You can make your story a lot more focused and targeted if you know what kind of a story you are creating. A good place to start is to figure out which of the four basic types of stories yours is.
Now, these four story categories are a lot like the basic colors – Red, Blue, Yellow and Green. In practice there’s really a whole spectrum of stories out there, but you can begin adding clarity to your story by dividing them into these four groups: Situation, Activity, Mind Set, and Manner of Thinking.
Situation stories are like Poseidon Adventure where folks are trapped in an overturned cruise ship in the middle of the ocean or the original Die Hard where terrorists have trapped people in a skyscraper. Each is a fixed situation and until they get out of that situation, they’re just stuck in a real problem.
Activity stories are more like The African Queen where the characters have to make it down a jungle river in order to blow up an enemy ship or The Great Race where the characters have to participate in a turn-of-the-19th-century auto race from New York to Paris, the hard way around. Each of these stories is about a an ongoing physical effort, and is quite unlike a fixed situation story.
Mind Set stories are like A Christmas Carol where it is Scrooge’s attitude that is the underlying problem or like To Kill a Mockingbird in which people’s prejudice is the mind set that is causing the story’s problem. Each of these stories is about an unchanging state of mind, and the story’s problems will continue until that mind set is changed or overcome.
Manner of Thinking stories are like Hamlet where his father has been murdered and he wants to take revenge but keeps overthinking the plumbing and getting lost in his own ponderings or like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in which the characters are out to cause as much emotional pain as they can in their ceaseless predatory bickering. Each of these stories is about problems created by people who’s way of thinking is off-kilter and problematic, and the difficulties will continue unless the some to grips with things.
So, fixed situations, ongoing activities, fixed mind sets, and ongoing problems with the way folks are thinking. Those are the primary colors of types of stories.
Now, just knowing what type of story you are writing doesn’t write it for you. But by understanding which of these categories your story falls into, you can better target your efforts and give your plot, in fact your entire structure, a consistent and focused core.
Some time ago I wrote an article explaining how plot wasn’t the order in which events appeared in a story, but the order in which they happened to the characters. The storytelling order can be all mixed up for effect. As an example, consider the Quentin Tarantino movie, Pulp Fiction, in which several interconnected story lines are presented quite out of order from how they actually came down. A large part of the fun for the audience is to try to put the pieces together in the right sequence so they understand the meaning of the story.
Of course, that’s an extreme example. Much more common is the simple flashback (or flash forward). But even here, some flashbacks are plot, and others are storytelling. First, consider a story in which the story opens in a given year and then the next section begins with the introduction, “Three years earlier…” In this case, the characters aren’t being transported back in time, just the reader or audience. The author is showing us what happened that led up to where things are “now” in the story. That is all storytelling, and can be quite effective.
But now consider a flashback in which a character recalls some incident in the past. The character drifts off into reverie and then we, the readers or audience, watch those events as if they are in the present, observing the memories as the character experiences them. This is plot, not storytelling, because neither character nor readers are transport back in time. Rather, we are just observing just what the character is reminiscing about in the here and now. And so, this trip to the past does affect the character – it changes how they feel and perhaps what they will do next.
This is also true of flash forwards: Do we jump into the future to see where a character will end up, or is the character projecting where they might end up and we are seeing what they are thinking? The first variation is storytelling, the second is plot.
Of course things can get really out of whack in time-travel stories, especially since you can add both plot flashbacks and storytelling flashbacks also. The important thing here is to know when you are actually altering your plot or just changing the order in which the readers or audience are shown parts of the plot. If you are aware, you can play these techniques like a virtuoso, but if you treat them all the same, you’ll just end up with a cacophony.
But, as I said, that was covered in an earlier article I wrote, but I am repeating it here as a necessary foundation to what comes next. And that is, the difference between Static Plot Points and Sequential Plot Points. Very important.
To begin, if you strip away all the storytelling aspects of plot and get down to just the structure (the order in which things happen to the characters), you’ll find there are two kinds of plot points: One, Static Ones, such as the story Goal, that remain the same for the whole course of the story, and Two, Sequential Ones, such as Acts, Sequences, Scenes, and Beats within a scene, in which the story moves from one to the next to the next until the progression of the plot arrives at the climax, resolves and ends.
And that is what this article is about – giving you a glimpse into those two aspects of plot.
First, let’s look at the static plot points. We’ll cover just four in this article to make the point about static vs. progressive and address others in later articles. Here’s the four we’ll explore:
Goal, Requirements, Consequences, and Forewarnings.
Here’s a brief description of each:
Goal is what the protagonist is trying to achieve and the antagonist is trying to stop. Each probably has recruited their own team of helpers enlisted to aid in their two contradictory quest, but it is ultimately the protagonist and antagonist who have to duke it out to determine if the effort to achieve the goal ends in success or failure.
Now we all know that some goals turn out to be not worth achieving and that some goals are born of a misguided understanding, and also that goals can be partially achieved so, for example, the protagonist doesn’t get everything they want but enough to cover what they really need. No matter how you temper it, the story Goal is the biggest linchpin in your story’s plot.
Requirements are what’s needed to achieve that Goal. Requirements might be a shopping list of things the characters need to obtain or accomplish in any order (like a scavenger hunt) or Requirements could be a series of steps that need to be checked off in order.
Now you’d think that would make Requirements a sequential plot point, but it doesn’t because the Requirements remain the same for the entire story. So, just because you have to fulfill requirement 1 and then 2 and then 3, doesn’t make them sequential. Sequential plot points are like gears that turn to a different setting every act, sequence, or scene. The focus of each act, for example, is different than the last one, while the Requirements remain the same, even if they have to be accomplished in a certain order.
