, which generally don't seek subtlety, archetypes are easy to identify and are often called by their archetypal names, such as Threshold Guardian or Wicked Step Mother. However in a novel our characters need to be more complex and often their role/s change as the story progresses, so it's generally best to develop our characters complexities before considering their archetypal roles. Psychologist, Robert Johnson describes real human beings as 'combinations of many types that join together to form one rich, inconsistent, many-faceted human personality.' To avoid creating one-dimensional caricatures, Christopher Vogler suggests in The Writer's Journey, that we look at the archetypes as 'flexible character functions rather than as rigid character types.' This way it is possible to see that a single character can encompass a range of archetypes through the course of the story, donning and changing masks as the story evolves.

The word archetype comes from the Greek roots, arche, meaning the first, and type, meaning imprint or pattern. According to mythologist, Joseph Campbell, each one of us embodies a range of archetypes and the pantheons of gods and goddesses found in ancient cultures, and in the myths and fairy tales passed down through history, are an expression of these archetypes, forming a kind of dynamic and ever changing map of the psyche. The post modernist idea that each of us is constructed of a number of selves interpreting the world and expressing themselves in many forms, is in a sense, a much older concept, drawn from esoteric theory which suggests that the unevolved human (most of us) is a mechanical being comprised of programmed conflicting selves. Campbell calls these selves archetypes and suggests that they express facets of the human personality. As with esoteric theory, this position is easy to differentiate from post modernism because he believes that within the harmonious balance of these archetypes lies a central archetype, or archetype of wholeness, a true or essential Self which is the goal or outcome of the individuation process.

In Awakening The Hero Within, Carol S Pearson refers to archetypes as 'inner guides' on our journey to Self. There are many archetypes but for the purpose of discussing the journey of the Hero (ourselves) she limits herself to listing twelve major archetypes: the Innocent, the Orphan, the Warrior, the Caregiver, the Seeker, the Destroyer, the Lover, the Creator, the Ruler, the Magician, the Sage and the Fool. Each, she says 'has a lesson to teach us and each presides over a stage of the journey'. While Pearson's archetypes are useful for a deep analysis of our characters and ourselves, Vogler's are probably more useful for understanding the dynamics of story. He lists the archetypes that are most frequently found in stories: Hero, Mentor, Threshold Guardian, Herald, Shapeshifter, Shadow/Villain, Ally and Trickster. Of these archetypes it is probably the hero that we are most familiar with. Drawing on Jung's idea of a true or essential Self, Vogler suggested that 'the Hero archetype represents the ego's search for identity and wholeness. In the process of becoming complete, integrated human beings, we are all Heroes facing internal guardians, monsters and helpers. . . All the villains, tricksters, lovers, friends and foes of the Hero can be found inside ourselves. The psychological task we all face is to integrate these separate parts into one complete, balanced entity.'

In order to illustrate how it is possible to explore archetypes through our characters, I'll use a few abbreviated examples from my recent novel, Flight, which contains complex archetypal characters with clear character arcs, while drawing heavily on myth and fairytale. For those who haven't yet read it the information on archetypes should be useful anyway. Also, the geographical restrictions on Flight will be lifted soon, so readers outside of Australia and New Zealand will be able to access it. 

The Mentor is a guide or teacher and a giver of gifts, sometimes of this world, sometimes not. Vogler writes that 'mentor figures stand for the hero's highest aspirations . . . In the anatomy of the human psyche, Mentors represent the Self, the God within us, the aspect of personality that is connected with all things.' Fern has a number of Mentors who give her guidance and sometimes tools she can use to protect herself and to learn more. Ultimately though, in her journey of remembering, Fern becomes her own mentor, re-integrating that aspect of herself, so that in the end, she knows intuitively how to defeat her father.

According to Vogler, 'Herald characters issue challenges and announce the coming of significant change'. In Flight, there are a number of characters who at various times act as Heralds, delivering the Call to Adventure, while in a sense another Herald is simply the impossible situation Fern finds herself in, stuck in an attic while her house mates move out. In the end though, it is Shamesh who is the most important Herald, bridging both the physical and metaphysical worlds and compelling the reluctant Fern to begin her journey.

Threshold Guardians are like the demonic figures found around the doors of cathedrals that act as obstacles for those unworthy to enter. According to Vogler, their function is to test the heroes preparedness for the journey. There are a number of thresholds guardians in Flight who attempt to stop Fern from continuing her journey, but the most effective Threshold Guardian is Fern herself. It is her own fear, depression and uncertainty that stops Fern so she find a way of sneaking past, outwitting or overcoming these internal guardians.

An Ally usually travels with the hero. Vogler writes that they 'do mundane tasks but also serve the important function of humanizing the heroes, adding extra dimensions to their personalities, or challenging them to be more open and balanced'. One of the most memorable allies in film is Shrek's irritating but beloved friend, Donkey. In Flight, it is Adam who is Fern's major ally. He travels with her, providing his physical strength, his knowledge of the wilderness, and ultimately his love, which sustains Fern and gives her the strength to face down her father.

