Character Archetypes

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I know that I talk a lot about characters, and that’s because I believe it is characters that drive a story, rather than events. If I’m honest, my two favourite TV shows – Castle and Bones – don’t have great plots but they do have engaging characters and I watch them purely for that. My characters drive my plots – consequences and human (or whatever – this is fantasy after all) reaction make stuff happen. But, for all that I harp on about them, I’ve realised that I’ve never really sat down and properly looked at the classical character archetypes. So today I’m remedying that omission.

PLATO was the first chap to come up with this idea. Well, it was kind of a proto-idea when he had it, at least as it applies to literature. He believed in archetypes of real people – that there were only so many types of person, and your soul got tagged with your type before it was born. Kind of like a blood type. Your fundamental characteristics were attributed to your soul, rather than your personality.

JUNG then built on this idea, dividing it into three parts: archetypes, archetypal images and archetypes of transformation. In simple terms, the basic components, the specific characterisation and common triggers that change an archetype. The five archetypes as he outlined them are as follows:

  • The Self, the regulating center of the psyche and facilitator of individuation,
  • The Shadow, the opposite of the ego image, often containing qualities with which the ego does not identify, but which it possesses nonetheless,
  • The Anima, the feminine image in a man’s psyche, or
  • The Animus, the masculine image in a woman’s psyche,
  • The Persona, the image we present to the world, usually protecting the Ego from negative images (like a mask).

The archetypal images are the ones writers typically refer to. Jung made a long long list of these, including the well-known Hero, Martyr, Wise Old Man, Damsel in Distress, Trickster and so on.

In the 1940s, OLGA FROBE-KAPTEYN founded the Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism (ARAS) – a massive collection of art, photography and artefacts which are deemed to represent archetypal images of culture, history and people from every era. The main collection is in New York, and currently holds in excess of 17,000 images. What’s particularly fascinating, to me at least, is that they map the timeline of archetype development – how a snake (for example) is pictured throughout history and in different cultures. Because actually, that’s pretty fundamental and not something that (as far as I’m aware) Jung took into consideration. The definition of a hero in one culture is going to differ significantly from that of another, very alien culture. And that contrast alone gives you a starting point for a story.

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  1. Pingback: Writer’s Block: Archetypes

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