Archetypal stories are stories that transcend themselves. Archetypes speak to something larger. They are archetypal exactly because they are too large. They are larger than life. They are impossible—but ring with probability. They utilize a seeming representation of the finite as a mirror through which to glimpse infinitude.
Despite their almost numinous quality, archetypes are a very real force in our practical world. Think of it this way: all the things we imagine actually exist. Aliens. Vampires. Dragons. Fairies. All the memories of our actual reality also exist—in real time—in the same way. Regardless whether these things can be proven as corporeal, they still exist within the human experience and impact it. The deeper the shared belief, the deeper and more meaningful the archetype becomes.
Stories are one of our most powerful modes of exploring archetypes. This is true, as we’ve talked about elsewhere, in the very nature of story itself and more specifically in the patterns of plot and character arc structure that are revealed in the studies of story theory. But archetypes show up in a legion of increasingly smaller ways—from genres to iconic character types to symbolic imagery.
For a writer, one of the most exciting explorations of archetype can be found within specific character arcs—or journeys. These arcs have defined our literature throughout history, and they can be consciously used by any writer to strengthen plot, identify themes, explore life, and resonate with readers.
The Six Archetypal Character Arcs (or Journeys) of the Human Life
With today’s post, I will be beginning a lengthy series that will start by exploring six particular Positive-Change character arcs. They are:
1. The Maiden
2. The Hero
3. The Queen
4. The King
5. The Crone
6. The Mage
These archetypes are not random but sequential, marking out what we might see as the Three Acts of the human life. If we think of the average human life as lasting 90 years, then we can also think of that life in terms of Three Acts made up of 30 years each.
The First Act—or the first thirty years—is represented by the youthful arcs of the Maiden and the Hero and can be thought of thematically as a time of Individuation.
The Second Act—roughly years thirty to sixty—is represented by the mature arcs of the Queen and the King and can be thought of thematically as a time of Integration.
The Third Act—roughly years sixty to ninety—is represented by the elder arcs of the Crone and the Mage and can be thought of thematically as a time of Transcendence.
In her book Women Who Run With the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D., alludes to how these six archetypes (although she uses different names) are foundational to the human experience:
The gardener, the king, and the magician are three mature personifications of the archetypal masculine. They correspond to the sacred trinity of the feminine personified by the maiden, mother, and crone.
For the purpose of our study, it is important to note upfront that each of these six character arcs will build upon the previous ones to create the big picture of one single “life arc.” The partner arcs within the same act are not interchangeable but distinct (i.e., the Maiden and the Hero are not simply gendered names for the same arc) and can be undertaken by any person of any gender (or age). (See point #5 at the end of the article.)
Each of these archetypes represents a Positive Change Arc (such as I talk about in my book Creating Character Arcs). Later we will also be examining the Negative Change Arcs represented by the passive/aggressive archetypal poles for each type (e.g., the Bully and Coward as the negative aspects of the Hero), as well as the Flat Arc periods that exist between the Positive-Change Arcs (e.g., the Lover, the Parent, the Ruler, etc.).
The “Problem” With the Hero’s Journey
Although all of these archetypes are deeply familiar to us, only one—the Hero—is noted for having a prominently recorded archetypal journey. Most writers these days are steeped in the mythology (both ancient and modern) and the canonized beatsheets of the Hero’s Journey.
I can’t speak specifically to every writer’s relationship to the Hero’s Journey, but I can speak to mine—which I daresay may indeed be similar to many people’s. Basically, I grew up engulfed in the Hero’s Journey, and I loved it. I resonated with it, played it out in the backyard with great gusto, and recreated it in my own stories.
But then I started reading about it in writing tomes…. and somehow didn’t quite resonate with it. Even though its beats clearly lined up with classic structure, I couldn’t help but feel a little claustrophobic about the whole thing. Although many of the terms I now use in teaching story structure have been borrowed from the classic Hero’s Journey, I have never specifically taught the Hero’s Journey or even consciously tried to apply it to my own stories.
I always felt like something was missing. And then a few years ago, at the suggestion of a Wordplayer, I read Kim Hudson’s The Virgin’s Promise, which posits a feminine partner arc to the Hero’s Journey. In the book, she also reaffirmed Clarissa Pinkola Estés’s point, above, about the Maiden and the Hero being the youthful journeys, which should, in a mature life, be followed by the journeys of adulthood and elderhood.
In short, the Hero’s Journey is anything but all-encompassing. It may be universal in the sense that it represents an archetypal pattern that shows up in all our lives. But it is literally only one of multiple important life arcs.
Ka-pow. Mind blown. As depth psychologist Jean Shinoda Bolen puts it:
I had a sense of experiencing something beyond ordinary reality, something numinous—which is a characteristic of an archetypal experience.
Not long after, as I began researching this series, I read The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell’s famed master text for the Hero’s Journey, and I was delighted to realize that what he describes as the Hero’s Journey is in fact a microcosm of all six life arcs. He talks about the stages of the Journey like this, and you can see how they align with the six life arcs (as well as two bookending archetypes).
Transformations of the Hero:
1. The Primordial Hero and the Human [Child]
2. Childhood of the Human Hero [Maiden]
3. The Hero as Warrior [Hero]
4. The Hero as Lover [Queen]
5. The Hero as Emperor and as Tyrant [King]
6. The Hero as World Redeemer [Crone]
7. The Hero as Saint [Mage]
8. Departure of the Hero [Saint]
Indeed, Carol S. Pearson notes in Awakening the Heroes Within that:
The three stages of the hero’s journey—preparation, journey, return—parallel exactly the stages of human psychological development….
Not only did these authors’ exemplary work completely change how I view and plot my own stories, it also changed the way I view my life. Recognizing and studying all of these archetypes (and identifying which journey I am personally working on in my own life) has proven to be a profound initiatory experience.
And, truly, that is the point of any good archetypal character arc.
What Is an Archetypal Character Arc?
Archetype changes us; if there is no change, there has been no real contact with the archetype.–Clarissa Pinkola Estés
If you have studied character arcs with me before, then you already know the essence of any character arc is change. Archetype, as noted in the quote above, adds the element of changing the reader—or at least, by its very nature, offering the opportunity to do so.
This is because all six of the archetypal arcs we will be discussing here are initiatory arcs. By that, I specifically mean they concern themselves on both a personal and a symbolic scale with Life, Death, and Resurrection.
In short, archetypal arcs are not just about change, they are about change taken to its ultimate endpoint: what was can no longer be. Although your story may or may not feature literal death, what is really meant here is that the arc of one archetype is fundamentally about its own death—and subsequent rebirth into the archetype that follows. In Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle puts it:
To be alive is to be vulnerable. To be born is to start the journey towards death…. We move—are moved—into death in order to be discovered…. But without this death, nothing is born. And if we die willingly, no matter how frightened we may be, we will be found and born anew into life, and life more abundant.
For instance, the Maiden Arc is about the death of the Maiden archetype within the protagonist—and her rebirth into the Hero. The arcs are not about becoming the central archetypes (i.e., the Hero Arc is not about becoming a Hero), but rather about reaching the apotheosis of that archetype and then transitioning out of the height of that power into Death/Rebirth (i.e., the Hero surrenders his heroism and is reborn into the Queen archetype).
The foundational reason why these six arcs are so crucially central to the human experience is because they are all initiatory arcs. Particularly in our modern era when so many initiatory experiences (for the young, much less the adult and even less the elder) have been culturally lost or abandoned, these archetypal stories offer a deep resonant truth, and even subconscious guidance, that people crave.
The passage of the mythological hero may be overground, incidentally; fundamentally it is inward—into the depths where obscure resistances are overcome, and long lost, forgotten powers are revivified, to be made available for the transfiguration of the world. This deed accomplished, life no longer suffers hopelessly under the terrible mutilations of ubiquitous disaster, battered by time, hideous throughout space; but with its horror visible still, its cries of anguish still tumultuous, it becomes penetrated by an all-suffusing, all-sustaining love, and a knowledge of its own unconquered power. Something of the light that blazes invisible within the abysses of its normally opaque materiality breaks forth, with an increasing uproar.
