All art is necessarily both reflective and generative of the human experience. And in that way, all art both reflects and generates archetype. Some stories do this more simply and obviously than others. Those stories that we recognize as myth or fable are most blatantly archetypal. But even hyper-realistic stories—when they are well done—offer up to us the archetypal truths of humanity. Or as chef Mario Batali says:
If it works, it is true.
Madeleine L’Engle in Walking on Water comments that:
…all true art has an iconic quality…. All artists reflect the time in which they live, but whether or not their work also has that universality which lives in any generation or culture is nothing we will know for many years…. If the artist reflects only his own culture, then his works will die with that culture. But if his works reflect the eternal and universal, they will revive.
What is an archetype? My dictionary offers three definitions:
1. A typical specimen.
2. An original model.
3. A universal or recurring symbol.
As we discussed last week, the very shape of story itself is archetypal. Its structure, by whatever system you prefer to codify it, is a blueprint for life itself, both as a whole and in its many smaller integers. In future weeks, we’re going to be talking about some specific archetypal models (of which there are many) that you can use to discover, guide, and amplify the archetypes within your own stories. But today, let’s examine the intermediary ground—why it should be that story and archetype are so intertwined and what this means for you as a writer attempting to channel these deep patterns of human existence.
Story as Revelation
Many writers can speak to the experience of “receiving” a story. Much as Stephen King has famously described his own process, we don’t so much create our stories as we discover them. It is as if the bones, at least, are always there, and all we have to do is figure out how to dig them up. When the creation process is at its most powerful, we are “in the zone,” writing madly away, just hoping our fingers can move fast enough to get it all down before the inspiration fades.
Dr. Friedrich Dessauer, an atomic physicist at the turn of the 20th Century, mused that:
Man is a creature who depends entirely on revelation. In all his intellectual endeavor, he should always listen, always be intent to hear and see. He should not strive to superimpose the structure of his own mind, his systems of thought upon reality.
I think Dessauer would agree with Jonathan Lehrer in Proust Was a Neuroscientist when Lehrer says:
Physics is useful for describing quarks and galaxies, neuroscience is useful for describing the brain, and art is useful for describing our actual experience.
Writers can easily attest to the delicate balance of uncovering life’s patterns as recorded in our collective story theories so that we may better tap into them, but not so that we may superimpose them where our deeper wisdom and creativity knows they do not belong.
In her book Women Who Run With the Wolves, a poetic exploration of the feminine journey via archetypal stories, psychologist and oral storyteller Clarissa Pinkola Estés speaks passionately to the storyteller’s (and indeed the human’s) responsibility to channel this archetypal inspiration:
Our work is to interpret this Life/Death/Life cycle, to live it as gracefully as we know how, to howl like a mad dog when we cannot—and to go on…. Although some use stories as entertainment alone, tales are, in their oldest sense, a healing art. Some are called to this healing art, and the best, to my lights, are those who have lain with the story and found all its matching parts inside themselves and at depth.
When writers first begin learning about archetypal story structure, they are often astonished (as I was) to examine their own stories and discover that these archetypes they’ve heard of before are there already within their best stories—or waiting to be uncovered to help those stories find a truer voice.
How is it that even the most uneducated writers seem to have at least a glimmer of an understanding for these archetypes? Perhaps it is because these patterns are everywhere, and we necessarily absorb them by osmosis. Perhaps, as the depth psychologists would have it, it is because these archetypes reside in a collective unconscious. Or perhaps it is simply because as humans we resonate with the patterns of our existence and instinctively understand how to recreate them in our art.
Whatever the case, archetypal stories and characters have populated the greater archetypal mythologies of the human experience for as long as we can remember. As Willa Cather says in one of my favorite quotes ever:
There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they never happened.
Mythological Character Archetypes
Most of what we specifically think of as character archetypes are found in the stories that have been mythologized, whether from history, religion, or folk and fairy tales. What we recognize as the origins for these stories and their characters are often simplistic, fantastical, and moralistic. They often repeat over and over again throughout the millennia, varied but always foundationally similar from culture to culture and era to era. Or as Estés put it:
That is the nature of archetypes… they leave an evidence, they wend their way into the stories, dreams, and ideas of mortals. There they become a universal theme, a set of instructions, dwelling who knows where, but crossing time and space to enwisen each new generation. There is a saying that stories have wings. They can fly over the Carpathian Mountains and lodge in the Urals. They then vault over to the Sierras and follow its spine over and hop to the Rockies, and so on.
In The Art of Fiction, writing instructor John Gardner distinguished “fables,” “yarns,” and “tales” as layers of story that move increasingly away from non-reality (i.e., fantasy) into the more nuanced and specific realms of realism. But even the hyper-realistic fiction of post-modernism rests upon the foundations of myth and its metaphors.
Psychologist James Hillman notes:
Mythology is a psychology of antiquity, psychology is a mythology of modernity.
When modern writers think about archetype, we are most likely to think of the now ubiquitous Hero’s Journey, made famous by Joseph Campbell’s mythological research in The Hero With a Thousand Faces and since codified by many writers (most notably Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey) as a profoundly powerful archetypal character arc. The Hero’s Journey is a deeply metaphoric structure that finds its most literal representation in fantasy—with its often black-and-white representations of good and evil, complete with dragons, resurrections, kingdoms, and wizards. But it is found over and over again in story after story, whether fantastical or realistic, proving its versatility. (However, it is not the only archetypal character arc, and not even the most important one—which is what we will be discussing in the upcoming series, featuring six primary and serial arcs, of which the Hero’s Journey is the second.)
Archetype as the Path to Powerful Stories
So why do archetypes matter? To a writer, they matter for the most obvious reason that they are stories. But more than that, they are stories that work. The very fact that these patterns have not only stuck around over the years, but in fact have proven themselves to still be meaningful should be enough to perk up the ears of any writer. After all, that’s what we’re all hoping for in our own stories, isn’t it?
Like the structure of plot and character itself, archetypes offer writers insights into modalities of deeper and more resonant fiction. The mere pattern of an archetype is not resonance in itself (as the many cookie-cutter productions of the Hero’s Journey, ad nauseum, have proved). But the archetypes offer the storyteller a glimpse into some of the deeper insights and truths of humanity.
Gardner points out:
Fiction seeks out truth. Granted, it seeks a poetic kind of truth, universals not easily translatable into moral codes. But part of our interest as we read is in learning how the world works; how the conflicts we share with the writer and all other human beings can be resolved, if at all; what values we can affirm and, in general, what the moral risks are. The writer who can’t distinguish truth from a peanut-butter sandwich can never write good fiction. What he affirms we deny, throwing away his book in indignation; or if he affirms nothing, not even our oneness in sad or comic helplessness, and insists that he’s perfectly right to do so, we confute him by closing his book.
More than that, archetypes—particularly the specific archetypal character arcs that represent the human life—have the potential to offer writers and readers alike a subconscious road map to our own initiatory journeys through life.
That has been my own experience with these archetypal character arcs. Merely in coming to a recognition of them (and particularly that the Hero’s Journey is one of many and where it fits within the pattern—and therefore within my own life as well as my characters’), I have personally found just as many gifts as a person as I have as a writer.
Campbell says it as well as anyone:
The tribal ceremonies of birth, initiation, marriage, burial, installation, and so forth, serve to translate the individuals’ life-crises and life-deeds into classic, impersonal forms. They disclose him to himself, not as this personality or that, but as the warrior, the bride, the widow, the priest, the chieftain; at the same time rehearsing for the rest of the community the old lesson of the archetypal stages. All participate in the ceremonial according to rank and function. The whole society becomes visible to itself as an imperishable living unit. Generations of individuals pass, like anonymous cells from a living body; but the sustaining, timeless form remains. By an enlargement of vision to embrace this super-individual, each discovers himself enhanced, enriched, supported, and magnified. His role, however unimpressive, is seen to be intrinsic to the beautiful festival-image of man—the image, potential yet necessarily inhibited within himself.
Whether we are writing about falling in love in a YA novel, fighting dragons in a fantasy, making peace with adult children in contemporary fiction, ruling a corrupt dynasty in a historical novel, or conversing with the moon in magical realism—we are all writing about our own experiences of the world and, by extension if we write well and truly enough, everyone else’s experiences as well.
In closing, here is one last quote, this one from Donald Maass’s wonderful Emotional Craft of Fiction:
You may think you are telling your characters’ stories, but actually you are telling us ours.
Stay tuned: Next week, we will officially kick off the series on archetypal character arcs with an introduction to the six primary Positive Change Arc character archetypes we will be studying.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What has been your experience reading, viewing, or writing archetypal stories? Tell me in the comments!
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