Monday, July 6, 2009


In our myths and stories, certain character types appear over and over. These universal characters are archetypes. Archetypes are constantly repeating characters or energies which occur in the myths of all cultures.

Christopher Vogler in “The Writer’s Journey” says writers need to understand archetypes. “If you grasp the purpose or function of the archetype which a particular character is expressing, it can help you determine if the character is pulling her full weight in the story. The archetypes are part of the universal language of storytelling, and a command of their energy is as essential to the writer as breathing.” Writer Vanessa Grant says: “A character’s archetype affects how the reader feels about the character, and what the reader expects the character to achieve during the story. Each archetype has characteristics and themes which allow virtually everyone to connect with that archetype when they recognize it.”

In his book Vogler identifies 7 of the most common and useful archetypes: Hero, Mentor, Threshold Guardian, Herald, Shapeshifter, Shadow, Trickster. Many more archetypes exist. These two websites identify many more: Website #1 and Website #2.

Vogler says that even within the same stories an archetype may evolve and alter, changing as the story requires. Archetypes are primarily energies running through our characters. No character is a “pure” archetype. For instance, a character may enter the story as a herald, then switch to mentor, and end as a hero.

Here’s a brief rundown of Vogler’s 7 archetypes:

Hero - A hero is someone who is willing to sacrifice his own needs on behalf of others. The hero archetype represents a person’s search for identity and wholeness. This perfectly describes every romantic hero/heroine (Vogler says the hero can be of either gender). A romantic hero/heroine enters a story incomplete. Whether they know it or not they need the love of another person to be whole.

One story function of the Hero is to learn or grow. Another function of the Hero is acting or doing. His will is what moves the story forward, and he should remain active throughout the whole story, especially at critical times.

Mentor – The Mentor is usually a positive figure who aids or trains the hero. The Mentor is sometimes known as the Wise Old Man or Wise Old Woman. Sometimes the Mentor was once a Hero himself and is now passing along his knowledge.

The Mentor is also known for giving gifts. The gifts can be a magic weapon, an important clue, some magical medicine or life-saving advice. For instance, in “Star Wars” Obi Wan Kenobi gives Luke Skywalker his father’s light sabre. However, the Mentor usually only passes on these gifts after the Hero has passed certain tests or made sacrifices or commitments.

Some Mentors act as the conscious for the Hero (such as Jiminy Cricket in “Pinocchio”). Mentors also function as motivators, helping the Hero to overcome fear, sometimes with a kind word and sometimes with a swift kick in the rear.

Threshold Guardian – The Threshold Guardian is usually not the main villain but often the villain’s henchman or lieutenant. These Guardians may simply represent ordinary obstacles we all face in the world around us: bad luck, bad weather, oppression, prejudice or hostile people. Guardians can also stand for internal demons, such as emotional scars, vices and self-limitations that hold back our growth.

The function of the Threshold Guardian is to test the Hero. When a Hero encounters a Guardian he must solve a puzzle or pass a test.

Herald – The Herald represents a call for change. The Herald is the messenger that tells us change is necessary and may be a dream figure, a real person, or a new idea. For instance, in “Field of Dreams” it is the mysterious voice that tells the Hero “If you build it, they will come”. Whatever the Herald is, the message resonates with the Hero and he begins to change. This is the “Call to Action”.

The function of the Herald is to provide motivation, offer the Hero a challenge, and get the story rolling. They alert the Hero (and the audience) that change and adventure are coming.

Shapeshifter – The nature of the Shapeshifter is to be shifting and unstable. Its appearance and characteristics change as soon as you examine it closely. Heroes frequently encounter figures, often of the opposite sex, whose primary characteristic is that they appear to change constantly. For instance in “Fatal Attraction” the Hero is confronted with a Shapeshifting woman who changes from passionate lover to insane murderer.

The Shapeshifter’s function is to bring doubt and suspense into a story. If the Hero has doubts about the fidelity of someone in his story, that person is likely a Shapeshifter. Shapeshifters often appear in mysteries and thrillers.

Shadow – The archetype of the Shadow represents the energy of the dark side. Shadows can be all the things we don’t like about ourselves, all the dark secrets we can’t admit, even to ourselves. Like other archetypes the Shadow can be positive or negative.

Typically, the Shadow archetype represents characters we call villains, antagonists or enemies. Villains and enemies usually want to kill the Hero, while the antagonist is not quite as hostile. Often the antagonist is an ally who disagrees with the Hero’s tactics or is fighting for the same goal.

The function of the Shadow is to challenge the Hero and give her a worthy opponent. Shadows create conflict and bring out the best in the Hero. A story is often only as good as its villain because a strong enemy forces a hero to rise to the occasion.

Trickster – The Trickster is a leading figure in many myths and is popular in folklore and fairy tales. The Trickster archetype embodies the energies of mischief and desire for change.

The function of the Trickster is to provide comic relief. Unrelieved tension, suspense, and conflict can be emotionally exhausting. Even the heaviest drama needs moments of relief and laughter.

Have you used archetypes in your writing? Can you give an example of an archetype from a book, TV or a movie?


Ban said...

Yes, of course I have only, I didn't do so consciously. I do like going back and discovering how things were done without planning though. Lets you see how true the archetypes are or at least how important they are - how universal ... As for books - Gandalf as the Mentor is the first one that comes to mind but if you gave me two seconds I'd fill up your blog with them :D

Jana Richards said...

Hi ban,
I think that's the whole thing with archetypes. As you're watching a movie you don't consciously say "Yes, that character exhibits the energy of a Shadow!" But inside you recognize that character and identify it immediately. You understand what that character is supposed to do.

Gandalf is a very strong Mentor archetype, as is Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars. Like you said, you could fill up a blog with them. They're used over and over because people understand and identify with them so readily.

Thanks for sharing, ban.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Love this post, Jana. I've always been fascinated with the Jungian archetypes and the way they penetrate cultures. We went over them in my grade 12 lit class before studying Beowulf, as well as the Hero's Journey story structure, and it was really fun spotting the format in a lot of classic movies. Rather than go on and on and on with examples, I'll just offer Highlander as an example of pretty much everything. I also remember when going over the archetypes that a lot of them were female, bad women and such. Hooray for stereotypes :)

As for your other question, I'd have to borrow Ban's answer. I absolutely have, but not consciously. They come out no matter what, and I sort of trust them to do so, but I don't stop and think about it. I can appreciate their value for figuring out snags later in the writing process though, or where to go during the sagging middle.

Suse said...

Hi Jana,

That was a great post! I've been too long not writing and this is a good refresher of the different archetypes.

I just finished reading a book (I've hadn't been reading much either) where there were many characters and we were in almost all of their pov. There was one character who seemed to be a mentor - young and old came to him for advice and they felt comfortable talking to him about their concerns. He seemed to be nonjudgmental. However, this mentor character turned out to be the villain. I'm not sure what archetype that made him in the end.

This book was a thriller and because we were in so many character's heads, I don't think I could say for sure who was the hero or heroine of the story. I would say there were possibly two main characters - one male, one female. I guess being the romantic that I am, I had hoped by reading the back cover blurb these two would get together in the end. That didn't happen however as these two characters rarely interacted with each other. As interesting as the story was, I think I was let down by what I was led to expect by the back cover blurb and the introduction of the characters and how a reader would assume the hero and heroine would work as a unit.

I think we as readers have certain expectations once we determine who the hero and heroine are. There was definitely growth in both of these characters as they moved through the story though.

I guess I need to study archetypes more in depth so that my characters "deliver" in their roles in the story.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Hayley,
Vogler says that from the seven basic archetypes he mentioned, most characters from books and movies are created. Vanessa Grant mentions several of the more common female archetypes such as the Earth Mother (has bottomless maternal love to give) or Wild Woman (represents primal female creative energy, unfettered by civilization). There are many more. Both say that any of the archetypes can be either male or female.

I think having a bit of an understanding of archetypes helps to give you a good strong character. If you model your characters after these archetypes it will help readers to immediately connect with them.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Suse,
Good to hear from you! I hope you have a little time this summer to read and write and relax.

It sounds like the Mentor character you spoke of in your book was actually more of a Shapeshifter. Or perhaps he started out as a Mentor, but as the story progressed he became a Shadow figure, or villain. Either is possible. Characters change. Think of Darth Vader in Star Wars. He started the first three movies as a Shadow figure, but in the end he became a Jedi knight hero once more.

I'm not sure if your male and female characters were true heroes. Were they willing to sacrifice? Were they protectors, providers? Were they active characters, always doing rather than having things done to them? Perhaps they seemed unsatisfying to you because they didn't exhibit these heroic qualities.

I strongly recommend anyone reading "The Writers Journey" by Christopher Vogler for a real grounding in archetypes.

Hope to hear from you soon.


Silver James said...

Dang it! I glanced at this post first thing this morning and I've been fighting all day to get back to it, really read through it and make some notes. So far, it ain't happened. *sigh* On that note, I've copied and printed it to be enjoyed and learned from at a later date!

Jana, you always post such interesting bits!

Now, back to my regularly scheduled frenzy.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Silver,
I hope you find this post useful at some point. If you get a chance, read Christopher Vogler's book "The Writer's Journey" because this is just a very brief discussion about archetypes.

I hope your frenzy turns into really great writing. Have a good week!


Janet C. said...

Great post, Jana. I've read Volger's The Writer's Journey and enjoyed it. Your summation will be one I come back to often - thanks.

Molli said...

Hi Jana--chiming in late as we've been away and I'm just doing some catch up.

Like Janet, I've read Vogler's material and like your summation. I don't set out to incorporate an archetype in a character, but since they really are observations of universal human characteristics it's not surprising that they show up regardless.