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:

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Imagination And Memory: A Creative Tension

'Imagination is the voice of daring. If there is anything Godlike about God it is that. He dared to imagine everything.'
Henry Miller

I don't plan before I write. Instead I start with an image that haunts me and perhaps a theme or two then see what emerges. The word imagination comes from the Latin word imago, which means image. According to psychologist, Robert Johnson, in his book, Inner Work, 'the imagination is the image-forming faculty in the mind. . .it generates the symbols the unconscious uses to express itself' Imagination is vital for creative life, for abstract thought, for the development of the sciences, philosophy, religion and even language. As Catherine Ann Jones wrote in The Way of Story, 'images are the language of the soul', yet in popular modern terms the role of the imagination has been denigrated, coming to mean something fictitious or a daydream and often labelled as mere fantasy.

The word fantasy is derived from the Greek word phantasia which meant 'a making visible'. For the Greeks, phantasia was much more than a daydream, it was, as Johnson wrote, 'the organ by which the divine world spoke to the human mind'. For me too, the image making faculty is far more than mere fantasy. Einstein believed that 'imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand'. I too believe that the imagination is perhaps the greatest gift humanity has been given. Its only limits are the ones we place upon it and ourselves.

Imagination is what makes us human, enabling us to experience events and emotions we might not normally experience, to reflect, to find commonality with others and thus understand ourselves. As writers we can imagine fictional characters and in so doing, reveal and discover something about ourselves and others, for as Lousie DeSalvo explained in The Healing Power of Story, 'storytelling teaches us or reteaches us empathy. This trait is a prerequisite for treating others well but it depends upon our ability to imagine what it feels like to be another person. We do this through storytelling.'

Imagination is like the trickster gods of old - a powerful liberating force, cutting through what has been established, making strange what is normal, allowing us to step into the shoes of another, to break free of what we know and to fly. And yet, Carmel Bird says in Dear Writer, 'the worlds of the imagination are constructed from the things we find in the everyday world'. Bird distinguishes between this everyday world and the imaginative world of 'other possibilities' but says there is no conflict between them, that the writer must give permission to the imagination to 'rearrange the building blocks of everyday reality'. Therefore the writing process is about taking the familiar and making it strange, letting the imagination create something new from what is known and thus venture into the realms of the unknown.

Imagination is not solely responsible for the mystery and magic of writing. Memory too, plays an important role. The word memory, comes from the Greek word Mnemosyne. Born from the marriage of Uranus and Gaia, heaven and earth, Mnemosyne was personified as the mother of the nine muses and the patron goddesses of poets. Fiction writers spend a great deal of time inhabiting the world of the imagination, but also draw heavily on memory, for as Jones writes, 'memory is one of the primal sources for creative images'. I am fascinated by the memories we carry (often unconsciously) and the way they arise in the process of storytelling, make links between seemingly disparate ideas and provide significance and revelation. In the process of writing, a tension is created between the grounding nature of memory and the flightiness of the imagination. For me, the vitality of that tension creates meaning. It is the source of my stories. Trusting it, is an act of faith in the unfolding mystery of story. In The Creative Writing Coursebook, Lesley Glaister writes that 'memory is refracted through imagination, often unconsciously, into something new.' That, she says, is 'the real stuff of fiction memory blended, refracted, transformed.'

As I write, I work closely with the unconscious; In the process I take my own memories and recreate them, usually in a fictional way, finding links and themes and connoting meaning through metaphor. 'Memory is a poet, explains Patti Miller in Writing Your Life, it stores 'experiences in imaginative patterns. . . connections are made through imaginative association rather than logic.' Miller goes on to distinguish between the left and right sides of the brain, suggesting that when people try to write from the logical left part of their mind, their stories become dull and flat, whereas the right side of the brain is where the imagination and poetry lie. As Einstein once said, 'logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.'

In her novel, Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels writes that 'the memories we elude catch up to us, overtake us like a shadow. A truth appears suddenly in the middle of a thought, a hair on a lens'. This is how my memories arose while I was writing Flight; spontaneously, from the right side of the brain, overtaking me with sudden revelations. At first the memories seemed random and out of context, so I was tempted to ignore them. Instead I decided to trust the creative process, so I took the bare facts and used my imagination to expand each memory and link it with my protagonist, Fern. Only then did I receive the gift that always comes with this connection, the hidden revelation, an understanding of its significance. For it is memory that helps us identify the patterns in our lives and imagination that helps us to interpret them. 'How we remember,' writes Jones 'is how we give meaning to a life lived.'.

As more of my memories arose and were given to Fern, I wondered if by giving my memories away I was in a sense emptying myself and in so doing, might in some way lose myself. In his book, Creativity, Osho distinguishes between psychological and factual memory, stating that factual memory is necessary but psychological memory is not. 'Factual memory,' he says, 'is not a problem, it is pure remembrance. When you become psychologically affected by it, then the problem arises'. I realised then, that this was the essence of the journeys many of us take when writing, particularly about trauma or pain. The result is a clearing of our emotional attachment to these memories. We still have them, and yet in writing them we release ourselves from their spell or 'curse' and thus the identity they had constructed. In writing about memories in this way, we evoke our imaginations to transform them and thus liberate ourselves from them, not lose ourselves in them. In the end though, whether it be fiction or memoir and no matter what reasons we draw on memory in our writing, memory is a rich and authentic source of material for writers, helping us to create credible characters, settings and back story. It is memory that grounds our stories, while imagination gives our stories the wings they need to soar.

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:

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Motivating Character

'We must look at the intentionality of the characters and where they are heading, for they are the main influence upon the shape of stories.
James Hillman, Healing Fictions

For many of us (myself included), life consists of a series of reactions to the past, reactions which exist in the present and hence form our future. Unless we consciously seek to unravel the tangle of influences within us, we remain mechanical creatures, programmed by past events, by the people in our lives, and by the ideologies that we embrace, often unconsciously. The first step to unraveling this tangle is to see that there is a tangle in the first place. After that we can begin exploring what motivates our actions, what lies beneath the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. Perhaps this is why strong, plausible characterisation is so fundamental to story.

To write stories well we need to understand character; not just what characters looks like, or how they act, but what motivates them. Why do they do what we do? What drives them? Why are they driven? What has formed them? These are basic questions that often reveal unexpected and richly rewarding answers. According to Jung, it is character that drives plot, not plot that drives character. And in The Way of Story, Catherine Anne Jones writes that 'it is the inner psychological state of the main character which fuels and drives the external plot'. Plot then, is secondary to character. Certainly in my own writing process this is the case; this is how I have always written, allowing the story to form around the characters. It is where I find the links with my own life and development, and where I attempt to write a 'living' story. I have found it vital to surrender to the process of writing and trust that a story will emerge; rich with character and complexity. To plot a story before it is written and then force the characters to act like puppets within the plot, is more often than not a recipe for unmotivated action and 'dead' implausible stories. As a writer it is playing it safe, refusing to respond to the call of adventure that signals the journey of story.

The source of a character's motivation often lies hidden within the early patterns of childhood, in the wounds and blessings that have formed a person. In The Writing Book, Kate Grenville warns against an over emphasis on motivation, saying that it can create characters that are 'too neatly motivated and too one-dimensional'. I don't agree. As in life, a three-dimensional, plausible character should be motivated, not by a single factor but by a number of factors, not all of them conscious. He or she should not only act, but also react to people, places and events, and these actions and reactions should have a convincing weight that carries and directs the story. When creating a three-dimensional character, I look for the factors and sometimes the patterns that motivate that character, and at the psychological reasons for that motivation (why they are motivated). I ask myself questions. What does my character want? What is stopping him or her from getting it? The answers to these questions can be found both externally (a character might want a new job) and internally (a character might want to be understood, or want to make a difference). Fusing the answers to these questions with the factors that motivate a character, helps to create conflict, a fundamental element in story.

Conflict is found on three levels. Firstly, from something unavoidable in the external world; an earthquake, for example, or the loss of a job. Secondly, from tension between characters, a disagreement with an employer or a power struggle between father and son. And lastly, from internal tensions within a major character, such as the fear of change, a deep sense of self loathing, or an unexpressed love. Internal tension is a strong generator of conflict and without it all the external tension in the world will feel hollow. As Robert McKee writes in Story, 'the closest circle of antagonism in the world of a character is his own being: feelings and emotions, mind and body, all or any of which may or may not react from one moment to the next the way he expects. As often as not, we are our own worst enemies.' Conflict generates story and within story lies the keys to the change and development needed to create a satisfying character arc.

As mentioned in a previous post, the outer passage of a story is the plot, while the inner passage of a story is the character arc. The outer passage the costume, the inner passage the essence. It is in the inner journey that the character uncovers the fragments that motivate him or her. This is the case in Flight, as Fern must search the past in order to find the motivating factors that have forced her to act in certain ways. It is within the flashbacks to her childhood and the visions of past lives, that the clues and motivations to Fern's character are provided. While not all stories involve a character arc, most do (more on this in a later post). Readers generally want to see the protagonist learning something about themselves. It is not a new self that is sought but a healthier, more knowledgeable self. Perhaps a self who can come to some acceptance of his or her circumstances, or a self who is able to reintegrate into society because of what he or she has learned. A short story might simply show a moment of epiphany or self realisation and leave the reader to imagine its potential, but in a novel there is generally a longer time line, so when a character learns something about themselves there is the opportunity to reveal to the reader the change that this knowledge brings. However, this change should come about gradually, otherwise the characterisation will necessarily be weak and the story formulaic.

Jung defines individuation as a coming to self hood or self realisation. In The Undiscovered Self, he writes passionately and urgently of the need for individuals to resist the collective forces of society, saying that to do this we must face our fear of the duality of the human psyche, in other words we must accept our shadow selves. It is in the inner structure of the story, the character arc, that we can see the process of individuation at work. Individuation, or the Hero's Journey, as Campbell would call it (more on this in a later post), is simply another word for a process that is as old as humanity - a journey of the soul or, as some would prefer to call it, a psychological journey. As writers and readers, perhaps we are seeking through story an experience of connection, a sense of commonality that can be discovered beneath the surface differences that appear to divide us from each other. Perhaps in some ways we use story to explore our own lives and the themes that move us. And ultimately, perhaps following the arc of a character in a story enables us to identify and understand the motivating factors in our own reactions and from this knowledge ultimately begin to act in more conscious manner.

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:

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Catharsis And Transformation In Writing

'Through writing, suffering can be transmuted into art.'
Louise de Salvo, Writing as a Way of Healing

My father, like many of us, was afraid of death. So much so, in fact, that he refused to live. He was a sick man with a weak heart and a fear of almost every aspect of life. After surviving six or so heart attacks and an anuerism in his brain, he still clung to life, even joining a second church in the final years. 'Double indemnity,' I used to joke. Needless to say, we didn't get on too well. In fact, fathers - cruel, absent and sick, have been a major theme in my writing to date.

When Christian theologian, Parker Palmer wrote, 'the greatest paradox of all: that to live we have to die', he was most likely referring to the obvious scientific fact that death is an inescapable part of life; in a sense it is the only certainty we have in life. Life is full of paradox. That is part of its beauty. But Parker Palmer's statement isn't simply about the certainty of death; within it we can also find the ancient idea that in order to live well one must symbolically die to one's self and be reborn into a new self. This is found in religious stories and myths across many cultures, such as the death and resurrection of Jesus and the Babylonian story of the goddess, Innana's descent into the underworld. This idea is also deeply embedded within more contemporary story, within the arc of character and the transformation that may or may not occur in the course of the character's physical and/or psychological journey through the story.

As I wrote in an earlier post Digging Deep – Writing Character, there are a number of metaphors for this journey of transformation and they are powerful reminders that each of us is meant to evolve, to embrace change and to learn from our experiences. There are key moments of change in the journey of major characters – turning points or moments of catharsis. These are moments when a character is forced, or chooses to turn away from what is familiar and face the unknown, and in so doing comes to a realisation of some sort. In a sense they are a purging of an old way and an opening to the new. They occur at various points in a story and thus relate to the movement of plot but importantly they also relate to character development. In Flight, each of Fern's emotional breakthroughs represent a reclaiming of a fragment of self, providing her with the opportunity to become whole again and discover a new way of living (more on the character arc in a later post).

Catharsis is a word that means vomiting up or purging, and is a term that was originally associated with Aristotle and Greek drama, which was, according to Christopher Vogler, 'constructed with the intent of triggering a vomiting up of emotions by the audience'. During the nineteenth century Franz Mesmer began to use hypnotherapy with his patients and discovered that part of the cure often involved a healing crisis in which blocked emotions rise to the surface. A century later, Freud began provoking catharsis in his patients, and now the concept is widely used in psychotherapy. While catharsis is a common element in story, writing too, can be a cathartic process for many people, a way of expelling or simply becoming acquainted with, the demons that haunt them, or as Jung would call them, the shadow aspects of our selves that we bury deeply within us. As a teacher of creative writing I have seen many times how the simple act of framing a story or of understanding the motivations behind a character's actions can challenge the foundations on which a person has lived their lives, forcing them to question the stories that they have told themselves about who they are. In Writing as a Way of Healing, Louise DeSalvo explains that we are the accumulation of the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. So changing our stories. . . can change our personal history, can change us. Through writing we often revisit our past and review and revise it. What we thought happened, what we believed happened to us, shifts and changes as we discover deeper and more complex truths.' So in separating a story from ourselves, in writing it down, we are changing our perspective on it and are therefore able to see it differently, without the burden of emotions.

In the writing of Flight, I could feel the cathartic process working its magic on me as I purged and released myself from a good deal of the past, just as Fern, my protagonist did. The process of writing, of weaving fact and fiction, memory and imagination into a story, helped me to learn lessons from the past, thereby enabling me to evolve as a human being. Writing about my own parents (albeit in fictional form) enabled me to step into their shoes and thus begin to feel empathy for them. In so doing, I began the process of forgiveness. According to psychologist, Jean Houston, forgiveness can have 'a momentous and evolutionary potency' and its roots are located in the discovery of the Larger Story. This is a process I have frequently observed with students when I run character workshops. The most profound exercises are always the ones in which I ask students to shift their perspective and step into the shoes of another character, usually someone to whom their main character is opposed. It is an excellent exercise in empathy and in developing an understanding of the often unconscious motivations behind human behaviour (more on character motivation in a later post).

In a sense catharsis underpins the transformative potential of the process of writing and of story itself. While catharsis provides an emotional clearing the character must then take the next step and integrate what they have learned, in order for change or transformation to be possible. Karen Armstrong wrote that 'a novel, like a myth or any great work of art, can become an initiation that helps us to make a painful rite of passage from one phase of life, one state of mind, to another.' Story then can be transformative, helping us on our journey towards individuation, as Jung describes it, a journey that is not taken automatically when someone reaches a certain age, but rather is dependent on our willingness to comprehend the nature of self and become true individuals. Flight started out as a story of alienation and anger, but it became instead a story of love and forgiveness, and in the process I liberated myself from much of the past and from the weight of unresolved memories.

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: