HOW TO CREATE CHARACTERS ARCS WITH ARCHETYPES
A guide for pragmatists
Hey, so you are about to start a story? Cool. Writers should be writing. But, are you feeling exceptionally lazy today? Fantastic. I think I can help you then.
We know most, if not all, stories have character arcs. These can be experienced by the main character, the supporting characters, or both.
Crafting these arcs might be one of the most challenging parts of writing, you have to understand the character and the story to make them change convincingly. One has to echo the other. Fortunately for us, understanding archetypes might give us an easy way of crafting one of these arcs.
Aren’t we lucky?
A professor once said in a screenwriting class “Hey, even if you don’t believe in self-help guides, pick up a book or two. They will give you great ideas for character arcs.”
I think he was onto something, psychology and storytelling might be more intertwined than we usually think.
First off, what’s an archetype? Google gives us three definitions:
1. a very typical example of a certain person or thing.
2. (in Jungian theory) a primitive mental image inherited from the earliest human ancestors, and supposed to be present in the collective unconscious.
3. a recurrent symbol or motif in literature, art, or mythology.
For our purposes, I want to Frankenstein those definitions together into:
4. A recurrent symbol of a certain person, present in the collective imagination.
Don’t believe in archetypes?
Listen, If you see a tall dude in a white robe sporting a massive beard, you already know who this character is. This man is going to help the hero accomplish his goal with some cryptic and confusing knowledge or advice. From Merlin to Gandalf to Dumbledore, they have all done that.
Are these characters all ripping off the one that came before? Not really, they are being drawn out of the same pool of knowledge, our collective unconscious. We have this vast supply of symbols that come from our culture and mythology, they have been ingrained in our heads since we were children. Maybe even before that, Jung argues that these archetypes are within us since the moment we were born!
So basically “Archetypes” are proto-characters we already have installed in our heads. Since we have this piece of software already taking up space, let’s put it to good use, right?
Most of the iconic characters we remember are embodiments of an archetype: The Hero, The Warrior, The King, The Lover, The Queen, and so on… You can probably name at least one character from popular culture that fits each one of those roles.
Once you pick an archetype you already have the foundations of a character, but this is not enough, right? I promised you arcs, and arcs you’ll get!
Archetypes have a flip side to them called “The Shadow”, this “shadow” is the result of poor or unhealthy development of the archetype. An imperfect version. See where I’m going? I bet you feel pretty smart right now.
Let’s take the archetype of The King, for example. The King is strong, centered, fair, and provides order and protection to his realm. Arthur Pendragon is an excellent character to exemplify this archetype.
What are the shadow parts of The King? If The King is equilibrium, a balanced center, then there are shadows at both its sides, the extreme version of The King a.k.a. The Tyrant, and the weak version of The King a.k.a. The Weakling.
As you can imagine, The Tyrant is a control freak that’s obsessed with order and doesn’t let anybody in his realm flourish because he's afraid he might lose his sovereignty. The Weakling has no control over his domain, too scared to do anything; he’s a puppet of the circumstances, a pushover.
Now we have an archetype and its shadows. Do you want an arc? Pick a side of the triangle and move your character from one corner to the other.
Congratulations. You are now writing with archetypes.
The Weakling→ The King. A story of a pushover that reconnects with the power within to reclaim his rightful throne.
The King→ The Tyrant. The story of a once strong king that becomes possessed with the idea of losing his power, which inevitably brings about his defeat.
Do these stories sound familiar? That’s because most stories are playing with archetypes and their shadows.
Either consciously or unconsciously writers invoke these patterns and symbols in their stories. It’s just natural. If you analyze myths and religions going back thousands of years, you’ll be able to identify the same patterns.
This knowledge might make some writers feel discouraged. Some might even feel like everything has already been done. And sure lots of stories have been made, but we have to keep in mind that there are many archetypes out there, with many possible outcome and situations. And you, dear writer, have your own voice to inject into them.
Archetypes are a mold in which we pour our souls into. Not the finished product.
Understanding archetypes will give you an edge while writing. Some of the unconscious processes that were going on in your head will jump to the forefront.
Identify your characters, their archetypes, and their shadows. From then on you can pretty much trace a clear arc for them.
Some people say that stories are a representation of our inner psyche. Stories are how we work out things that can’t be expressed through mere words. Only drama can convey some ideas! This theory is called “Story Mind”, it basically says that a story is like a human mind dealing with a particular problem.
So maybe the next time you are about to pick up a book on writing, perhaps you should pick up a book on psychology. What is the central problem your ‘Story Mind’ is dealing with? What do the different archetypes operating inside it mean? What ideas or feeling do they represent?
Wait, are we writing or are we in therapy here? I think no one cares as long as you write a good story.
I hope everything is clear now. My work here is done.