The Origin of Archetypes

Another excerpt from our book, Archetypes – Characters, Narrative and Mind –

If archetypes represent basic human qualities, each assigned to a different character, then how would such a convention of story structure come to be? The answer lies in the manner in which people organize themselves in the real world, which fiction hopes to document and seeks to understand.

When we attempt to solve a problem as individuals, we bring all of our mental tools to bear on the issue. Each provides is a different take on the problem, calling a different kind of evaluation into play. In this way, we look for a solution from every angle we have and thereby understand the situation as fully as we are able.

When we gather in groups to solve a problem of common concern, we begin as a collection of individuals, each trying to explore the issue from all sides, as we do on our own. In short order, however, we begin to specialize, each focusing on a different approach to the problem that represents just one of our basic human qualities.

For example, one person will become the voice of Reason for the group, while another will become the group’s Skeptic. In this way, the group as a whole is able to gain a deeper understanding of the issue because each specialist is able to devote full attention to just one aspect of the problem.

Thousands of generations of storytellers sought to discern the manner in which people interrelate and the roles they adopt. They observed the self-organization into the same specialties so often that the roles became codified in the conventions of story structure as the archetypes we know today.

And so, without anyone ever intentionally trying and without anyone ever realizing, the archetypal characters of fiction turn out to be perhaps the most accurate representation of the essential processes of problem solving we all possess, made manifest in an externalized representation of our own minds.