Down at the bottom, lodged in the mud of the Word-Pond we call Story are the foundations, the underpinnings. One of these foundations is archetype.
An archetype is an ancient pattern, describing a type of character that exists across different cultures and eras of human history. In ancient times, we had no communication with different cultures, yet our myths and legends share these common, recognizable characters we call archetypes.
I am a great fan of both Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler, and the hero’s journey is central to much of my work. In his book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Campbell discusses his theory of the journey of the archetypal hero found in world mythologies.
Quote from Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge:
In his 1949 work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell described the basic narrative pattern as follows:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered, and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
There are other archetypal characters that we find in all sorts of guises. Consider the “wise old man/woman/mentor.” This character exists in the stories of all ancient cultures, offering advice, and pushing the protagonist to achieve the goal. The mentor is Obi-Wan Kenobi, Glenda the Good Witch—or even a small, green dispenser of wisdom called Yoda.
Psychology says that an archetype is a recognizable behavioral pattern. In a story, the archetypal character is the embodiment/reflection of that familiar pattern of behavior.
The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers, by Christopher Vogler, details the various traditional archetypes that form the basis of most characters in our modern mythology, or literary canon.
The following is the list of character archetypes as described by Vogler:
- Hero: someone who is willing to sacrifice his own needs on behalf of others
- Mentor: all the characters who teach and protect heroes and give them gifts
- Threshold Guardian: a menacing face to the hero, but if understood, they can be overcome
- Herald: a force that brings a new challenge to the hero
- Shapeshifter: characters who constantly change from the hero’s point of view
- Shadow: a character who represents the energy of the dark side
- Ally: someone who travels with the hero through the journey, serving a variety of functions
- Trickster: embodies the energies of mischief and desire for change
Christopher Booker, author of The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, tells us that the following basic archetypes underpin the plots of all stories:
- Overcoming the Monster
- Rags to Riches
- The Quest
- Voyage and Return
We feel comfortable with these basic recognizable plots, no matter how differently they are presented to us. They are peopled with characters we feel we know, friends who occupy the familiar traditional roles. Even in a non-heroic story, we have these archetypes:
Take The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett. The archetype of the plot is a Quest.
On the surface, this is a detective novel, a thriller, nothing at all like The Hobbit, which is an obvious quest tale. However, The Maltese Falcon most definitely is a quest tale.
Yes, it’s a quest with a twist.
The object of the quest is a black statuette of significant value. However, the statue itself is a classic example of a MacGuffin. The MacGuffin’s importance to the plot is not the object or goal itself, but rather the effect it has on the characters and their motivations—in this case, the quest changes Sam’s life. The sole purpose of the MacGuffin is to move the plot forward.
The object of the quest was not the purported “Maltese Falcon” after all, despite the obvious quest to acquire it and the lengths the characters must go to in the process. The true core of the story is the internal journey of both Sam Spade (the hero) and Brigid O’Shaunessy (the shapeshifter/trickster), two people brought together by the quest, and whose lives are changed by it.
So, The Hobbit and The Maltese Falcon begin with the same character archetype of the unintentional hero. Bilbo (the hero) is hired to steal the Arkenstone back from a Dragon for Thorin (the trickster) and the dwarves, and Sam Spade is hired to obtain the Maltese Falcon for Brigid O’Shaunessy.
In both tales, another archetypal role that appears is that of the mentor: Bilbo has Gandalf the Wizard, and Sam Spade has Caspar Gutman. Despite their very different personalities and reasons for offering wisdom, both are mentors.
The fundamental stories are the same: the hero endures hardship to acquire an object (the Maltese Falcon or the Arkenstone) but finds that the object is no longer that important. Sam never acquires the true Maltese Falcon but finds out who really killed his business partner. He loses much in the process and emerges a different man.
Bilbo also loses his naïveté, and after all the work of finally finding it, he hides the Arkenstone because of Thorin’s uncharitable actions toward the Wood-elves and the Lake-men who have suffered from the Dragon’s depredations.
Despite the similarities on the level of archetypes, these are radically different novels.
And that is the beauty of the deeper level of the story. Something so fundamentally similar as plot archetypes and character archetypes can be written so differently that the same story emerges completely unique and wildly dissimilar from others based on that archetype.
I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in learning more of what archetypes are and how they fit into the story:
The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers, by Christopher Vogler
Credits and Attributions:
Wikipedia contributors, “Archetype,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Archetype&oldid=906671691 (accessed July 23, 2019).
Christopher Booker (2004). The seven basic plots: why we tell stories. London: Continuum. ISBN 978-0826452092. OCLC 57131450.
Wikipedia contributors, “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Writer%27s_Journey:_Mythic_Structure_for_Writers&oldid=804454608 (accessed July 23, 2019).
Wikipedia contributors, “Trickster,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Trickster&oldid=811022016 (accessed July 23, 2019).