Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Archetypes: The Threshold Guardian

I think I made it past the paralysis point, and I really got a lot done yesterday. Mind you, most of it was from my first attempt at a draft, so there wasn't a lot of new writing, but I didn't hate it all. It's still not gold, but maybe it's fresh, green leaves instead of dead, dry ones.

But that came after I spent a fun hour on the phone fighting with AT&T. I haven't used long distance in years, since long distance is free on my cell phone. I think I sent a fax long-distance a year or two ago. But I suddenly got this bill for long distance and thought there had to be a case of identity theft. It turns out that without me knowing it, AT&T changed their long distance service so that you now have to be in a "plan," which is charged monthly, and they were charging me for several months. I spent a lot of time on hold and arguing with nice young men with Indian accents and suspiciously all-American names that make them sound like soap opera characters (I'm guessing the offshore customer service reps have to take on an "American" identity), who seemed to have no power (or clue beyond a script). And, apparently, you can't have long-distance service anymore without being in a "plan." There's no such thing as just being charged when you make a long-distance call. So I cancelled the long-distance service entirely. I figure I can either buy a pre-paid card in case I need to send a fax, or maybe I can find a long-distance service that operates on the radical concept of only charging you when you make a call. Even if the per-minute rate is higher, it's bound to be cheaper than paying several dollars a month to make maybe one one-minute call per year. It's really annoying, given that I have so many services from AT&T, and now they're doing this. I will be writing a strongly worded letter to corporate HQ. I'm sure I have a contact somewhere from my telecom PR days. Anyone know of a decent long-distance provider that will let me send the occasional fax without making me pay monthly for the privilege (and that will let me know before they start charging me monthly)?

Now, picking up on the discussion of archetypes from the hero's journey, this week I'm looking at the Threshold Guardian. If the Hero is something of a blank slate and the Mentor is prone to stereotype, the Threshold Guardian tends to come dangerously close to plot device. I picture a flat plywood cutout that springs up to say, "None shall pass!" and ask the hero the airspeed of a laden swallow before the hero passes the test and moves on into the story.

The main story function of the Threshold Guardian is testing the hero. Basically, the Threshold Guardian is the first person who stands in the way of the hero. The idea is that being a hero is supposed to be hard. If everyone could do it, then we wouldn't bother telling stories. Only those who are worthy can pass into the "special world" of the story, and it's the job of the Threshold Guardian to weed out those who are unworthy. Yeah, we know if we're reading a story that the hero will pass the test, otherwise there wouldn't be a story, but it's important to the development of the hero to see how he faces the first real challenge of the story. You may also have a series of Threshold Guardians, at various stages of the story as the hero gets closer and closer to the real villain and the real trial. That's a way of maintaining tension and conflict before the big confrontation.

In my Star Wars example, we have two Threshold Guardians. The first is Uncle Owen, who's trying to keep Luke on the farm instead of letting him go off to where he can have adventures. The second is Han Solo, who sets a price for transport so high that Luke has to sell his landspeeder in order to go on his mission. That forces him to commit to his mission and face his priorities. In fairy tales, this is often the old beggar man or woman that the two oldest brothers ignore, but then the youngest stops to help and gets magical assistance that helps him win. He's the cop who tells the heroine that she didn't see what she thought she saw, or the superior officer who tells the detective to drop the case.

The Threshold Guardian is almost never the main villain. He may be an agent of the villain, but he may just be an unrelated antagonist. He can also be a neutral party who doesn't care one way or another about stopping the hero on his quest. He's just a part of a difficult landscape. Or he can even be an ally. He may be trying to stop the hero for his own good, thinking he's being helpful. Luke's Uncle Owen thought he was protecting Luke by keeping him on the farm where his evil father wouldn't find him (and where Luke stood a smaller chance of taking after his father). The Threshold Guardian can turn into an ally once the hero has passed the test. Often, the Mentor also serves as Threshold Guardian, and if the hero proves worthy, then the Mentor takes him under his wing. We often meet sidekicks and allies first as Threshold Guardians, as with Han Solo. Think of The Princess Bride, where Inigo and Fezzig both initially try to stop Westley on his quest, but then they later all join forces. In a lot of the Robin Hood legends, Robin first meets Little John when John won't let him cross a bridge, and they fight, but then they end up becoming friends.

You can still see this kind of archetype in non-quest stories, though it's a little less obvious than an armed guard shouting "None shall pass." The Threshold Guardian can be anyone in the hero or heroine's life who resists their attempts to make changes. In real life, whenever any of us try to make positive changes in our lives, there's often someone trying to tell us we don't need to lose weight, don't need to look for a new job, don't need to go back to school, don't need to get more serious about that relationship. On the surface, that sounds like someone who accepts us the way we are, which is a positive, but that also can keep us from taking needed steps toward improvement. These are people who are threatened by change, and us changing will end up changing their lives or keep them from having an excuse not to change.

And that brings us to the psychological aspect of the Threshold Guardian. The Threshold Guardian represents our internal demons, all the things inside ourselves that are holding us back and keeping us from being the heroes of our own lives. They keep us from reaching our true potential.

With that in mind, you can use this character to demonstrate the hero's weaknesses early in the story (so you can show instead of tell). The Threshold Guardian can be a manifestation of the main weakness that is likely to hinder the hero on his journey. If his weakness is greed, then the Threshold Guardian may demand some kind of payment or may appeal to the hero's greed as a way of trying to turn him off the path, for example. The Threshold Guardian may also be a minor reflection of what the hero will face in the main villain. Seeing the hero pass that early test is a sign that he might eventually have what it takes to face the Big Bad.

In myth, the hero often has to, in a sense, become the Threshold Guardian in order to pass -- using deceit, disguise or magic. The hero may dress up as something like the Guardian in order to be allowed through as an ally. The hero may absorb the energy of the Threshold Guardian as a way of becoming stronger. That can be literal, if, say, the hero gets a magical item from the Guardian or takes his power, or more metaphorical, if the Guardian becomes an ally and a sidekick or mentor and adds his strength to the quest.

In a reluctant hero story, the hero himself may be his own Threshold Guardian, where he's the one resisting all the forces that try to make him change and he has to be almost forced into taking action. Then, this archetype is literally the hero's internal neuroses.

As with all the archetypes, you can't stop here in character development. This needs to be a real character with at least a hint of goal and motivation, even if his role in the story is small. You want to avoid that plywood cut-out pop-up.

Next time: The Herald. And if you enjoy my characterization discussion, I've got an article on the subject in the current issue of The Writer magazine, now available in stores (most likely at places like Borders and Barnes & Noble).


Anonymous said...

Interesting story build up where you start with a story depicting the very concept you go on to analyze later. Now the only question is if our Heroine got past the heinous overseas call center employee and on to the ultimate goal of striking down the AT&T long distance call plan.

Anonymous said...

Enjoying your Archetypes entries very much! (was linked from LiveJournal)

Question... because you say that the Threshold Guardian still needs to be a real character, etc... what about drugs? Couldn't drugs act as a valid TGuardian without having to be a "real" character? Drugs at times would seem to have an agenda of their own and cause real damage or become a real obstacle, without an actual motivation.

What are your thoughts on that?