Archetype Evolutions

Understanding universal patterns & changing how we tell stories in a world of great transition

Gunther Sonnenfeld
Jan 20, 2015 · 10 min read
Four pervasive archetypes that have greatly influenced my life and work. Artistic expression advances the sensoral relations with archetypal figures, and makes it easier to design experiences driven by cultural narratives, or those that create new ones (such as modern myth-making, as one example).

An archetype is essentially ‘a universally understood symbol, term, or pattern of behavior, which serves as a prototype upon which others are copied, patterned, or emulated.’

Jung talked about archetypes as universal, archaic patterns and images that derive from the collective unconscious, and are represented as the psychic counterparts of human instinct. Husserl took these notions a step further and recognized that archetypes have the ability to change habits through unique experiences.

In plainer language, an archetype can represent an idea or a character that continues to appear in culture, across themes and narratives, and is a part of a developing story, or a larger, overarching narrative. Heroes, muses, villains, victims, protectors, mentors, facilitators, patrons, paternal and matrilineal figures all play archetypal roles in stories — they key is understanding who they actually are as they relate to your audience (or readership), and how they evolve a story beyond the written page.

Reigniting Our Relationships to Information

When Joseph Campbell developed The Hero’s Journey, he intended to provide a framework for telling stories in a linear fashion; the hero literally embarks on a journey that has a series of challenges comprising a beginning, a middle and an end. In today’s, multi-modal, multi-platform world, the hero’s journey often has an open end, just as narratives have open-ended outcomes and free-floating, interdependent components (joy, suffering, rage, love, irony, etc.). Transmedia narratives are a great example of this (one such example is the Holy Bible; it has numerous interpretations, archetypal forms and modes of consumption directly and indirectly connected through text).

And as my friend Lance Weiler likes to say: “Stories haven’t changed, but the telling of them has.”

This phenomenon is attributable to what I’ve described as one’s relationship to information, which looks something like this.

As we develop an ‘eye’ for what we experience through information, other aspects of our minds (and hearts) take us from the ordinary world to a special world.

So what does this actually imply?

It implies that great stories, in general, are more participatory by their very nature. They have the potential to be more dialectic (thought and action-oriented) as well as dialogic in their form (thought and action-directed; connected to other works and other authors). In today’s world of mobile devices, digital installations and connected objects, they are also far more experiential.

This also means that as storytellers — whether we produce ‘content’, ‘media’ and/or an ‘experience’— it is critical that we think in terms of what a story does to an audience and with an audience, rather than simply what it can mean or what we want it to mean.

When we first developed Paperlet, this was precisely what we had in mind: enabling the writer or creator to become a true participant in the development of a narrative arc, and a story focusing on a specific set of archetypes.

We also felt it was important to contextualize narratives such that the writer or creator can see and relate to the information with a larger sense of history, time and place. Part of this was in giving him or her visual palettes with which to craft narrative outlines, and create artifacts to illustrate story arcs.

It was equally important to give the writer a sense of community that was converging around a narrative or an archetypal set. We identified this as part of the ‘blinking cursor, blank page’ problem that all writers and creators face when they stare into their computer screens.

Another part of this, we discovered in our research, was a by-product of not developing a relationship with certain archetypes, or understanding their representations through memes or cultural artifacts. Using cultural and memetic references as visual cues is critical in developing story arcs that are not only compelling, but resonant to a longer tail of people.

As we’ve run pilots in different schools across the U.S., we’ve seen some remarkable outcomes with students taking a participatory approach to creative writing, and we’ve seen this translate into other subject domains, such as history. This strongly indicates that the telling of stories in more dialogic modalities has a profound effect on learning, as well as the ways we can transform the pedagogical relations between teachers and students — in effect creating more mentor-learner dynamics.

Capturing Archetypes Through Art & Data

While my ‘vocation’ is technology and (eco)systems design, I use art (drawing and painting) as a tool to visually express archetypes that traverse the intersections of business and culture that I like to explore, or those of which I’m challenged to explore through the innovation work we do. Young people are great at visually expressing archetypes, so in many ways it’s like going back to my childhood when I create art.

Clockwise from top left: the spirit of ‘Pokoh’ Ute legend who created the World; ‘Logos’ the Christic spirit; ‘Ivanka’, a more androgynous being who lifts the spirits of men and women; and a rendition of my mother, Mary.

Through the process of making art, I try to get a handle on emotional or visceral complexities. It’s sort of a way to cultivate emotional intelligence, and discover new points of relating to other people. It’s akin to storyboarding, but a bit different in the sense in that I don’t map any actions out until I’ve examined the dimensions of the persona, the associated narratives, and various social mores (there are some similarities to morphology here.) I’ve also been developing tools that build narratologies and infocologies using visual cues like these. Timely, I would hope, as we head deeper into an era of visual storytelling.

Two different observer archetypes…

Apart from producing way too many Venn-like diagrams (wink-wink), I also spend a good amount of time experimenting with different media and communications formats. Along with experience design, I find this to be crucial in pushing towards the liberation of our information systems, as well as in how we can innovate across product, service and governmental domains.

One of the areas in which I love to experiment is data narrative. Emotional mapping (EmoMapping) is a discipline that was introduced to me by my colleague Marc Mazurovsky (former curator of the U.S. Memorial Holocaust Museum) and his cohort Erik Steiner (former director of Stanford’s Spatial History Lab).

Here you can see how semantic and emotional distances are mapped in order to see the connecting points between personal stories, themes and overarching narratives.

In weaving together various narratives and bystander accounts of real-world events, Marc and Erik developed a beautiful system of observing archetypes. These associations between people, time, place and space recontextualize aspects of history that might be elusive or less understood by the going public.

Given that trauma amongst Holocaust survivors has induced substantial memory lapses and disjointed versions of what actually happened, this is an amazing opportunity to acquaint future generations with history, and to preserve its import on culture-at-large.

The genealogical impacts are even more profound: In seeing the connections between communities of people who experienced the horrors and triumphs of escape, we can get a sense for their journeys and come to the realization that we are all in fact interconnected, albeit through varying levers of diversity and adversity.

And we can even turn the insights into art.

I plan to work with Marc on an interactive narrative detailing my father’s escape from Nazi Germany, and his journey across the Transiberian railroad into Shanghai, China.

Turning Interactive Narrative into Social Movements

Documentary filmmaking has been a passion of mine for a while now. Every few years, I’m approached by friends or family to help produce a project, and often times to extend the story universe into other online and offline domains.

As we got closer to finishing the edit on Algren (a multi-platform narrative about the life and times of Chicago beat writer, Nelson Algren), I had the good fortune to be contacted by my friend, Joni Rubin, who had shot the majority of footage for a documentary in Africa, which chronicles the fight to get the lion on the endangered species list.

Her wish? To turn participants into activists.

Taking cues from friends and luminaries in this field of ‘transmedia activism’, such as Lina Srivastava, it was apparent to us that “5 Weeks to Change” was a perfect opportunity to mobilize a wide array of cohorts into action, and to seed communities around the world with a timeline and an abundance of information that could change policy in a swift manner.

This is a very high-level look at the engagement ecosystem (crude, really), but what’s important to note is that by taking an open narrative, archetypal approach, it is relatively easy to activate people, especially when the terms are consensual and motivational.

Joni is currently in Australia on her way to Africa to finish principal photography; it will be interesting to see how various partners and participants expose the archetypes that have perpetuated this lunacy of hunting lions, and how we will keep them at bay. As well, it will be fun to identify and empower the kinds of archetypes we’ll find advancing the movement through their bravery and empathy.

Narratives are the Frameworks, Stories are the Mechanics, Archetypes are the Agents

Since realities are perceived, we tend to forget the power of narratives such as ‘the fiscal cliff’ or ‘carbon offsets’ or ‘global warming’ or ‘the sharing economy’ or ‘wildlife preservation’. In a fiercely programmatic, automated world, we tend to believe what we can — or what we want — out of what is prescribed to us through information systems, rather than becoming participants and shaping the realities we might find through self-discovery and personal forms of enlightenment. This, of course, can distort our relationships to information.

One could argue that participation — or the lack of it —has become the failure of ads and the backstop of most ‘social media’ or ‘content marketing’ practices. Film is still an incredibly powerful medium, irrespective of our tinkering with ‘transmedia’ approaches and the like. Yet, changing archetypes make it such that what we experience itself changes.

Narratives that are structured well, and stories that are told well, transport people from an ordinary world into a mode of wonderment, exploration and actions that are ongoing.

‘Vitruvian Embodiment’

To look at it another way, when an ad runs on a screen, does it inspire you to make an informed purchase, or take some other action in alignment with a ‘brand’? When you read an advertorial or a blog post, does it evoke something within you that is truly relatable and shareable beyond the screen? Does it somehow change the rituals you engage in everyday (like exercise or simple communications)… whether you buy something, or not?

‘The Hero’s Journey of Open Design’
‘The Whole Journey’

Here’s the thing: when we design stories as real or enriched virtual experiences — irrespective of a fiction or non-fiction modality — behaviors change. They literally shift. And this doesn’t mean that as storytellers we have to manipulate those behaviors (for example, through messaging), it just means that we can tap into intentions that might already be accessible.

But first, we must understand what the journey represents:

>The reader (or participant) starts off in the ordinary world of his or her everyday life;

>The call to adventure is an unsolved problem or unfulfilled desire or an idea that creates possibility;

>There’s resistance to solving that problem of satisfying the desire or manifesting that possibility, and then…

>A mentor (your story) appears that helps him or her proceed with the journey (by way of an experience);

>The journey is something the reader (or participant) identifies with as his or her own archetype;

…And it is something they can adopt and own for themselves as an ongoing experience.

Keep Experimenting with Format

These steps are obviously condensed bullet-points in the design of a story; the idea is to look at how the story actually functions as an experience, and then create accordingly.

The telling of stories has evolved, even within a fragmented media landscape, to the extent that we can use emerging techniques not only to ‘create compelling content’, but to design products and services, to solve business and cultural problems, and to develop games that build up our senses, inspire new forms of learning and open unexplored areas of creativity.

Your storytelling gene is strong. Now go and design amazing experiences!

Until next time…



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    Gunther Sonnenfeld

    Written by

    Founding Partner @ Novena .:. building blockchain + DLT solutions for a better world .:. #economy #ecology #society

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