Yeah, this stuff can get pretty complex. That’s why you have me, your friendly neighborhood teach of story structure and storytelling to guide you through these tricky little story structure quagmires.
Consequences, are sort of like an Anti-Goal. Consequences are what will happen if the goal is not accomplished. It’s kind of like the flip-side of the coin. One the one side is the positive desired future and on the other side is the negative undesired alternative if that future isn’t achieved.
Consequences are really important because they double the dramatic tension of the story. The character are just chasing something positive, they are also being chased by something negative. Will they catch the Goal before the Consequences catch them? That’s where plot tension comes from. Right there.
Forewarnings… Just as Requirements are how you can chart the progress toward the Goal, Forewarnings are how you can chart how close the Consequences are to happening. Consequences can be cracks in a dam, follow by a small drip, a few little leaks, and so on. Everyone knows that at some point, the dam is going to bust – unless the characters achieve the Goal first, such as diverting the upstream flow, or opening the jammed overflow gates.
Forewarings can also be emotional too. A man must make his fortune to satisfy a woman’s father before he can get permission to marry her. But, there is another suitor. While he’s off looking for a legendary treasure, the woman has a casual conversation with the rival. As the man remains away, the woman and the rival share a meal, have a picnic, sit close together on the beach, watching the sunset. We all know that if the man doesn’t return with the treasure soon, the woman will go with the suitor who is there, rather than the man who isn’t.
So those are four examples of static plot points. There are many more. You’d be surprised! Some of them are extremely handy in making a plot click like clockwork. Alas, those are beyond the scope of this particular article. But don’t worry, I’ll be covering those in the not too distant future. Was that a flash forward?
All right. Now what about the Sequential Plot Points? A storya unfolds over time – not just in the telling, but the whole point of a story is to follow a journey and learn if the characters involved make the right decisions or not to get what they are after, both materially and emotionally. And we, the readers or audience, gain from that experience so we are better prepared if we ever face that kind of human issue in our own lives.
Now of course nobody thinks about that while following a story, but that’s how it works at the structural level. That’s part of the craft of authorship: to structure a story to affect readers or audience in a certain way intentionally to move them to feel or respond in a desired fashion when all is said and done.
To this end, think of a story as a symphony. You may know that symphonies are made of of movements – large sections of time in which certain themes are explored. And then the symphony shifts into another movement in which a different theme is explored. By the end of the symphony, all the variations of the theme that the composer wanted the audience to experience have been related, leading to a final climax and conclusion. How very like a story.
In stories, the largest of these movements are the acts. You can feel them when watching a movie or reading a book. There comes a point where something major is completed and the characters move on to a different kind of effort or understanding. Or, some major event occurs that sends everything off in a different direction. You get a sense of completion when you reach an act break, and also the sense that the next stage or phase of the story’s journey is about to begin.
Within acts are smaller movements called Sequences. Sequences usually follow an arc that spans several scenes. It may be a character arc or a kind of effort or process that has its own beginning, middle, and end within the story as a whole. For example, we’ve all heard of the “chase sequence” that often occurs in action movies. That’s how they come across, basically.
Scenes are smaller units and are more defined. They are like little dramatic circuits that have a Potential, Resistance, Current, and Outcome (Power). Each scene is a little machine – a miniature story within an act. Each scene starts with some dramatic potential, runs into a resistance, presses forward, and ends with a resolution to that original potential.
One of the most elegant things about scenes is that the way a scene ends set up the dramatic potential that will start another scene later. Elegant, but hard to get your head around. Again, not to worry, I’ll be covering that aspect of plot in another article soon.
Point being, that each scene is a tooth on the cog of an act. And together all these act cogs work together as part of the plot machinery of your story.
And finally, just as I covered four of the most basic static plot points, here is the fourth and final sequential plot point I’ll give you for now: Beats.
Beats are the turning of the gears within each scene. They are the steps within the scene that introduce the potential, bring into play the resistance, pit those against each other, and spit out the outcome.
What those beats are and how to use them is, again, the subject of another article. But the point here is that the sequential progression of a plot isn’t just one event after another; it is more like wheels within wheels.
And so, I believe we have accomplish our goal of the moment, which is that you are now probably quite away that the order of events in a finished story is not at all the plot. The plot is the order in which events happen to the characters.
And plot has two kinds: static, and sequential. The static point points include such things as Goal, Requirements, Consequences, and Forewarnings, and never change their nature over the course of the story. The sequential plot points are like gears that move the machinery of the plot forward, act by act, sequence by sequence, scene by scene, and beat by beat.
And that, my fellow writers, is how a story rolls.
Main characters don’t have to change to grow. They can grow in their resolve.
It is a common misconception among authors that the main character in a story must change in order to grow. Certainly, that is one kind of story, as in A Christmas Carol where Scrooge alters his way of looking at the world and his role in it. But other stories are about characters overcoming pressures put upon them to change their view point and holding on to their beliefs, such as in Field of Dreams where main character Ray Kinsella builds a baseball stadium in his corn field believing the old time players (and eventually even his father) will come to play. In the end, he is not dissuaded from what appears to be an quixotic plan of a misguided mind, and his steadfastness results in the achievement of his dreams.
It is essential in any novel or movie for the readers/audience to understand whether or not the main character ultimately changes to adopt a new point of view or holds on to his beliefs. Only then can the story provide a message that a particular point of view is (in the author’s opinion) the right or wrong way of thinking to achieve success and personal fulfillment.
But not all stories have happy endings. Sometimes, the main character changes when he should have stuck with his guns in regard to his beliefs and becomes corrupted or diminished or fails to achieve his goals A good example of this is in the movie The Mist (based on a Stephen King novel) in which the main character finally decides to give up on trying to find safety from monsters and shoots his son and surrogate family to save them from a horrible death only to have rescuers show up a moment later.
