Archetype-Cast: 8 People Who Should be in Your Story


L’home Theroux follows a “Journey of the Hero” structure as first laid out by Joseph Campbell in ”Hero with a Thousand Faces.”  Inside the Separation, Initiation, and Return structure of the Hero’s Journey, and the stages that serve as milestones to move the plot forward, are specific functions filled by archetypes.
When I attended High School and college, it was still socially acceptable to venerate the dead, white males who made up the bulk of the literary cannon up until the last couple of decades.  I recognized and had studied all the writers Robin Williams referenced in Dead Poets Society (Thank you, Mrs. Patricia Colucci and Michelle Shibley).
A quick recap: an archetype is a recognizable pattern of behavior.  I always thought it wasn’t a big leap from archetype to stereotype, so all the times I’ve been accused of racism, I was really identifying a pattern of behavior I recognized.  Most people disagree.  Either way, a writer does well to avoid stereotypes when building characters or risk readers throwing up their hands and saying, “Great.  Another token black sidekick who says ’nigger’ all the time.”
An archetype fills a specific role in a story.  Often a character plays more than one archetype, and sometimes multiple archetypes at the same time.  I have two suggestions for a character who carries more than one water bucket.  First, try not to have your character wear too many archetype hats.  If one character has all the answers for your protagonist, perhaps they should swap roles.  Second, authors should be aware of a character bouncing between archetypes.  Transitioning from one to another isn’t a problem, but once the character moves from one role to another, he should leave the old archetype behind.
Despite the connotations of the word “hero,” he (and increasingly, she) does not go it alone.  There is a cast of supporting characters who make the Hero’s Journey possible.  The list of possible archetypes can be quite exhaustive, depending on how far you want to stretch definitions, but here are the biggies.

1. Hero

The hero is the main character of your tale.  The story is about him and each character is there in relation to the protagonist.  The audience experiences the adventure through his eyes, and it is vital that the audience relate to the hero.  Even an antihero needs to be relatable, and even likeable, to maintain audience interest.

The hero leaves his familiar world for an unfamiliar one where he has his main adventures and returns home changed in some way.

He leaves ill prepared for his adventure and requires help from the other archetypes.

2. Mentor

Generally, the mentor is the first archetype the hero encounters. This is because the mentor not only provides guidance and advice to the hero, but he provides exposition for hero and audience. The new world in which the hero finds himself is so unfamiliar that what few skills the hero possesses are completely inadequate.  The mentor clues the hero in to the dangers he faces, the skills he needs, and often, the boon the hero seeks.
In addition to the hero’s lack of skills, is a lack of equipment.  Conan had to luck his way into possession of his sword and Luke had to be given his light saber.  Even though these are two different methods of acquiring the necessary tool to complete the task, the archetype of the mentor provides exposition, tools, and advice.
Mentors frequently provide another service to the story by initiating the plot.  After receiving the call, and possibly refusing it, heroes often require encouragement (and sometimes a boot in the ass) to cross the threshold into their adventure.  After the hero is on the right path, the mentor disappears.

This probably explains why mentors do not live to see the end of the story.

With his purpose served, the character playing the mentor would likely become a nagging harpy, always second guessing the hero, so he is killed off to preserve the positive feelings about the character and provide the hero a heightened sense of motivation. It’s the ultimate vanishing act until the mentor comes back as a ghost in the Return Stage to nod approvingly.

3. Ally

Just as countries like to have allies when they go to war, the same is true for a hero.  The importance of an ally to the hero is even more important.  The hero needs someone to create distractions, tell the princess her savior has a plan, and hold the horses so they can escape.

A sidekick is always an ally, but an ally is not always a sidekick. In the case of a “buddy movie,” it might be difficult to tell exactly who is the hero.

The ally also serves a couple other purposes.  An ally helps fill time during travels (and what’s a Hero’s Journey without logging some miles?).  The audience gets the chance to learn about the hero during the exchanges with his ally.  An ally also serves as a cathartic sacrificial lamb when someone has to stay behind to blow the bridge, hold the enemy at the pass, etc so the hero can make his final escape.  It’s harsh to say, but once the ally has served his purpose, he is no longer necessary to the story.  Like the mentor, the ally can provide one last bit of heartstring pulling with his death.
Depending on the plot, an ally may or not be friendly to the hero.  Sometimes, an ally is downright antagonistic, or at least, reluctant, leaving the audience to wonder why the hero and the ally are teamed up at all.  The answer is conflict for a subplot.  Most times, a crotchety ally comes to appreciate the hero, and often becomes friends his friend.

