Character Archetypes

Archetypes have been famous since Jung help kick-start psychology and proclaimed them integral aspects of dreaming and storytelling. Of course, archetypes existed before Jung came along--as mythologists like Joseph Campbell have pointed out. The reason Jung is important is because Jung justified the use of archetypes, making them intellectually acceptable.

Despite Jung, conveyors of so-called literary fare  still tote the so-called "well-rounded" character--as opposed to the archetype. The "well-rounded" character is supposedly more substantive, better written, more interesting, more "realistic," and more demanding intellectually.

These effects are assumed. That is, literary types assume that the "well-rounded" character is achieving all these marvelous, literary things. But then literary types rarely stop and ask, "But does all this actually make for a better story?"

The power of the archetype is that it invites more reader participation, not less. 

An archetype is like a good metaphor or simile: it provides instant recognition alongside new insight, allowing the reader/viewer to say, "Hey, I know people like that! I never thought of them in this way."

Recognition is the first step: for characters and for metaphors/similes. If I write, "The knife was as sharp as the teeth of a Suvagian tiger," and you've never seen or spoken to a Suvagian tiger (probably because I made him up), the simile will fall flat.

One of my favorite examples of a recognizable simile comes from Longfellow's "The Wreck of the Hesperus":
Like a vessel of glass, she stove [broke by collapsing inward] and sank.
Imagine a glass bobbing in a sink full of water. It turns until it begins to fill. As it fills, it descends to the bottom of the sink.

This sinking glass is a recognizable, everyday image applied to a ship. In the poem, the simile becomes a slow motion moment in a series of fast-moving verses. It packs a wallop.

Archetypes accomplish the same thing by giving us recognizable personalities: The leader. The friend. The gossip. The bully. The tough guy. The tough gal. The mentor. The student.

Genre movies and books specifically offer the calm, wry friend; the cocked-eyed optimist; the troubled, angsty hero or heroine; the grouch; the steady planner; the inspired dreamer; the rival; the rival who tells the truth; the helper; the sarcastic helper; the damsel in distress; the damsel who appears in distress but can kick your butt and so on.

A free spirit and a grouch like Camille and Richard (Sara Martins and Ben Miller) from the initial seasons of Death in Paradise are instantly recognizable. They are also endearing. Most importantly, they invite the reader to discover more--why does this partnership work? How do these characters overcome their differences to solve cases? They are archetypes, so we know them. They are well-crafted archetypes, so we are led to ask, What makes them unique? How do they both fulfill and break their archetypes?

Archetypes invite writers and fans to speculate (with varying degrees of accuracy). As I mention elsewhere, the success of such speculations is often measured against the already givens. Readers will say about a piece of fan-fiction, "Yes, that sounds like them!" or "No, I don't think they would do that."  

Stereotypes, in comparison to archetypes, are similar to poor metaphors or similes: It was as cold as ice. It was as white as snow. Eh: been there, done that. The sense of recognition is slim, and nothing new is learned.

So what is the line between stereotype and archetype?

To be continued . . .

1 comment:

FreeLiveFree said...

Archetypes can cross cultural borders pretty well. The knight-errant, the ronin samurai, and the old west gunslinger are the same archetype.

There are archtypical plots too. Yojimbo and The Seven Samurai were remade as A Fistfull of Dollars and the Magnificent Seven respectively. Historical adventurer writer wrote a series of stories about Cossacks in Asia. One of the story involved the hero rescuing the heroine from the "Tatars" (Mongols.) If you replaced the Cossack with a cowboy and the Tatars with the Indians it could be a basic Western.