Other times, holding onto a belief system leads to tragic endings as well, as in Moby Dick in which the main character, Captain Ahab (Ishmael is the narrator), holds onto his quest for revenge until it leads to the death of himself and the destruction of his ship and the death of all his crew, save Ismael who lived to tell the tale.
Though writing is an organic endeavor, when you make specific decisions such as whether your main character will change or remain steadfast and what outcome that will bring about, you strengthen your message and provide a clear purpose to your storytelling that results in a strong spine in your novel or screenplay.
Whether your main character changes or remains steadfast is one of the questions we ask about your story in our Dramatica story structure software. You can try it risk-free for 90 days and return it for a full refund if it isn’t a good fit for your writing style.
Here is a writing prompt picture I posted recently and the amazingly creative response by writer Bill Williams
Bill Williams –
This is actually pretty easy to explain.
The cats in the front are feline overlords. They were testing a new human control virus on the people in the so-called “party” (Humans got a fake invitation to a pseudo-party where the drinks were spiked with FeCV (Feline Control Virus)).
Anyway, the cats in the front of the photo are contorting themselves to see if they can get the humans to do the same thing; the humans, forced to attempt to comply, are trying their best even though it’s causing some of them great pain (clearly). The female in the back of the photo with her hand on her head has just come in and hasn’t had a drink yet. She is clearly astonished at what she sees. Of course the infected humans not dancing are controlled to pretend nothing unusual is happening …
*sips coffee, brushes intruding pet cat off the chair*
I saw this once before. I believe it was 1962, San Diego CA. There were no … HUMAN survivors. (No cats were found either, but we all know just how crafty the little bastards are.)
So far their experiments have not been successful – in fact I thought they had given up on it. The photo you have presented is clear evidence they haven’t stopped trying.
My coffee tastes funny … I wonder if – DAMN CAT! OK, that’s it, I’m going national with th-
I have been instructed to tell you it is a photoshopped collage of people and animals. Nothing usual in the slightest ever happened. Please disregard what were clearly insane ramblings.
Yes, Sammie, I’ll get your cat food right now, baby. On my way!!!
One of the writers I coach recently wrote to me about getting drowned in a sea of ideas for his story, unable to organize his material, make choices, or more forward.
Here is the note I wrote him in response that might have some value for y’all:
I noticed in our previous work together that you often came up with multiple potential plot lines for your story, all equally good, but mutually exclusive. In other words, you have a lot of creativity and keep coming up with a fountain of ideas but they are incompatible with each other if they were placed in a single story, and you have trouble choosing the ones that work together and rejecting the others.
You are not alone in this. Another creative writer I have as a client has the same problem as you. He created a whole universe – a wondrous fantasy world with the potential to be another Harry Potter success but this time in a fantasy land focusing on a young girl – so inventive, so imaginative. But, every time he came up with another great idea, it would shatter the storyline he was working on and break it into pieces like shattered glass. He couldn’t put the pieces back together again and so he came up with a whole new storyline in that world in which the fragmented pieces could be sprinkled.
The sad thing was, each of his storylines was wonderful, but he rejected each because of new ideas he couldn’t fit into them. I believe that is the same problem you have. Basically, you are so durn creative that you pour out wonderful new ideas all the time. But because they are inspirations, they don’t necessarily fit into what you’ve already written.
Now for most writers who aren’t as inventive as you and my other client, selecting a single plot and a single story is the way to go, simply because they don’t have bushel baskets of other ideas about their story’s world. But for you and my other client, the answer is something else. And it is actually very simple. And, in fact, I’ve already given the secret to both of you, but neither of you has used it, and for the life of me I haven’t figured out why yet.
I’m thinking that your answer is not to reject any of the wonderful ideas but to create a series of books, each of which opens a whole new aspect of what we learned in the previous book. In fact, each new book may completely change what we, the reader, thought was going on in the last book we read, because now a whole new perspective has been created that throws everything into a different context and creates a different meaning.
You just pick the story you want to tell first – make that choice – then pull together all the creative ideas that work around that storyline and put all the other ideas into a sack to be used in later books in the series. That way, no idea is ever rejected, it is just earmarked for down-the-line.
So, with my other creative client, we worked out a master story arc of five books, each of which revealed a different aspect of his story’s world until all his creative ideas were included. And that’s also what you and I did – working out multiple stories that would eventually be able to use all your different storylines and situations.
But, to my surprise, neither of you actually got past that point. I don’t know if the desire to “get it all in one book” is too strong to consider a series or if, perhaps, the idea of the potential tedium of a whole series which requires sticking with a particular story world for a long time is a motivation killer.
In the case of my other client, as soon as he saw he had so many ideas it would take several books to express them all, he dumped his whole story world of fantasy and started a whole new story set in the New York world of high-competition design.
This is the curse of the overly creative mind. It has nothing to do with talent or manner of expression or intelligence. It is just that in some folks the Muse is ramped up so high that the new ideas drown their ability to complete – they are constantly drawn to the next truly wonderful idea and cannot help but lose interest in the idea they ostensibly are supposed to be working on. Once it becomes work, the new ideas are far more interesting because, beneath it all, there is more to being a writer than being creative. It also requires an innate ability of self-discipline – to nail oneself to a chair and write, day in and day out and even when it is deadly boring, unpleasant, unsatisfying, and mind-numbing. That’s how books get written, whereas overly creative minds with equal ability in word play will get nowhere because there is too much to lure them from the drudgery.
That’s the best advice I can muster about why this happens and what to do about it.
