Tag Archives: karl jung

I Need A Hero: The Evolution of the Protagonist


Brace yourselves, people. I’m going to try and get both philosophical and political.

Literary Development

220px-Heroesjourney.svgThe development of the lead figure that we recognise today as the ‘hero’ is quite well documented, at least in technical terms. Popular opinion puts it in Greece, when the conceits of tragic theatre moved from a declaimer plus chorus to the arrival of an actual character being portrayed on stage by an actor (traditionally said to be Thespis). Things developed from there, with Aeschylus including a second and then a third speaking character in the play, and lo – the idea of a protagonist was born.

Well, not quite. Yes, the word ‘protagonist’ is a Greek one and literally means ‘one who plays the first part’. But it didn’t start in the 6th Century BC. Way before then, people were writing tales with leading heroes in them – the eponymous figure in the Persian Epic of Gilgames, Rama in the Indian Ramayana, and all the wealth of Egyptian and Chinese mythology, to name just a few.

The idea of a hero – a central figure in the story – has been around for a very, very long time. In all that time, down the ages and in different cultures, how has he changed? Different times and people need different things from their heroes, and uphold very different values. By our modern lights, Gilgames was obnoxiously arrogant, Achilles was a brutal spoiled brat, Romeo was (let’s be honest) a bit of a moron, and Biggles was racist. Our ideas of what constitutes a hero have had to evolve with social development.

Political & Social Influence

That’s the reactive approach. What about the proactive, when the role of the protagonist has been deliberately altered to make a statement? Before the New Testament, the idea of the messiah included fiery invective and warrior-like leadership. Not something the Romans would have tolerated in the 1st Century AD – it would probably have led to genocide. Instead the population is presented with a very different kind of hero, one suited to the times. I’m not going to go into whether Jesus was a literary, historical or divine figure. The point is that the deliberate inversion of the expected role of the hero informed the behaviour of the populace, and thus shaped history.

The hero they need or the hero they deserve? Batman knew the difference.

The hero they need or the hero they deserve? Batman knew the difference.

Sometimes the protagonist represents the vox populi; sometimes it influences it. In the latter case, it’s almost always political. The smart politicians use them as a way in with the voters; the really smart ones use them to change society. This isn’t new. It isn’t even new to this side of the year 0 A.D. Achilles was used to make a point about acceptable behaviour in modern Greek society (the point basically boils down to ‘we’re not demi-gods any more, don’t be dicks’). Greek plays were used either by politicians to sway popular opinion, or against them to unseat them from power.

The protagonist is a powerful weapon. They are the figures we identify with, believe in and want to emulate. That brings me back to how they have naturally evolved, as what we believe in and identify with has changed. A hero in the Classical sword-fighting, city-state against city-state world is necessarily different to a hero in WW2, and both are different to modern-day heroism. Courage and patriotism are no longer the highest qualities it’s possible to possess – you need to include some multicultural sensitivity in there.

The Heroic Monomyth

In the 1920s and onwards, Carl Jung began building his concept of Jungian archetypes. This bought into the idea that heroes are instantly identifiable figures to the human psyche, but separated out different types. The differences were necessary to speak to subsections of the audience – different cultures, classes and so on. Different protagonists are needed for different stories. This separation seems pretty obvious to us now. So obvious, in fact, that we miss a fundamental underlying point.

The monomyth is a theory put forward by Joseph Campbell in 1949 (although he nicked the term from James Joyce). It postulates that the figure of the hero is so fundamental to human storytelling that it exists in a recognisably similar shape throughout multiple cultures, despite those cultures and the beliefs within them being vastly different.

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of wonder: forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.   ~ Joseph Cambell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces

The details change – they have to, in order for the audience to fully engage with the protagonist – but the central heroic figure always fulfils the same basic function. Why is that? What is it about our psyche that needs such a role presented to us over and over and over again, in a billion different ways? Because, despite the modernisation of the protagonist and the evolution of what heroism actually means, we’re still using the same monomythic figure.

Addressing Gender

If you pull my hair, I will bitch-slap you with this frying pan.