4. Herald

The herald archetype is the catalyst for the entire series of events that make up the adventure proper.  The herald might be a simple messenger that brings news of a threat far away or an event that pushes the hero into action.  Whatever form the herald takes, this is the point where the hero must make his decision to embark.

The herald is closely tied with the Call to Adventure stage in the Hero’s Journey.  The herald can be a tricky archetype in that it is as often an event as a person.

For a well established hero such a Beowulf, a call for help from a neighboring kingdom to defeat Grendel can serve as the herald.  First time or reluctant heroes are typically spurred into action by an event.  A sufficiently life altering event may leave few choices for a hero, who embarks on the adventure out of revenge, to right a wrong, or simply seeing no other way out.  A cataclysmic event in the hero’s everyday life, such as death of an entire household, is a classic herald to move an unlikely hero into his adventure.

5. Trickster

The trickster provides comic relief in a story. An audience cannot be on pins and needles the entire duration of a story.  To do so becomes emotionally draining and turns catharsis into a downer.  Entire scenes with the trickster serve to lift the mood of a story, particularly after a heart wrenching event.  He lightens the mood between tense peaks in a the story.  Just be careful the transition is not too abrupt.

The trickster also serves a purpose similar to the chorus in Ancient Greek plays.

He can be a sounding board for the story or actions of the hero by being the voice of society.  By voicing dissent or outright questioning the hero, the trickster forces the hero to articulate his reasoning for the audience.  The trickster can also push the hero to view problems in a broader perspective or offer alternatives the hero has not considered.

6. Shapeshifter

The best way to think of the shapeshifter archetype is someone who betrays the hero.  The shapeshifter may or may not be known to the hero.  Some of them may not give indications before screwing the hero over.

Some are of questionable loyalty and waver back and forth for various reasons.

The uncertainty injected into the relationship between the hero and the trickster can add an interesting dynamic for the audience and even an entire subplot to the story.  A spurned lover, relative, or colleague all make for a believable shapeshifter, since their motivations are very understandable to an audience.  Which might not speak well for the people that make up an audience, but that’s another subject.

7. Guardian

Sometimes called the threshold guardian, the guardian archetype tests the hero before the big challenges begin.  Guardians can show up at any point in the story, and they often vary in ferocity.  While quite snooty, the doorknob is “Alice in Wonderland” is a guardian.  A funnier threshold guardian is the Black Knight in Monty Python’s Search for the Holy Grail.

Whether ferocious and dangerous or humorous and condescending, the guardian has one purpose; it tells the hero to give up the ghost and head for home.

Of course, any hero worth his salt rejects the message and bypasses the guardian some way or other.  Depending on the situation, this could be as simple as ignoring the guardian or go the full measure by killing him.  It just depends on the nature of the threshold guardian and the options available to the hero.

8. Shadow

The shadow is the villain of the story.  The head bad guy.  Mr. Evil himself.  Despite any redeeming characteristics you ascribe to him (which you really should do since one-dimensional villains are boring), the villain’s purpose in life is to make the hero’s life hell.  At minimum, in the absence of some sort of personal beef against the hero, the villain has plans at odds with the hero.  And don’t get too wrapped around the axle making the shadow an actual person.

The shadow is something the hero struggles against.

So in “Moby Dick,” we see a whale as the shadow.
A shadow becomes particularly effective when it mirrors the hero somehow.  Think in terms of “the path not taken” as shown in the Wolverine Origins movie or any other brother versus brother story line.  The audience sees what the hero could have become or might become in the future.  The hero also sees it, and this can add to his internal struggle.

Wrap up
It’s unusual for a story to have one character per archetype because archetypes are roles that may not span the entire length of the story.  What usually happens is one character will shift from one archetype to another.  Also, more than one character can fill the role of one archetype.  A hero can have multiple mentors over the course of a story.  Likewise, the nature of the trickster can easily find that character playing to ally, or herald, or both.
Just be sure not to use an Archetype Checklist for the sake of having them all in the story.  They may not all be necessary.  However, if you have a character that does not fill an archetype role, you should consider whether the character belongs in the story in the first place.

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