The Importance of Archetypes
A little while ago I touched briefly on archetypes. I wanted to cover a little more ground here. For those of you that didn’t read that blog, Archetypes are “a recurrent symbol or motif in literature, art, or mythology”, according to Dictionary.com. So, generally themes, characters, and sometimes images that are meant to embody meanings or experiences significant to everyone. Based on your own experiences, what do you think when you hear archetypes?
For me, It makes me think of how certain stories can be categorized. How many stories, if not all types, can be traced back to a certain idea or certain type of story, told over and over again in different ways, but with the same basic ideas being told.
As I did a little bit of research on the origin of stories, I came across an interesting article on ColorQ World. It speaks on the similarity between stories from countries in close proximity to each other. It used the story of a rabbit using a pestle and mortar having slight variations between the countries of China, Japan, Thailand and Korea.
The article goes on to say this:
Peoples belonging to the same linguistic family also tend to have common elements in their folklore - the Uighurs of East Turkestan and the Turks of Turkey may be physically separated by many countries in between, but they both have stories of the folk hero Effendi Nasreddin Hodja. It is not surprising when distinct cultures that are geographic neighbors or linguistic cousins share common elements in their tales and myths. What is more fascinating are the similar themes that occur in the traditions of geographically distant and linguistically distinct cultures. Here are some examples of common motifs in folklore from around the world:
Animal-to-other shape-shifters - Brazil, Peru, Japan, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand
Mermaids - Cameroon, Japan, India, Malaysia, Thailand
Centaurs - Cameroon, Greece
Underwater civilizations - Cameroon, Peru, Brazil, China, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia
Very interesting, wouldn’t you agree? The stories are sometimes reflections of each other, found within different societies and cultures. Are there some stories within your own culture that you can see bits and pieces of in different cultures? How far back do you think it dates? The idea of weird or evil creatures really sticks out to me, since there seems to be a variation of that in all cultures that I know of. In your own writing have you ever written in a legendary creature or spirit? Has that creature/spirit ever manifested itself in the story? There is so much we can learn from stories told in the past and by studying how said stories have evolved over time.
Upon learning more of archetypes, I believe we can use that to strengthen our own writing. Director Gore Verbinski once said, “I just watched so many Westerns as a kid that you end up using archetypes and sort of tropes of that genre, because there's a language there and you can twist it and turn it on its head or play to it or go sideways at any time.”
I agree with him because I know that the more we understand of these archetypes and different types of storytelling, the more we will be able to take that and create something wonderful within our own writing. Not only that, but I feel that reading and understanding stories of the past, archetypal or not, we can create something wonderful.
I am listing the archetypes below for your personal reference.
List of Archetypes:
1. The Quest – This motif describes the search for someone or some talisman which, when found and brought back, will restore fertility to a wasted land, the desolation of which is mirrored by a leader’s illness and disability.
2. The Task – This refers to a possibly superhuman feat that must be accomplished in order to fulfill the ultimate goal.
3. The Journey – The journey sends the hero in search for some truth of information necessary to restore fertility, justice, and/or harmony to the kingdom. The journey includes the series of trials and tribulations the hero faces along the way. Usually the hero descends into a real or psychological hell and is forced to discover the blackest truths, quite often concerning his faults. Once the hero is at this lowest level, he must accept personal responsibility to return to the world of the living.
4. The Initiation – This situation refers to a moment, usually psychological, in which an individual comes into maturity. He or she gains a new awareness into the nature of circumstances and problems and understands his or her responsibility for trying to resolve the dilemma. Typically, a hero receives a calling, a message or signal that he or she must make sacrifices and become responsible for getting involved in the problem. Often a hero will deny and question the calling and ultimately, in the initiation, will accept responsibility.
5. The Ritual – Not to be confused with the initiation, the ritual refers to an organized ceremony that involves honored members of a given community and an Initiate. This situation officially brings the young man or woman into the realm of the community’s adult world.