One other answer I suggested to my other client was to write his work as a series of short stories. Don’t go for a book-length plot, even if you are aware of every step in that plot. Just write a series of short episodes, each informed by the overall plot line, but each as a stand-alone that doesn’t require the others to be read and enjoyed. In this manner you can muster enough self-discipline to complete something in short form before being dragged away, and eventually can bundle all those short tales in your story world into a single book or series of books.
Other than that, however, unless you can bring yourself to pick one storyline and put in the focus to stick with it until it is done, putting all new ideas into a sack for later, I imagine you’ll continue to be frustrated.
So you really have a choice to keep on going as you are or to create a series of books for all your ideas and new ideas but stick with the first one to get it done, or to go to the short story method and then bundle them into books when you reach a “critical mass.”
Someone once said, “I hate writing; I love to have written.” The choice is really up to you.
Archetypes are the spine of any story, whether you use them in a monolithic manner or sculpt them into more complex variations. Understanding archetypes will help you to ensure your structure is human and complete.
In part 1 of this series we defined what archetypes are. In part 2, we discovered where archetypes come from and why they showed up in story structure. Here in part 3, we’ll define a specific cast of archetypal characters and outline how to employ them to strengthen your story.
How many archetypes are there? I have my own answer to that question but to see what else is out there I did a quick search and found scores of lists of archetypes, each with its own collection. One of them promised (and actually provided) more than three hundred different archetypes!
In looking through that group, I discovered something interesting: There was no consistency to what they considered to be an archetype. Some were defined by their profession, such as “Chef.” Now, I suppose if I really twisted my head around, I could see a “Chef” archetype as being a character who goes through life with recipes, trying to bring things together into a finished whatever, though it seems a bit of a stretch.
Another archetype was “Builder,” but how is that much different from a Chef? The Builder probably has plans (a recipe) that he uses in life to try and make things (like a meal, or a perfect marriage or, again, whatever).
And then there were archetypes put forth by Jung: the Mother, the Trickster, and the Hero, for example. The Mother is a relationship by birth, the Trickster is defined by what he (or she) tries to do to others, and the Hero is a Hero because of his stout heart, I imagine, or perhaps because of heroic acts. You can see these kinds of folks in real life, but what is the consistency that defines them or the underlying concept that binds them all together?
The farther I read through this extensive list, the more confusing it became trying to understand what made an archetype an archetype – be they con man, coward, or crone. And worse, it gave me no idea how a Coward might interact with a Chef, or a Trickster with a Crone.
Honestly, it’s kind of a mess out there in archetype-land. And that’s what my partner Chris and I discovered some thirty years ago when we first began work on what was to become our own theory of story structure, including our own list of archetypes.
If you’ve read in the first two articles in this series, you know that we came to believe that archetypes – true archetypes – represent the most fundamental human attributes that we all share such as Reason, Emotion, Skepticism, and Faith.
When we are trying to understand what’s happening in our lives and chart a course forward, we bring all of these attributes to bear on the problem so we can see the issues from all angles by using all the mental tools we have to make the best decisions.
That’s how we do it as individuals. However, when we gather together in groups such as a team or a company or even a family, and we agree to work toward a common cause or purpose, the group automatically self-organizes so that one person emerges as the voice of Reason for the group at large, and other becomes the resident Skeptic. Least ways, that’s our theory.
In other words, we each take on roles representing one of the fundamental approaches we take to solving problems for ourselves. And in this way, the group benefits from having a number of specialists on the job, rather than a collection of general practitioners, all trying to do the same thing. It is kind of a natural progression of social evolution when humans bond together.
So, in stories (which try to represent the human issues of real life), every character uses all these traits to solve their personal problems in the tale, but take on the role of representing just one of these traits when working with the group. And those roles ultimately became embedded in the conventions of story structure as archetypes.
Now our theory of story structure is a lot more detailed and complex than that, but you get the idea. And based on that idea, here is our list of archetypes associated with the human qualities they represent.
There are four primary or Driver archetypes and four secondary or Back Seat Driver archetypes that influence the primary ones. First I’ll list them by the human attributes they represent, and then I’ll list them again with their archetypal names as they appear in story structure.
Initiative / Reticence
Intellect / Passion
Conscience / Temptation
Confidence / Doubt
As you can see by the primary attributes listed, the driver archetypes directly try to grapple with the problem whereas the passenger archetypes think about consequences and put the problem in context. It is just the way the human mind works when it fashions narratives to get a grip on the situation.
Now here are those same attributes again with their archetypal names.
Initiative (Protagonist) / Reticence (Antagonist)
Intellect (Reason) / Passion (Emotion)
Conscience (Guardian) / Temptation (Contagonist)
Confidence (Sidekick) / Doubt (Skeptic)
Let’s take the archetypes one by one just to get a sense of how each human attribute shows up in a story.
First up, the Protagonist. The Protagonist is the character that keeps on plugging away at the goal, no matter what. That’s the human quality of Initiative – the motivation to affect change, get up and go, make something happen, shake things up, and so on.
Next, the Antagonist. The Antagonist is the character that wants to prevent the goal from being accomplished, no matter what. That’s the human quality of Reticence (reticence to change) – the motivation to keep things as they are, put them back the way they were, quash the fires of rebellion, and so on.
Side note: In James Bond films, it is the villain who takes the first strike and Bond who thwarts him, so from an archetypal standpoint, the villain is the Protagonist and Bond is the Antagonist, just by the human attributes they represent in structure. Just think about that for a moment. It is one reason why Bond seems like a different kind of hero. There’s a lot more about this kind of thing in our theory, but its a bit off-the-point for now, so lets look at the next pair of archetypes.
