Friday, February 26, 2010


This year I signed up for a novel-writing course with Forward Motion for Writers, a link through the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Each week we are given an assignment to complete and post on a closed blog where the assignment is read and critiqued by our classmates. At the end of two years we will have completed a novel.

This course is going to be both exciting and boring. I have no doubt I will learn a lot, but the thought of dragging the process out for two years will definitely be an exercise in patience. I expect there will be lags of time where we are doing very little, and other times when we are in a frenzy of writing to get assignments completed.

This week our assignment was on character archetypes. Archetypes are typical or classic examples of characters, a model or pattern for all characters of the same kind. They are recognizable in the sense that they represent an aspect of human nature that we can all identify with.

The following archetypes were part of our assignment:

Mentors are the characters who give the protagonist some kind of education or insight that is needed to be successful by the end of the novel. The mentor generally has had an important role in forming the philosophy of the main character. The mentor archetype that comes to mind for me is Dumbledore for a young Harry Potter.

Threshold Guardian
These are the bad guys who hold the hero back, be it physically or in the form of information, from getting what he needs. These characters can be actual guards or gatekeepers the hero has to get past by either fighting or negotiating. Overcoming the threshold guardian is usually a point of change, and after they have successfully triumphed over the threshold guardian the hero is typically stronger than before. Draco Malfoy was likely a threshold guardian who gave Harry the opportunity to fortify his will and evolve.

The Herald
This person announces the hero’s quest; the required accomplishment the main character needs to achieve in order to be successful. The herald provides the protagonist with a challenge of some sort, which moves the character toward the work they need to accomplish. A notable herald would have been Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars.

This does not have to a literal shapeshifting beast, but rather a character that changes roles in the book, such as the backstabbing friend who ends up saving the main character’s life. The shapeshifter may demonstrate both sides of the tale by showing the lure of good or evil. They represent betrayal and change. The Senator Palpatine in Star Wars is a great example of this archetype because he appeared good but was really evil.

The shadow is the dark archetype, the evil villain who has real motives for their evil beliefs and behaviours. Sometimes there is a shadow character who is the villain’s devoted helper who may be acting out of power alone, making them personify evil even more than the villain they are devoted to. Voldemort and Darth Sidious were shadow characters, where Darth Vader was the devoted helper.

This archetype is the amusing sidekick, like the sassy little sister or the traditional mythological trickster figure. The trickster creates ambiguity in absolutes because they are less about right and wrong. Sometimes they lead the main character astray, but not to be intentionally harmful. They may lighten the story with comic relief. The Weasley brothers fit the trickster archetype nicely.

When we assign an archetype to a character it helps clarify that person’s role in the story as well as provide an overall theme of the story itself.


Vince said...

Hi Joanne:

You might check the ‘trickster’ in Navajo folklore. He takes the form of the coyote and is often the major character in stories.

The class sounds amazing. My question is: How many students are enrolled?


Karyn Good said...

It sounds like an amazing class and you're going to learn lots. I'm very intrigued by the idea of a novel writing class! You'll have to keep us informed of how it's going.

I'm always interested in learning about archetypes. I can see how it would give a great indication of a character's role and help provide an overall theme.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Joanne,
I think archetypes are quite fascinating. Have you read Christopher Vogler's book on archetypes? (the name of the book escapes me at the moment and I'm not at home to pull it from my bookshelf. Perhaps someone out there knows the name?) This is a very in depth study of archeypes.

This should be a very interesting class. Let us know how the progress goes and if you think the effort you've put in has been worthwhile. I'm sure other writers would be interested.


Janet said...

Hey, Joanne - an aside for Jana: The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler based on The Hero's Journey by Joseph Campbell.

Love the idea of taking a class like this, Joanne - and I think I can add my name to the list of people here who would love if you kept us up-to-date with your course and the progress. Although you're right in that two years is a very long time to write one novel. But I guess you'll be learning tons along the way - with the added bonus of great feedback from fellow writers and the instructors.

Great post - thanks for reminding us of the archetypes found in every story.

Joanne Brothwell said...

Hi Vince,
I'll check out the Navajo trickster who sounds similar to the crow trickster from Cree folklore.

I don't have an exact number on how many people are enrolled in the class, but I think it's in the hundreds.

Joanne Brothwell said...

Hi Karyn,
I think you're right - I will probably learn a lot in the course and I promise I'll keep everyone updated about my progress.

Joanne Brothwell said...

Hi Jana,
I haven't read Vogler's book (yet) but will put it on my TBR list!

Joanne Brothwell said...

Hi Janet,
I will definitely keep everyone up to date on my progress in this course. I have already learned a lot and it's only week seven!

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Nice summary Joanne. I love the archetypal properties of stories and characters, although I've never wanted to read too deeply into them (readings that directly relate to writing) because I don't want them overly influencing me. Might just be a personal twitch, but that's how I feel :p Archetypes are supposed to be subconscious, so they'll be there even if I don't read them, haha.

I'm glad Vince mentioned Coyote, since I was actually going to mention the same thing. I recently picked up a great little reference book that touches briefly on a lot of recurring themes and story types in First Nations folklore across North America. It's too small to be utterly thorough, but the section on tricksters caught my eye right away. My favourite was always Raven.

If you delve further into archetypes, I'd be interested to hear whether they feel inspiring or constraining to you... as in whether the prospect of the Hero's Journey gives you something to work with or forces you into a standard plot. I've heard good arguments for both sides :)

connie said...

Hi Joanne
Among the eastern nations e.g.the Ojibway, the trickster is Windego. He can take human form or be invisible.
Your blog is a lesson in itself. It's great.
I am going to move it to keep in favourites as I was not aware of them to any degree.
I would love to follow your class too. Private blog?
Thanks for the book info Jana and Janet.

Joanne Brothwell said...

Hi Hayley,
I enjoy the trickster archetype as well, it creates that nice ambiguity around moral issues, like Wesakejack.

I'm not sure whether I find archetypes inspiring or constraining. Maybe once I get a little further into it I can speak to that.

Joanne Brothwell said...

Hi Connie,
I don't know about Windego, but as I mentioned in response to Hayley's comment, I love the Cree version of Wesakejack. Those stories are great fun and have nice life lessons.

The private blog is a good idea, and I could definitely post some of information from the coursework if people are interested.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Excellent post Joanne. I'm another one who always needs info on different character types. I was familiar with some of these archetypes, but not all. Good job.

And good luck with the class. It sounds like it is worth the lengthy time investment.