A Brief Introduction to Archetypes – Part 2

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.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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!

And here’s something else I created for writers…

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