The Reason archetype is the character who tries to solve every issue by figuring it out. They apply logic to the matter, and if it doesn’t make sense, they are against it (rather ignoring the humanity of the situation).
The Emotion archetype is the character who wants everyone to follow their heart – be yourself, if it feels right do it (as we used to say in the 60’s). Of course, now I’m actually in my 60’s but that’s another story….
Now before we move on to the passengers, consider how these archetypes always travel in pairs. Protagonist / Antagonist and Reason / Emotion. Every archetype has a counter part, and the conflict between the characters in each pair mirrors the conflicts in our own minds as we duke it out between two different ways of deciding what to do so we can have confidence in the last one standing as the approach to take.
In other words, our initiative is weight or pitted against our reticence – should we do something or let sleeping dogs lie? Which is better? Well, that all depends on the situation, and that’s what stories are all about: The author is telling us that in this particular situation, it is better to take initiative, or that it is better to try and maintain the status quo. But the primary decision we have in the world is to act or not to act, and that’s why Protagonist and Antagonist have at each other as the problem-solving effort of the story progresses – to provide evidence for the author’s message about which is the better approach in this specific case that the story explores.
It is the same with Reason and Emotion. But it is also different in a big way. Initiative and Reticence are diametrically opposed. Intellect and Passion can be opposed, but don’t have to be. Sometimes they can actually agree. Sometimes what makes the most sense also feels the best. Sometimes what makes sense feels so-so. And sometimes it feels like a horrible thing to do. Both Reason and Emotion might also agree that something is rotten – it doesn’t make sense and it doesn’t feel right either.
As you can see, with these two pairs of archetypes we’ve discovered two different kinds of character relationships. And when you build a story around each of these characters, you’ll see all of these pop up as it unfolds.
Now, let’s take a look at the passengers to get a better grip on those archetypes…
The Guardian looks out for consequences as in, “Where’s this all going to lead to?” or “Fine, but what price might we have to pay later.” These are the functions of the human quality of conscience.
When you think about it, if you strip away all the moral associations, Conscience is really about thinking about the ramifications and Temptation is going for the immediate benefit (we’ll get around the consequences later.. somehow….)
And so, Guardian and Contagonist are partly about the long term gain vs. the short term gain. You see folks who lean more to one or the other in real life, but we all have both of those two traits – even a sociopath weighs the immediate benefit vs. the eventual risk.
And finally we have the Sidekick and the Skeptic. In stories, think of the Sidekick as the faithful supporter and the Skeptic as the doubting opposer. These two archetypes are rather like cheerleaders – one representing our confidence in finding a solution and the other representing self-doubt.
Of course in stories, the overall plot is about the group, so these attributes show up like they do in real-life organizations: Confidence says, “Go team! I know we can do it!” where Doubt is more like Eeyore or the Cowardly Lion, “I think we’d better give up on this because we haven’t got a chance.”
Now I could go on and on about these archetypes and, in fact, I actually have! Here’s a link to a free online version of the book we wrote about our theory of story structure.
You might also be interested in the software we created based on the theory. You can try it risk-free for 90 days! Check it out…
Though this concludes our brief introduction to archetypes, in future articles, we’ll break the archetypes into smaller dramatic elements and show how you can rearrange those to create more complex and deeper characters that will fulfill all necessary structural roles.
In my previous article, A Brief Introduction to Archetypes – Part 1, I defined what an archetype is, and what it is not. Here in Part 2, we’re going to expand on that understanding by revealing where archetypes come from and how they came to be.
Let us consider then the origin or archetypes…
Each of us has within us, regardless of age, gender, race, culture, or language, certain fundamental human attributes such as reason, passion, skepticism, belief, conscience, and temptation.
The qualities are not so much traits and processes our minds employ to try and understand our world and ourselves, to identify problems and seek solutions, and to chart a course forward to maximize the good in our lives and minimize the bad.
When we put a box around some aspect of our lives, such as our relationship to our spouse, our position at work, or our membership in a club or organization, we call it a narrative. That’s all narrative is, really, is to box in a part of our existence to understand it independently of the rest of our life experience.
Of course, these personal narratives are not really closed systems since what happens in one part of our lives certainly affects the others. But our lives as a whole are so complex that we need to parse them into smaller, more easily considered pieces And each of of these is a personal narrative.
And, as we are all aware, we don’t only create narratives about ourselves and the people in our lives, but we also build them around larger issues, such as whether or not we believe in Global Warming, why we believe that, and what (if anything) we think should be done about it. In short, every opinion we have is a narrative, large or small.
When we consider any of these personal narratives all of our human attributes come into play to try and choose the best path, e.g., reason, skepticism, and temptation.
But when we gather together in groups to explore a common issue or toward a common purpose, very quickly someone will emerge as the voice of reason for the group, another as the resident skeptic, and one other group member will represent the temptation to take the immediately expedient course (even if ill-advised in the long-term).
These roles that form within a group narrative are the basis of archetypes. It happens automatically as the group self-organizes. How this happens is a bit beyond the scope of this article, but should you care to dig deeper you may find the social dynamics behind it quite intriguing.
Now that we know how archetypes form, how did they get into story structure? Well, to answer that we really need to define story structure. Fortunately, the explanation isn’t all that complex.
To begin with, story structure isn’t artificial and it isn’t imposed on stories arbitrarily from the outside to cram dramatics into some sort of rigid form. On the contrary, story structure gradually emerged in stories as early storytellers sought to understand the human animal as individuals and also how they interacted together.
Imagine, then, that we all have these fundamental attributes we employ in our personal narratives and that the same attributes rise up as archetypes in our group narratives. These seminal storytellers would note that the problems we face every day occur when one of our personal narratives is in conflict with someone else’s and also that problems occur when our personal narrative is in conflict with our role in a group narrative.
