Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Archetypes in Fiction

On Monday, Ariel Allison wrote about the power of the parable’s of Jesus, highlighting the genius behind the seemingly simple stories about lost boys, lost coins, vineyards, and sheep. It was a meaty post, and many things stood out for me. But one word in her post jumped off the page at me: Archetype. And I thought, when was the last time you had a rollicking conversation about archetypes? Far too long. Care to dig in with me? I’ll be following Ariel’s excellent example of using the parables of Jesus to explain and expound on the use of archetypes.

When it comes time to craft characters for a novel, the perennial advice from writing gurus, rings in our heads: Create characters readers identify with.

But how do we construct relatable characters from the fodder of our imaginations? The answer is, of course, multi-fasciated, but found solidly in the mix is the use of archetypes.

An archetype is a psychological pattern within a person (character) that quickly conveys the status, stature, power, and even morality of a character in a way that is nearly universally understood.

Psychologist and DWM* Carl Jung brought us the term and definition of archetype in his theory of personality. But there is no need for the writer to possess a degree in psychology in order to understand and use archetypes to their advantage in fiction. What the writer truly needs is to understand literature and to be able to recognize archetypal characters in fiction. This isn’t as heady or difficult as it might first appear. To pull from Ariel’s quote from the
Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, archetypes are “master images that recur throughout literature and life.” A sort of psychological short hand that aids in deepening our understanding of a character and why she behaves the way she does. All it takes to is a love of reading, and a keen eye.

So what are they? Archetypes are not stereotypes. Stereotypes are negative generalizations about populations of people based on any number of outward statistics such as gender, race, skin color, ethnic origin, hair color (blonde joke anyone?), income, education level, etc. Archetypes, instead, are psychological sketches of human roles which have both positive and negative attributes (Jung referred to negative attributes as “shadow”), and are understood to be neutral, rather than stereotypical. Quick take home point: Stereotype points a finger and attacks the outward appearances. Archetype explains a way of being inside a human role.

So, if you’re writing a slice of life novel about a woman born and raised in the deep south and you describe her as: An outspoken, charming, social climbing, southern woman, you’ve described her in a stereotypical fashion. If, however, you describe her as a southern woman who uses her wits and charm to build an empire, you have described her archetype (Queen).

Let’s look at some examples of archetypes used in the parables of Jesus:

Wise man (e.g. Matthew 7:24-27)

Trickster (most commonly seen as a thief or enemy such as in Matthew 13: 24-30)

Father/King (There are many examples of this archetype in Jesus’ parables, often understood as a metaphor for God the Father. Some examples: Matthew 25:14-30 [an example of a vengeful, or angry master], and of course, The Prodigal Son parable, and also in the numerous parables about the shepherd tending the flocks [e.g. John 10:1-5].

Lover (Matthew 25:1-13 - the parable of the ten virgins)

In each of these stories, Jesus conveys immediate depth of meaning by sketching an archetype - a human role and function - and expounding on in order to teach a universal truth. He uses the universal to teach the universal. In only a few words Jesus was able to create characters each of us can readily identify and relate to.
Notice that these characters were not all sympathetic. That in no way impedes the readers ability to understand and identify with - on some level. We don’t need to like the character, we don’t need to agree with what the character is doing in order to relate to him.

An advanced technique is to take an archetype and give it a twist, giving the reader fresh, even shocking insight into human nature.

The sheep and Goats parable (Matthew 25: 31-46) turns the Father/King archetype on it’s head by depicting the King as hungry, naked, and in prison. This serves to deepen our understanding of God’s connection to humanity - that he experiences the sorrows of life on earth acutely, suffering along side us.

In the Parable of the Rich Man (Luke 12:16-21), Jesus turns this archetype on it’s head in another way, by depicting the ruler as greedy - a trait that resides in on the shadow side of the King/Father archetype, but then he adds a second, surprising dimension to the King/Father by making him a foolish man.

Jesus took the archetype of the Trickster - someone normally understood as sly, self-serving, and powerful and applied it to the religious, the Pharisees - people who would understand themselves within the role of Wise Men, or even Father.

There are, of course, many other archetypes we find in literature (and in life). Are you game? Can you point us to an archetype you’ve noticed in your reading, and give us an example? All comments welcome - this isn’t a pass or fail test, we’re discussing and playing with concepts. Ready? Go!

* DWM Dead White Male. While the subject of archetypes is helpful in discussing fiction, it’s important to understand the foundations of modern psychology were far from universal. Psychology was founded by western and/or North American white males, and remains riddled by their prejudices to this day.


Wendy Paine Miller said...

Reuben, the sojourner, searching for his brother in Peace Like a River. Don’t we all always find ourselves searching for something? And in the midst of finding he realizes what’s been with him all along.

Could go on and on about this one.

Awesome post.
~ Wendy

Bonnie Grove said...

It's true Wendy, so much of life feels like a search for meaning, love, and stability. A place we can plant our identity.
Peace Like a River is a lovely novel!
Reuben's archetype is difficult to pin down (at least from my memory), he reacts to his father (Wizard - I know he wasn't a wizard in the story, but his remarkable ability for miracles places him in this category in terms of archetypes) and his brother (Rebel), and serves as the stories narrator. . . hmmm.....

Bonnie Grove said...

CRICKETS! All I hear is the chirp of crickets on the blog today!
I know! You're all reading and making notes on archetypes so you can come back later and enlighten us.


Ariel Allison Lawhon said...

No my dear Bonnie, we're all struck dumb by your erudite lesson. But you did get me thinking.

Charles Dickens once called the parable of the prodigal son the "greatest story ever told." And I think that part of its power comes from a reliance on three strong archetypes: Father, Warrior (with a twist), and Rebel.

These days I am most intrigued by the Warrior archetype in this story, the older brother. John Truby defines as warrior as "the practical enforcer of what is right." But in this instance it's become warped. The Dictionary of Biblical Images (I'm slightly obsessed with this book right now) suggests that the older brother has turned his desire for justice into a "middle-aged attitude that is dutiful, grudging, self-righteous, and unforgiving."

That alone would make for an interesting story, but when contrasted against the Rebel younger brother it's genius.

Meg Moseley said...

I love this. I'm plotting a new story, so archetypes and quests are on my mind. There are so many angles to consider, but by the grace of God and a great deal of hard work, we can put it all together in a story that really means something. Thanks for a creativity-inspiring post.

Megan Sayer said...

Good question Bonnie.
I found myself thinking a lot about The Time Traveller's Wife: Henry is the Hero, but also functions in the Shapeshifter archetype. Niffenegger also uses Henry as a Mentor to himself, as well as mentoring Claire, and then swaps things so the older Claire is Mentor to Henry, further illustrating the shapeshifting theme of the story.

Nikole Hahn said...

Right now I am reading The Portrait of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. The Artist is obsessive of Dorian and Dorian is the "sitter" for the artist. Dorian realizes he will grow old and his portrait won't grow old. He wails about his diminishing youth.

Bonnie Grove said...

Yay! People!
Ariel: I hadn't thought of the Older Brother as Warrior. Wow. Great insight there - and you're right, if the story concluded with just the one brother it would have still been the classic it is. With the two of them in there, it's epic. Thanks for that.

Meg: You're so right, there are so many ways to purse a story - sometimes it's obvious which archetype we need to employ (writing in genre can often help with this choice), but often we need to study and consider before we begin.

Megan: I agree about Henry - a classic shapeshifter archetype. And Niffenegger certainly knows her fantasy archetypes. She's brilliant in how she uses Henry's gift to confound not only Claire, but himself. Great example.

Nikole: A great example of the Artist archetype. Yes, Dorian is not the painter, but he is absolutely the Artist, obsessed with beauty and perfection - at the cost of all else. A powerful use of archetypes.

Great stuff, guys!!

Steve G said...

So, is there room to play the archetype off of the stereotype? You have 2 pastors in Talking to the Dead. The "reverend" seems to be somewhat stereotypical, partly because we don't see his motivations so much as assume and infer from his actions (at the same time understanding there are those like him in life). Jack on the other hand we spend time with, and come to see his heart and personality.

Or maybe, what you did is contrast the archetype with the shadow - oooooh - that is pretty literary how you snuck that one in.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Wow, you are all far too smart for me. And everyone here sounds like they know what they are talking about. I haven't heard all that much about this concept. Is there a list of archetypes in a book somewhere that you could point me to? Archetypes for Dummies perhaps...? ;) I'm fascinated. And I'd love to sound really smart too :)

Megan Sayer said...

Karen, look up Christopher Vogler's "The Writer's Journey". It's probably the best book I've ever read about the craft of fiction, and in it he goes into detail about these archetypal characters and their role in storytelling. The book also has a list of further references if you wanted to explore the concept further. The good thing about "The Writer's Journey" though is it's a really easy read. Vogler takes high-sounding concepts and unpacks them simply and concisely (for "mummy-brainers" like me, making me sound a lot smarter than I really feel!).

Henrietta Frankensee said...

The first I heard of archetypes was in a high school classroom. My paper involved Merlin and the teacher spouted off about wizard archetypes. I felt confined. What did he mean there are a limited number of original cast members?! He later gave me an award: most challenging student. It was his first year teaching.
This is the first time I have heard of archetypes with a twist and I am excited and intrigued. And playing them off each other?! Very stimulating.
Is it possible to say of the Parable of the Merchant that the Seeker becomes the Warrior, willing to go to all lengths for victory?
With the seeds the Sower is so careless and indiscriminate. Is this a twisted Archetype?

Bonnie Grove said...

Karen: The great thing about the community at this blog is that we are all learning together - none of us has all the pieces. I've learned many things from your comments here. Isn't it great!

Megan: Thanks for the book recommendation. I haven't heard of that one. I'll keep an eye out!

Henrietta: Certainly, it's common to see archetypes shifting and changing throughout a story. This is especially true of the hero of a story, the character readers expect to see radical change in. I like the way you think, Henrietta!

Ellen Staley said...

Think I must have dozed through any lessons on archetypes I received in college. So I did the next best thing, referenced it on the internet and found a list with more info than I needed or wanted. But I was surprised 'scapegoat' wasn't listed. (I read Du Maurier's book by said title years ago.) Perhaps it isn't an archetype at all?

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Thanks Megan, I've bookmarked "The Writer's Journey", sounds like a great read.

Bonnie Grove said...

Ellen: I wonder if the reason scapegoat isn't an archetype is because it is a role that is often thrust upon others, rather than one that is attained by the person. Just a thought.