Vogler writes that 'Shapeshifters change appearance or mood, and are difficult for the hero and the audience to pin down. They may mislead the hero or keep her guessing, and their loyalty or sincerity is often in question.' There are a number of minor shapeshifters in Flight, including Adam, but it is Fern's father Eric who is the main Shapeshifter, with his frequently changing character and moods. Impossible to pin down, he confuses Fern, who knows he is dangerous yet wants to trust him. Eric's shapeshifting goes beyond his physical manifestation, into the metaphysical world, where Fern is confronted with some of his manifestations in past lives. As the story progresses, Fern discovers that she is also a Shapeshifter, in the sense that she too moves between worlds and like Eric, has many manifestations of the same soul.

According to Jungian psychologists, we deny archetypes at our peril, for if one aspect of ourselves is buried or pushed aside, its power grows, and it becomes a Shadow. Often the journey of a character is to reintegrate or rebalance one or more of the shadow aspects within them. In Flight, it is Eric who is the Shadow, representing what Vogler describes as the 'energy of the dark side, the unexpressed, unrealized, or rejected aspects of something'. Eric represents the masculine, but in its shadow form. He is a successful businessman, immensely powerful but ruthless, arrogant and greedy. In a sense Eric is Fern's shadow self, as is often the case with villains in stories. The Shadow is the monster in the centre of the labyrinth, that which we fear and deny, but it can also represent positive qualities within us that we also deny. Fern has closed her heart to life in order not to be hurt, so lives in a shadow world, frightened and passive, immobile and shut down. She must reclaim her feminine power and access her intuitive self. But she has also rejected the masculine, represented in its more positive form by Adam, and in its shadow form, by her father, Eric. Unconsciously, Fern is seeking the balance that Jung referred to as Mysterium Coniunctionais, the inner marriage of the anima (feminine element of a man) and the animus (masculine element of a woman). In order to find harmony, a balance must be sought, and more often than not this means a confrontation with the shadow self, which is exactly what Fern is faced with in Flight.

While archetypes are useful to apply to our characters they are also easily applied to our own lives. According to Vogler, we are all the Heroes (albeit often reluctantly) of our lives, acting as characters in stories whose plot points we may not even be aware of. As writers, we all recognise the archetypes that help us and hinder us along the way: the Mentors, the Allies, the Villains and of course the Threshold Guardians, in the form of publishers, agents, a lack of time perhaps, fear of failure, or simply the certain knowledge that we're in for a long haul with no certainty of success. Recognising these archetypes within ourselves helps us to use them well, to trick them when necessary and ultimately to overcome our limitations as writers.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Rosie Dub. All rights reserved. You may translate, link to or quote this article, in its entirety, as long as you include the author name and a working link back to this website:


  1. "According to Jung, each one of us embodies a range of archetypes and the pantheons of gods and goddesses found in ancient cultures, and in the myths and fairy tales passed down through history, are an expression of these archetypes, forming a kind of dynamic and ever changing map of the psyche."

    Sorry, no. That was Joseph Campbell's work. Jung studied dreams and found his archetypes there. Campbell linked Jung's archetypes to myths and legends.

    Thanks to Hollywood, we are familiar with some archetypes: Hero, Mentor, Sidekick, Love Interest, Villain, Henchman, Minion. But there are other ones that appear again and again in stories: the Shadow, the Trickster, and the Shapeshifter.

    The Shadow is fear, nothing else. It is the first to appear in our dreams, at about age two. It is the bogeyman, the thing under the bed, the monster in the closet. The best Shadow I have seen is Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs because you could never figure out who he is or what he wants. This is the most important thing about a Shadow: always keep it in the dark. The second you shine a spotlight on it, its fear will disappear. This is what happened in the prequel, Hannibal. He was made the protagonist in the film and the spotlight is always on the protagonist. That's why the film was not the blockbuster Hollywood hoped it would be.

    The Trickster always wants to be the centre of attention. If he can't do this through his own efforts, he'll do this by making others look foolish and thus, looking better by comparison. The Trickster may have a light-hearted comedic role or something much darker.

    The Shapeshifter is constantly changing his relationship with others but mainly with the Hero. This is why Vogler insists that the Shapeshifter is the Love Interest. Lovers are constantly changing their relationships but the Shapeshifter need not be a lover. Shapeshifters change their appearance or not but they always change their relationships.

    These three, the Shadow, the Trickster, and the Shapeshifter are the three most powerful archetypes but they need not be assigned to just one character. Think of them as roles that any character can adapt, at anything to enhance your story.

  2. Hello Unknown, thanks for pointing out the Campbell/Jung slip. I adapted this from a much longer piece, so that must have been where the mistake occurred. I agree that any character can adopt and drop these roles on and off during a story. In fact, in my longer analysis I do explore the way in which this occurred in Flight, particularly with the shapeshifter, trickster and shadow roles. I wasn't certain taht readers would be interested in reading an in-depth analysis of my novel on a blog post, so kept it short. Thanks for elaborating on the roles here.

  3. hey thats a great point.... nice creativity and i am impressed a lot!