Simply put – we conflict with others who have different agendas and we also feel pressure when our chosen course is in conflict with our part in the big machine.
Now, as storytellers began to note that the same human qualities (such as reason and skepticsm) kept cropping up in every story that felt complete, they began to include them in every story. So, a Reason archetype became a required character in every story, as did a Skeptic. The Protagonist and Antagonist showed up as well.
As more archetypes were identified, they embedded in the conventions of storytelling. Through trial and error, all the of these “primary colors” of the human heart and mind were noted, made their way into those conventions, and eventually solidified into what we know as story structure today.
It should be noted that story structure is flexible, rather like a Rubik’s cube. The building blocks are always the same but they can be arranged in a myriad of patterns, as long as they don’t violate the way people really interact. Just as a Rubik’s cube is always a cube, a story structure is always a narrative. That’s what gives it form.
Now the archetypes are just part of story structure. Plot elements such as goal, requirements, and consequences as well as sequential movements like acts, sequences, and beats, describe the different ways folks strive to move a narrative forward to the conclusion they seek. Thematic items, such as thematic issue, thematic conflict, and message look into our value standards and belief systems, pitting one against another to illustrate the best ways of dealing with different kinds of problems. And even genre has underlying human qualities represented in the structure which tend to provide perspective and context for the narrative, giving it richness and and overall organic feeling.
All of what leaves us where? Well, it leaves us with a general understanding of the origin of Archetypes and how they made their way into story structure.
And that is where we close in Part 2 of A Brief Introduction to Archetypes an anticipate Part 3 in which we will specifically list the archetypes, show how to employ them in your story, and then bust them apart into their component elements to illustrate how you can move beyond archetypes to create far more complex and human characters without violating the truth of structure.
Author’s Note: The concepts in this article are drawn from the Dramatica Theory of Narrative I co-created with my partner, Chris Huntley. All of this and much more made its way into our Dramatica Story Structure Software, which you can try risk-free for 90 days. Give it whirl!
Writers and narrative theorists often speak of Archetypes. When they do, Jung and Campbell and the Hero’s Journey quickly come to mind. And yet, if pressed, most writers would admit they don’t really have a solid grip on what an archetype is, where they come from, and how they can or should be used in a story.
So, here’s a little exploration into the nature and function of archetypes in narrative to give you something a little more definitive…
First of all, archetypes are structural characters. That means that a Protagonist is a Protagonist whether they are man, woman, creature, or humanized force of nature. And it doesn’t matter how old they are, what their goal is, or what personality traits they have.
If you strip away all those storytelling elements, Hamlet is the same as Homer Simpson as Protagonists.
So what is this dramatic function that defines a Protagonist and makes them all the same? By definition, a Protagonist is the character who will not stop trying to achieve the overall story goal until they succeed or die trying.
Okay, but that is very plot-oriented. What about stories that focus on a troubled character who has to grapple with all kinds of life issues and perhaps make a decision or take a leap of faith in order to resolve them?
Well, the character in story who dealing with an inner demon or has a point of view (like Scrooge) that really needs changing is called the Main Character. The Main Character in a story is the one you root for – it is the character you want to find peace and/or happiness. And all the emotional ups and downs along the way seem to revolve around them.
Often, a Main Character is the same person as the Protagonist. In this case, you have a Hero – the guy leading the effort to achieve the goal is also the guy who is grappling with an inner issue. And in the end, they will either succeed or not in the goal, and they will either resolve their personal issue or not.
The goal and the personal issue aren’t really tied together, so you can have four kinds of endings:
A Happy Ending in which the Hero succeeds and resolves his angst, as in Kingsman, Frozen, or Wizard of Oz.
A Tragic Endings in which the Hero fails to achieve the goal and does not resolve his angst as in Doctor Zhivago, Hamlet, or Brokeback Mountain.
A Personal Triumph in which the Hero fails to achieve the goal but manages to resolve his angst anyway as in Rocky, How to Train Your Dragon, or The Devil Wears Prada.
A Personal Tragedy in which the Hero succeeds in achieving the goal but does not resolve his angst as in Chinatown, Silence of the Lambs, or The Dark Knight.
Getting back to archetypes, we can see why a Hero isn’t a true archetype but more of a stereotype who is created by making the same person in a story both the Protagonist and the Main Character.
Of course, the Protagonist is not always the Main Character. Consider both the book and movie versions of To Kill A Mockingbird. In the story, it is Atticus, the righteous lawyer (played by Gregory Peck in the movie) who is the Protagonist. He has the goal of trying to get an acquittal for a black man wrongly accused of raping a white girl in a small southern town in the 1930s. He fails to do so, and after the conviction the man is killed trying to escape.
But Atticus is not the Main Character of To Kill A Mockingbird. The Main Character is Atticus’ young daughter Scout. We see the story through her eyes. And scout is the one with a personal issue to resolve: She believes that Boo Radley, the emotional challenged man who is kept in a basement down the street by his family, is a monster – a boogeyman who would kill children if he ever got hold of them.
Yet Scout has never seen Boo but has only bought into the rumors about him. In the course of the story, Boo secretly protects Scout and her brother from the wrath of the white girl’s father who seeks to harm them because of Atticus defending the black man.
In the end, Scout relalizes that it is Boo who has always looked after them from the shadows. She had him all wrong, and she now smiles and accepts him for the caring man he really is.
And so, the message of To Kill A Mockingbird is that we (even innocent children) can be prejudice whenever we prejudge someone based on hearsay and rumor, rather than by our own experience.
Imagine if Atticus were the Main Character instead. Then the reader/audience would come out of the story feeling all self-righteous by standing in Atticus’ shoes. Atticus never wavers in his belief in fair justice, so he has nothing to grapple with. But by making Scout the Main Character, the message strikes home to the reader/audience at an almost subconscious level – deep enough to possibly make us all reconsider our preconceptions about others.
As you can see, a Protagonist is an archetype defined simply by being the character who will never stop pursuing the story goal. And in this regard, Hamlet is no different than Homer Simpson.
The Main Character is not an archetype but a perspective – a character with whom the reader/audience can identify to provide a first person experience in regard to the story and an opportunity for the author to send a message about a particular outlook, such as with Scrooge.
At the end of part one of our introduction to archetypes we can sum up a few things:
An archetype is a structural character
An archetype is define by their dramatic function, not their personality
A Main Character provide the first person position in a story to the reader/audience
A Main Character grapples with an inner issue.
A Hero is a stereotype in which the person who is the Protagonist is also the Main Character.
As the final thought for part one, any of the archetypes might be made the Main Character so, for example, we might see the story through the eyes of the Antagonist, rather than the Protagonist, and it would be the Antagonist who is also the person struggling with a personal issue. In this example, we have created one of the forms of an Anti-Hero.
Are there other kinds of Anti-Heroes? Yes! Who are they, and who are the other archetypes, and where do archetypes come from, and how can an author best put them to work?
These and many other questions will we answered in A Brief Introduction to Archetypes ~ Part 2 -coming soon….
Author’s note: Most of these concepts come from the Dramatica theory of narrative structure I developed along with my writing partner, Chris Huntley. They became the basis for our Dramatica Story Structuring Software. Click the link to try it risk-free.
Here are a few of my best tricks for creating characters from scratch and for developing characters you’ve already created.
Coming up with characters is as simple as looking to our subject matter and asking ourselves who might be expected to be involved. But that only creates the expected characters – predictable and uninteresting. Making these characters intriguing, unusual, and memorable is a different task altogether. But first things first, let us look to our subject matter and see what characters suggest themselves. (If you like, try this with you own story as we go.)Example:
Suppose all we know about our story is that we want to write an adventure about some jungle ruins and a curse. What characters immediately suggest themselves?
Jungle Guide, Head Porter, Archaeologist, Bush Pilot, Treasure Hunter
What other characters might seem consistent with the subject?
Missionary, Native Shaman, Local Military Governor, Rebel Leader, Mercenary
How about other characters that would not seem overly out of place?
Night Club Singer, Tourist, Plantation Owner
And perhaps some less likely characters?
Performers in a Traveling Circus (Trapeze Artist, Juggler, Acrobat, Clown)
We could, of course, go on and on. The point is, we can come up with a whole population of characters just by picking the vocations of those we might expect or at least accept as not inconsistent with the subject matter. Now these characters might seem quite ordinary at first glance, but that is only because we know nothing about them. I promised you a trick to use that would make ordinary characters intriguing, and now is the time to try it.
Of course, we probably don’t need that many characters in our story, so for this example let’s pick only one character from each of the four groups above: Bush Pilot, Mercenary, Night Club Singer, Clown.
First we’ll assign a gender to each. Let’s have two male and two female characters. Well pick the Bush Pilot and the Mercenary as male and the Night Club Singer and the Clown as female.
Now, picture these characters in your mind: a male Bush Pilot, a male Mercenary, a female Night Club Singer, and a female Clown. Since we all have our own life experiences and expectations, you should be able to visualize each character in your mind in at least some initial ways.
The Bush Pilot might be scruffy, the Mercenary bare-armed and muscular. The Night Club Singer well worn but done up glamorously, and the Clown a mousy thing.
Now that we have these typical images of these typical characters in our minds, let’s shake things up a bit to make them less ordinary. We’ll make the Bush Pilot and the Mercenary female and the Night Club Singer and Clown male.
What does this do to our mental images? How does it change how we feel about these characters? The Bush Pilot could still be scruffy, but a scruffy woman looks a lot different than a scruffy man. Or is she scruffy? Perhaps she is quite prim in contrast to the land in which she practices her profession. Since female bush pilots are more rare, we might begin to ask ourselves how she came to have this job. And, of course, this would start to develop her back-story.
How about the female Mercenary? Still muscular, or more the brainy type? What’s her back story? The Night Club Singer might be something of a lounge lizard type in a polyester leisure suit. And the male Clown could be sad like Emit Kelly, sleazy like Crusty the Clown, or evil like Pennywise the Clown in Stephen King’s “It.”
The key to this trick is that our own preconceptions add far more material to our mental images than the actual information we are given – so far only vocation and gender.
Due to this subconscious initiative, our characters are starting to get a little more intriguing, just by adding and mixing genders. What happens if we throw another variable into the mix, say, age? Let’s pick four ages arbitrarily: 35, 53, 82, and 7. Now let’s assign them to the characters.
We have a female Bush Pilot (35), a female Mercenary (53), a male Night Club Singer (82), and a male Clown (7). How does the addition of age change your mental images?
What if we mix it up again? Let’s make the Bush Pilot 7 years old, the Mercenary 82, the Night Club Singer 53, and the Clown 35. What do you picture now?
It would be hard for a writer not to find something interesting to say about a seven-year-old female Bush Pilot or an eighty-two year old female Mercenary.
What we’ve just discovered is that the best way to break out of your own mind and its cliché creations is to simply mix and match a few attributes. Suddenly your characters take on a life of their own and suggest all kinds of interesting back-stories, attitudes, and mannerisms.
Now consider that we have only been playing with three attributes. In fact, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of attributes from which we might select. These might include educational level, race, disabilities, exceptional abilities, special skills, hobbies, religious affiliation, family ties, prejudices, unusual eating habits, sexual preference, and on and on. And each of these can be initially assigned in typical fashion, then mixed and matched. Using this simple technique, anyone can create truly intriguing and memorable characters.