6. The Fall – Not to be confused with the awareness in the initiation, this archetype describes a descent in action from a higher to a lower state of being, an experience which might involve defilement, moral imperfection, and/or loss of innocence. This fall is often accompanied by expulsion from a kind of paradise as penalty for disobedience and/or moral transgression.
7. Death and Rebirth – The most common of all situational archetypes, this motif grows out of the parallel between the cycle of nature and the cycle of life. It refers to those situations in which someone or something, concrete and/or metaphysical dies, yet is accompanied by some sign of birth or rebirth.
8. Nature vs. Mechanistic World – Expressed in its simplest form, this refers to situations which suggest that nature is good whereas the forces of technology are bad.
9. Battle Between Good and Evil – These situations pit obvious forces which represent good and evil against one another. Typically, good ultimately triumphs over evil despite great odds.
10. The Unhealable Wound – This wound, physical or psychological, cannot be healed fully. This would also indicate a loss of innocence or purity. Often the wounds’ pain drives the sufferer to desperate measures of madness.
11. The Magic Weapon – Sometimes connected with the task, this refers to a skilled individual hero’s ability to use a piece of technology in order to combat evil, continue a journey, or to prove his or her identity as a chosen individual.
12. Father-Son Conflict – Tension often results from separation during childhood or from an external source when the individuals meet as men and where the mentor often has a higher place in the affections of the hero than the natural parent. Sometimes the conflict is resolved in atonement.
13. Innate Wisdom vs. Educated Stupidity – Some characters exhibit wisdom and understanding intuitively as opposed to those supposedly in charge.
After reading through some of the archetypes, what would you say is a very common one that you’ve come across multiple times? Think about it. I would say the Task or the Journey are seen most often, at least for me. There’s The Hunger Games, where Katniss has to survive the games, a monumental task, or The Lord of the Rings, which is a literal journey.
Another great reference is The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell. I did mention this in my last blog as having heard that it was a pre-requisite for working with Pixar, which might say something of its importance in storytelling. In this book he explores the different archetypes and their importance in our history as well as writing or telling stories. If you have not had a chance to read this book, I highly recommend it.
How important do you think archetypes are when it comes to writing? I think of it as similar to why we study history. You study history to know what has happened, how things have happened, and to determine what might possibly happen in the future. Knowing how stories used to be told, using the various archetypes, helps writers of today. You study writing to be a better writer. Knowing how stories used to be told can help writers of today be more creative and take stories in new directions, while also using the old archetypes for stories as well.
Do you believe writers should understand archetypes? Why?
My answer is yes. Definitely. This is kind of a repeat question from before, but I believe writers can only benefit from knowing how stories used to be told. Thus, studying and understanding archetypes can help storytellers/writers of today.
Australian Actress, Isabel Lucas, understands the importance of knowing the archetypes. She once said, “I love Athena. I love all the goddesses and the archetypes and what they represent because I think they're always going to be relevant not just to women but to humanity. They're living energy. There's a lot we can still learn from them.”
I hope you guys have learned a bit about archetypes today, and see their value in writing. Some of them may even give you ideas for stories that you wouldn’t have considered otherwise. From what you now understand of archetypes, do you think you steer more towards one of these in your own writing? That being said, I challenge you to write a short, 1-3 page story or scenario revolving around one of the listed archetypes. I challenge you to choose one that you don’t think you’ve used in the past.
We write not only because we enjoy it, but because we want a bit of ourselves to be left behind, as is the case for the story of Athena, or Katniss, or Frodo. The archetypes are a tool we can use to accomplish this, not only to leave something behind, but to give a reflection of ourselves to society. Study and write, and write some more. Add what is within you to the stories and archetypes of the world. Happy writing!
*The last link is an attached a list of the archetypes with the definitions for your reference.
Sources and mentions:
-The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
-The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
-The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell