For writers — are archetypes any use?

I’m not sure if my education was deficient, or everyone else’s was. In school, we were never taught about character archetypes. Lots of people I know (mainly from the USA, but also Italy) were, though, and Hollywood screenwriters certainly are.

If, like me, you were in the dark, here’s the theory.

Essentially, people who believe in character archetypes see stories (or some stories) proceeding along predictable paths with essential characters occurring. The Hero, of course, is the name we give to the lead character in any story, unless we call them the Anti-Hero. Archetypalists, though, have the Mentor, the Adversary, the Love Interest, the Confidante, the Catalyst, and so on.

What’s in the list varies. Some go for a Jungian take, with The Innocent, The Orphan, The Hero, the Caregiver, The Explorer, The Rebel, The Lover, The Creator, The Jester, The Sage, The Magician, and The Ruler. Others like a Greek take, with Apollo the Businessman as the first among them. Here’s someone’s list of fifty-two, though you may find that they overlap each other.

If you favour character archetypes, then you can probably go through Dickens, Shakespeare, George Eliot and Jonathan Swift and identify all of your favourite types, just as Freudians could go through Shakespeare and explain everything in Freudian terminology. However, just because you can make the great writers fit your theory, doesn’t mean that your theory is the right one. With sufficient ingenuity, any theory can be made to fit almost any set of facts — until you try to test it with new facts, and that’s when it starts to fall down.

The attraction of character archetypes — like the attraction of seven basic plots — is simple to explain. If it really is true that there are a certain number of plots which work, and all others don’t, and a certain number of character archetypes which guarantee a good story, then all the aspiring writer has to do is get the list and use it, and success will follow. What’s more, if (under this theory) the writer has previously been unsuccessful, then it probably follows that they weren’t using the right plots and or archetypes, thus guaranteeing failure. So, if the archetype theory is true, we are wasting our time constructing characters haphazardly based on people we have met or imagined, and would be better served going straight to the source and building our characters ‘properly’ from the ground up.

Of course, one problem, practically, with this, is finding what the real, approved, list of archetypes actually is. Aristotle is silent on the subject. Are there four, or twelve, or sixteen, or 47, or 52? Also, are some of them better than others?

Regular readers of this website will already have guessed that I’m not a fan. Structurally speaking, there are—it seems to me—certain positions that must be occupied by certain characters for the story to work, and the reader to resonate with it. No story is worth telling if it doesn’t involve some kind of overcoming adversity, so, by definition, there must always be someone facing the adversity, and, as often as not, an adversary causing it. Your adversary could by symbolic, or non-human, such as a great white whale, or the North Pole, or a perfect storm. Most often, though, there is going to be some kind of human adversary. They may be a villain, or just the hero from the story told differently.
There are a number of character-positions which can help a story flow more easily. If your medium is film, then you almost certainly require a confidante of some kind, because otherwise we’ll never know what the main character is thinking unless they break film’s fundamental ‘show, don’t tell’ rule by narrating their own story or talking straight to the camera. If you are making art films you may try something a bit less contrived, but, even in the Seventh Seal, probably the ultimate art film, the Knight still seeks a confidante — unfortunately it turns out to be his adversary, Death, in disguise.
If romance plays any role in your story, then you almost certainly need some love interest.
These, however, are character-functions which grow out of your plot, and they don’t tie the characters down to particular characteristics. If it is necessary for the plot that someone advise the protagonist, that person can just as well be a small child or a daydreaming phone operator who keeps on getting into conversations with people they are supposed to be connecting. This ‘mentor’ function does not have to be an Obi Wan Kenobi figure complete with cowl and resonant voice.
Building a character from archetypes — it seems to me — is rather the Dungeons and Dragons school of writing. Roll four six sided dice and pick the best three for each of Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Constitution, Dexterity and Charisma. Once you have your characteristics, choose a species (elf, dwarf, human, halfling, maybe even a half-orc), choose their class — fighter, magic user, cleric, thief, and their sub-classes — and an alignment, be it lawful or chaotic, good or evil, or neutral with regard to the law-chaos and or good-evil. Then equip them from the local shops with weapons and or spells of choice, and you are ready to join the adventure, which will almost certainly involve arriving at where someone else lives and killing them while you take their treasure.
As a way of kicking off a role-playing game this may be fine (although the Big Bang Theory’s Christmas D&D adventure didn’t work out well for any of the players). As a way of writing compelling characters, though, it is deeply flawed.
My response to archetypes is the Stanislavsky method. No, I’m not suggesting writers should dress up as their characters and try and live as them. Rather, in Building a Character and An Actor Prepares, Stanislavky puts forward his method of building up from the detail to the universal. He finds in the way a character walks the secret to the whole persona, or in a particular item, or an anecdote. Universal characters, suggests Stanislavsky, are two a penny, and never convincing. Anyone can play ‘a soldier’, but the actor who makes their character convincing is the one who creates a soldier in a particular army, in a particular regiment, in a particular platoon, with a particular back-story.
Consider for a moment Dad’s Army. Its phenomenal popularity — and the fact that it is still funny forty or fifty years later — stems not from its scenario, which was already a dim memory for my parent’s generation and known to me only through the series itself, but through the fact that not one of the characters was a stereotypical or archetypical home guardsman, but rather an individual with their own specific and peculiar mannerisms. It is easy to call to mind Corporal Jones’s stock phrases, but the facial mannerisms of Walker and of Wilson, underplayed as they were, were also essential for the comedy to take effect.
It is much easier to see the use of specifics and particulars in comedy, because every particular mannerism or unusual trait is, at least in principle, potentially funny. Nonetheless, it functions equally in serious or even tragic writing. In Dickens’s Dombey and Son, it is easy for us to get quickly to grips with the hilarious Captain Cuttle, but, for the more observant, Dombey’s own reactions tell us much — particularly when he sees a worker wearing a black arm-band for the death of his son.
My view is that if you build a character up from a specific and then connect them with a plot, they will come to take on a definite archetypal function whether you intend them to or not — if only because the archetypalists will find some way to fit you into their theory, if your writing becomes popular enough. At the same time, though, a character built in this way can fulfil many functions in many different stories, or, in a single complex story, differing functions to differing characters. One person’s confidante may be another’s love interest.
When a character is archetypal, though, problems emerge when you try to move them from one function to another. Consider George Smiley and Obi Wan Kenobi, both played memorably by Alec Guinness in the 1970s.
Smiley, the creation of John Le Carré, plays the function of the investigator in Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy, which he also plays in Smiley’s People and, earlier, in A Murder of Quality and Call for the Dead. But he is able to play a different function, that of controlling Spymaster, in The Honourable Schoolboy and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, and that of Mentor in The Secret Pilgrim, and that of something quite different in The Looking Glass War. Smiley is not Everyman, and cannot play every function. The key to his character, though, is in the action of polishing his glasses absent-mindedly on his tie: this is a character built from details, and then inserted into a number of situations as Le Carré’s need for a protagonist arose.
Obi Wan Kenobi, on the other hand, is exclusively mentor in the original three Star Wars films. He is mentor par excellence — speaking in resonant tones and dressing as a monk. The problem, though, is that the new Obi Wan Kenobi of the subsequent three prequels is protagonist or, at least, action hero. Fresh-faced Ewan McGregor plays him with a touching naivety and trust, frequently rescuing himself from impossible situations through light-sabre heroics. However, as all fans of the original films can attest, aside from having the same name and obviously being the same individual in all six films, the later Kenobi has little in common with the earlier one (whichever way round you want earlier and later to be). Is the Star Wars: A New Hope Kenobi a maturer version of the Kenobi from Revenge of the Sith? To some extent we can believe it because we are shown it on the cinema screen, and we have been trained to swallow the inconsistencies as long as the visuals are good. But is the Kenobi who chops off Anakin Skywalker’s arms and legs really the same man who sacrifices himself to get Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie and the droids off the Death Star?
Archetypal-mentor Obi Wan Kenobi is so well constructed to fill that role that it is hard to believe in action-hero Obi Wan.
You could argue that this is because the actors are different, but this is why this is such an interesting example, because not only do we have Ewan McGregor playing Obi Wan, we also have Gary Oldman taking on the role of Smiley in the recent film adaptation of Tinker, Tailor. Watching Oldman, it is hard not to see Guinness. The mannerisms are the same, as is the exact tone of voice, but this is not because Oldman was chosen for playing similar roles elsewhere. Oldman in The Fifth Element, Leon, or as Sirius Black in the Harry Potter films, has nothing in common with the Guinness-like Smiley. It is the character of Smiley which prevails.
Archetypes function best in archetypal narratives—myths and fairy tales. As both myth and fairy-tale, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the characters of the original Star Wars series are archetypal. We are not looking for complexity, but for an abstracted version of story.
This is the big lure of archetypes, along with kinds of basic plots. Once we get into meta-narrative—discussions about stories—it is easier to abstract than to deal with the particulars. For writers looking for sure-fire methods, a confidently written book which tells you exactly how to write the perfect story is offering you the Philosopher’s Stone, the Elixir of Life and the Holy Grail, all rolled into one. Perhaps in this Aristotle gave us the wrong example. Imitated by hundreds of exponents on plot, Aristotle is the arch-abstracter. However, in his poetics, Aristotle also sticks closely by his particulars. He cites not just particular stories, but particular plays. The essence of the Greek tragedy is that archetypal narratives such as Oedipus are made human and credible. Characters who would get no more than a couple of lines in the mythic version, such as Antigone, get whole plays which explore their own passions and reactions.
I’ve read lots of books which advise me to use archetypes, but I’ve never read one which I enjoyed that the author subsequently described as built on archetypes. On the other hand, I loved Star Wars, and still do. Cinema, like the theatre, can fill in thousands of living details because it combines the actor’s personality with that of the character—except, in cinema, the personality of the actor is fixed on film, and we are given every nuance through the magic of the close-up. Even so, there are not many films with the fairy-tale quality of the original Star Wars trilogy. One of the disappointments of the prequels was that they lacked that quality, but also lacked credible characters. Anakin, particularly, appears to be an entirely different person with the change of actor from episode I to episode II, with no credible mechanism to show how he got there.
Archetypes may be an interesting game for literary critics or students of myth to play. For the fiction writer, though, my belief is that they offer an easy, but fundamentally flawed, alternative to building credible characters. Even for the screen-writer, I would suggest that a very powerful plot is necessary to render an archetype as anything more than a cliché.

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