If you pull my hair, I will bitch-slap you with this frying pan.

This blog post has contained a statistically disproportionate level of ‘he’s. There’s been plenty of studies into the role of the hero, both literary and historical, but what about the heroine? How has the female protagonist evolved over time? There’s no question that she has. From being the passive prize in the tower, or reward for great deeds, she has very slowly grown to be an agent in her own right. Having started from such different origins, does she fulfil a fundamentally different role to that of the male protagonist? Or has she become the same figure but with different curves? How has the empowering of the literary woman either impacted or been used by politics? And how far behind her male counterpart does she still lag, if at all?

I don’t know the answers to those, but I’d be fascinated to hear your thoughts.

There’s a ton more stuff to talk about on this subject but I reckon I’ve rambled on long enough for one post. Here’s a good place to start reading and maybe I’ll come back to the topic at a later date.

Christmas Care Package


I’m off on a whirlwind tour of friends and family and the raptor’s 30th but, before I go, I thought I’d put together a care package for those who want to keep thinking about storytelling through the holiday season. This is kind of also a place to collate all the interesting links and tutorials that I haven’t really found time to blog about properly over the last couple of months.

First up is a BBC Radio Four programme by Robert McCrum called The Sins of Literature. There are three episodes, called Thou Shalt Not Bore, Thou Shalt Not Hide and Thou Shalt Not Steal. The broadcasting is slightly monotone but stick with it – the content is worth it. I hope those readers not based in the UK can access it – if not, let me know in the comments and I’ll do a summary of each one next year.

Next are two videos from the guys over at Extra Credits – one on symbolism and one on creating female characters. Both are things I have blogged about in the second half of this year but I like the way EC covers stuff, particularly from a slightly tangential perspective, so here you go:

And finally, because it’s Christmas, a bit of fun. I hope you all have wonderful breaks and I’ll talk to you again when I’ve time-travelled to 2014!

Character Archetypes


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.

Archetypes of Conflict


A friend and I were discussing characterisation over some excellent dim sum last night, and we came up with an interesting theory. To make a character truly nuanced, you have to work out the things they know about themselves and then the things they don’t know. The known knowns and the known unknowns, to quote Donald Rumsfeld.

This grew out of a conversation about character flaws. Getting flaws right is a delicate balance: too few and you’re risking a Mary Sue, too many and the character becomes unlikeable or even unworkable. So how do you achieve that balance? I used a specific character as an example – one that has the massive flaw of arrogance but is completely unaware of it. It colours all interaction with others, who of course are very aware, and will hopefully lead to an interesting character development as she recognises it and tries to overcome it.

Which brings me on to the question of conflict in plot arcs. All stories must have some kind of conflict, otherwise where’s the tension? Where’s the suspense? Where’s the story? Conflict can be boiled down, at its most generalised, into three types:

1. Man vs self – this is probably the hardest to write, but every story really needs at least a trace of it. It is the internal character development or redemption. To do it subtly is tough. To do it grandly (i.e. that is all the story) is even tougher, because you risk limiting your supporting cast and your main character must be likeable both before and after in order to keep the reader interested.

2. Man vs man – this covers any interpersonal conflict, be it human, alien or divine. It’s the most common type, which brings its own challenge of originality. You also have to keep an eye out for ‘evil overlord’ syndrome – remember that both sides of the conflict have to have depth and internal consistency of some kind.

3. Man vs nature – often a survival or natural disaster story. The Day After Tomorrow sticks in my head as an example (mainly because it was so terrible). Again, this carries its own warning label – if your protagonist is in conflict against a natural disaster, how on earth can they win? You run the severe risk of them feeling / looking helpless, and a happy ending is that much tougher to achieve.

Carrying on with the idea of internal conflict and character flaws brings me to Carl Jung’s shadow theory:

Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected.

So to give a character real depth, work out their shadow. That ought to give you internal conflict and interpersonal conflict at the same time, as well as some kind of story arc. If you’re going for the hat trick of all three, of course, you could make your character someone like Loki and bring in natural disaster as well!