5 Things to Know About Archetypal Character Arcs
Next week, we will begin studying the structural beats and thematic significance of each of the arcs—starting with my take on the Maiden Arc. Before we dive into the specifics of each individual arc, I want to take a brief moment to discuss a few basic principles that will apply to all the arcs.
1. Not All Stories Will Feature “Life Arc” Archetypes
Just as not every story features the Hero’s Journey, not every story will necessarily feature one of these specific archetypal arcs. In my experience and study so far, most stories do in fact fit into one of these categories. But just as these arcs are specific variations on the more general premise of the Positive Change Arc (and, later, the Negative Change and Flat Arcs), there may also be many variations on these archetypes. This is especially true for the beats and structures I will be presenting for each Positive-Change archetype.
2. These Archetypal Character Arcs Are Not the Only Archetypal Arcs
Archetypes are legion. Many systems exist for categorizing and naming character archetypes—everything from Jungian archetypes to the Enneagram. Almost all of them offer something of validity and are worth studying and implementing in their own right. What I am exploring via these six Positive-Change Arcs (and their related Negative and Flat archetypes) is simply one possible approach to character archetypes within your stories.
3. A Single Archetypal Character Arc Can Be Told Over the Course of Multiple Stories in a Series
Each of these character archetypes lends itself to a distinct and complete story structure, which can be used to plot a single book—and that is how we will be discussing them. But as all writers know, in agreement with what writing professor John Gardner says in his book The Art of Fiction
Somehow the fictional dream persuades us that it’s a clear, sharp, edited version of the dream all around us.
In reality, fiction itself isn’t always so clear and cooperative. This means none of these archetypes must be confined to a single book. A character’s journey through a single archetypal arc may, in fact, require multiple books or even an entire series to accomplish.
4. Multiple Archetypal Character Arcs Can Be Told in a Single Story
By the same token, it’s possible (although much trickier) to combine multiple archetypes into a single larger character arc for a single character within a single book.
Campbell himself speaks to this:
The changes run on the simple scale of the monomyth defy description. Many tales isolate and greatly enlarge upon one or two of the typical elements of the full cycle (test motif, flight motif, abduction of the bride), others string a number of independent cycles into a single series (as in the Odyssey). Differing characters or episodes can become fused, or a single element can reduplicate itself and reappear under many changes.
5. The Arcs Can Be Undertaken by Any Person of Any Age
And finally, as I mentioned earlier, these arcs can be undertaken by any person of any gender or age. Eudora Welty observed:
The events in our lives happen in a sequence in time, but in their significance to ourselves, they find their own order … the continuous thread of revelation.
For example, it is possible to see older characters undergoing a Hero’s Journey. It is even possible to see how these experiences can be repeated within a smaller spiral of experience in every chapter of a human life. Indeed, the entire span of the arcs (from Maiden through Mage) can be seen mirrored within the individual structure of any one story—something we’ll talk more about as we go.
Most importantly, don’t get hung up on the gendered titles of these arcs. I have retained these titles (Hero, Queen, etc.) precisely because they reflect the masculine and feminine aspects of the journey. But these titles do not indicate that the protagonist must correspondingly be male or female.
For example, as is often discussed these days, characters taking a Hero’s Journey need not be male. Carol Pearson notes in the preface to her book The Hero Within:
Women’s journeys often differ in style and sometimes in sequence from those of men, but the hero’s journey is essentially the same for both sexes.
More than that, every single one of these arcs is important, in its proper order, for every person, regardless of gender. Generally speaking, the feminine arcs begin in integration and move to individuation, while the masculine arcs begin in individuation and move back to integration. Both are necessary for wholeness and growth, each leading into the next.
I will have more overview notes to offer at the end of the series, once we’ve explored all the archetypes. For now, I hope you’re as pumped as I am to dive into this juicy subject.
Stay Tuned: Next week, we will begin our journey with the Maiden Arc.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever studied archetypal character arcs before? Tell me in the comments!
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