Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Archetypes: Putting it All Together

I'm still plugging away on schedule on the NaNo project, and I didn't have to do as much backtracking as I thought, though I did come up with one other thing I want to go back and add. And I finally made it through this round of revisions on the proposal, the major surgery part. It probably needs a good polish, and then I can get to focusing 100 percent on the NaNo book. The creativity breeds creativity rule is fully in effect, as the plot squirrels in my brain are churning out lots of good daydreamy stuff, most of which has nothing to do with anything I'm currently writing (a lot of mental fanfic), but I think the daydreamy stuff has given me a couple of ideas I can use in current projects. Oddly, I seem to be creating a lot of really angsty romances, which is totally unlike me. It'll be interesting to see if this finds its way into my "real" work and what effect that will have.

My time-wasting and procrastination exercises for the day seemed to all relate to A Room With a View. I had a sudden compulsion to learn the lyrics to the "O mio babbino caro" aria used for the opening credits because I was getting tired of just singing the first couple of lines and then having to go la-la-la. Then when I went out to check the mail, I noticed that the neighbors I saw gave me funny looks. I got inside and looked in the mirror and saw why. When I was procrastinating, I'd played with my hair, and I'd forgotten that I'd pinned it up in a rather Edwardian do, a la the movie. So I was walking around outside in sweatpants and a t-shirt with my hair in an elaborate Edwardian updo. I have no idea why this all might have been on my brain.

I've finally finished discussing all the archetypes from the hero's journey, and the big question is, now what? How do you actually go about using these? Here are some of my thoughts on the topic (and I really am pulling these out of thin air, as this isn't much addressed in the books I have on the subject).

One use for the story archetypes is in the initial casting of your story, depending on how your ideas come to you. If you're a plot or situation writer who thinks of the story or situation first, these are a good starting point for populating the story or situation with people. Trying to fill each of these roles is a good mental exercise for figuring out what characters your story needs. You may not end up with exactly that cast, but it's a way to get your brain going on finding people for your story. Going with these archetypes as the basis for your cast will ensure that you have a good balance of "change" energy vs. "status quo" energy, plus some major and minor conflict that will be meaningful for your hero. Developing a cast this way gives a sense of cohesion to the characters.

One question I've been asked is if every story needs every archetype. I don't think so, but I think you'll find what I've been calling the "energy" of each archetype in most stories in some way. Just about every story is going to have some signal that change needs to take place, some minor barrier, someone to get the hero up-to-speed on what's going on or give advice, someone who confuses the hero, someone who points out the foibles and someone who's opposed to the hero. These all may or may not be actual characters. They can be forces of nature, events or things going on within the hero. The same character may play two or more of these roles at various points in the story, or multiple characters may play one of these roles. There may also be common archetypes that aren't on this list. The really good writers will find fresh ways of presenting these archetypes so that you may not even recognize them for what they are unless you really dig into how they work psychologically.

The archetypes can also be a good way to delve into your hero and really develop that character. I mentioned that the hero can be a challenge to write, and it's very easy to end up with a bland hero because he has to be universal enough that most readers can identify with him. The archetypes are largely all reflections of various facets of the hero's character, blown up into an entirely different character. The Mentor is his positive potential, while the Shadow is his negative potential. The Threshold Guardian is what's holding him back, while the Herald is what he knows he needs to change. The Shapeshifter is the part of himself he's repressing and the Trickster is the part of himself that's aware of his own faults. Working through the archetypes this way and thinking in terms of how they reflect the hero will help you understand your hero better, even if you don't develop those archetype reflections into actual characters.

If you're struggling with a story, it may help to go back and try to map your existing characters onto these archetypes. If there's one you're missing, that could explain part of the problem in your story or help you fix it. You might be able to map some of the archetype's role onto an existing character and use that to nudge your story in the right direction, or you may find you need to develop a new character to get things moving. For instance, I mentioned that one of the problems I saw with the Star Wars prequels was the lack of anyone in the Trickster role to balance out some of the pompousness of the rest of the story. You may also find that focusing on archetype elements can help you strengthen a character. Look for how you can find more of the Shadow in your villain, for example, and that will strengthen the conflict with the hero.

If you're interested in this topic, you can read The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, though it can be difficult to pull this stuff out of that book in a way that's useful for writing. The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler takes the Campbell theories and research and applies them to modern storytelling, mostly for film. I've started reading some Jungian psychology that isn't aimed specifically at writers, but I haven't yet found a good resource there. The Vogler book does list some other possible resources in its bibliography.

Thursday morning I have to go help judge a PTA arts contest at a nearby elementary school, which I'm really looking forward to, but it may mean I post later than usual, so don't worry (Mom).

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