So, imagine…. What would this story be like if we chose the seven-year-old female Bush Pilot as the Hero. How about the eighty-two year old female Mercenary? Can you picture the 53-year-old male Night Club Singer as Hero, or the thirty-five year old male Clown?
Perhaps the most interesting thing in all of this is that we have become so wrapped up in these fascinating people that we have completely forgotten about structure! In fact, we don’t even know who is the Hero, Protagonist, or Main Character!
Many authors come to a story with a main character in mind and can use this technique to break out of developing a stereotypical one. Other authors are more interested in the events or setting of their stories and discover their characters (including the main character) in the process of working out the plot. In that case, using this technique provides them with a whole cast of intriguing characters from which to choose the Hero.
The bottom line is that whether you have some or all of your characters in mind from the get-go or start with a story concept and create your characters along the way, these character development tricks will help you come up with the people you need to populate your story and ensure they are both fresh and real.
Perhaps the most fundamental error made by authors, whether novice or experienced, is that all their characters, male and female, tend to reflect the gender of the author. This is hardly surprising, since recent research indicates that men and women use their brains in different ways. So how can an author overcome this gap to write characters of the opposite sex that are both accurate and believable to their own gender?
In this article, we’ll explore the nature of male and female minds and provide techniques for crafting characters that are true to their gender.
At first, it might seem that being male or female is an easily definable thing, and therefore easy to convey in one’s writing. But as we all know, the differences between the sexes have historically been a mysterious quality, easily felt, but in fact quite hard to define. This is because what makes a mind male or female is not just one thing, but also several.
First, let’s consider that gender has four principal components:
Anatomical sex describes the physicality of a character – male or female. Now, we all know that people actually fall in a range – more or less hairy, wider or narrower hips, deeper or higher voice, and so on. So although there is a fairly clear dividing line between male and female anatomically, secondary sexual characteristics actually create a range of physicality between the two. Intentionally choosing these attributes for your characters can make them far less stereotypical as men and women.
Sexual Preferences may be for the same sex, the opposite sex, both, or neither (or self). Although people usually define themselves as being straight, gay, bi, or celibate, this is also not a fixed quality. Statistics shows, for example, that 1/3 of all men have a homosexual encounter at least once in their lives.
Although it often stirs up controversy to say so, in truth most people have passing attractions to the same sex, be it a very pretty boy or a “butch” woman.
Consider the sexual preference of your characters not as a fixed choice of one thing or another, but as a fluid quality that may shift over time or in a particular exceptional context.
Gender Identity describes where one falls on the scale between masculine and feminine. This, of course, is also context dependent. For example, when one is in the woods, at home with one’s family, or being chewed out by the boss.
Gender Identity is not just how one feels or things of oneself, but also how one act’s, how one uses one’s voice, and how one wishes to be treated. Often, a male character may have gentle feelings but cover them up by overly masculine mannerisms. Or, a female character may be “all-business” in the workplace out of necessity, but wishes someone would treat her with softness and kindness.
Actually, Gender Identity is made up of how one acts or wishes to act, and how one is treated or wishes to be treated. How many times have we seen a character who is forced by others to play a role that is in conflict with his or her internal gender self-image? Gender Identity is where one can explore the greatest nuance in creating non-stereotypical characters.
Finally, Mental Sex describes where one falls on the scale from practical, binary, linear, logistic, goal-oriented thinking to passionate, flexible, emotional, process-oriented thinking. In fact, every human being engages in ALL of these approaches to life, just at different times and in different ways.
Now, in creating characters, consider that each of the four categories we just explored is not a simple choice between one thing or another, but a sliding scale (like Anatomical Sex) or a conglomerate of individual traits (like Gender Identity). Then, visualize that wherever a character falls in any one of those four categories places absolutely no limits on where he or she may fall in the other categories.
For example, you might have a character extremely toward male anatomical sex, bi-sexual (but leaning toward a straight relationship at the moment), whose gender identity is rough and tumble (but yearns to be accepted for his secret sensitivity toward impressionistic paintings) who is practical all the time (except when it comes to sports cars).
Any combination goes. But when it comes to Mental Sex itself, there are four sub-categories within that area alone which tend to define the different personality types we encounter:Memory relies on our training to organize our considerations in a give situation toward components or processes. And every character always has a Conscious choice to focus on the components or processes at any given moment. In other words, in a given situation, at each level of Mental Sex does a character center on the way things are or the way things are going? At each level is the character more interested in getting his or her ducks in a row or in a pond?
In brief, each of these “levels” or “attributes” of the mind can lean toward seeing the world in definable or experiential terms. Pre-conscious is a tendency to perceive the world in components or as processes that is determined before birth. It is the foundation of leaning toward the tradition “male” or “female” personality traits. Subconscious determines the tendencies we have to be attracted or repelled from component or process rewards.
Finally, beyond all of these considerations is the cultural indoctrination we all receive that leads us to respond within social expectations appropriately to the role associated with our anatomical sex. These roles are fairly rigid and include what is proper to wear, who speaks first, who opens the door or order the wine, who has to pretend to be inept where and skilled where else (regardless of real ability or lack there of in that area), the form of grammar one uses in constructing sentences, the words one is expected to use (“I’ll take a hamburger,” vs. “I’d like a salad”), and the demeanor allowable in social interaction with the same and the opposite sex, among many other qualities.
In the end, writing characters of the opposite sex requires a commitment to understand the difference between those qualities, which are inherent and those, which are learned, and to accept that we are all made of the same clay, and merely sculpt it in different ways.