The First Act of the human experience—roughly the first thirty years—may be thought of as a period of Initiation. It is a period of integrating the parts of one’s self. In many ways, it is a period in which the overarching, symbolic antagonist may be thought of as Fear. We use the arcs of this period to overcome Fear and discover our own empowerment as individuals within the world.
As with all of the three periods that encompass these archetypal “life arcs,” the First Act is made up of two partner arcs, each leading into the other, each vitally important to mature development. The second of these arcs is perhaps the most popularly known of any archetypal character arc—the Hero. But the Hero Arc cannot successfully launch the youthful person into adulthood unless it is founded upon the lessons learned from a completed Maiden Arc.
Because the Hero Arc is told almost to the complete exclusion (at least consciously) of the other life arcs—particularly the feminine and “elder” arcs—we don’t find a wealth of study in writing these other arcs, which is a deep shame since it means that both society and the individual misses out on the guidance of stories from other equally vital parts of life. It also means writers often feel they have but one primary model upon which to build stories. Instinctively, I think we all reject this—and yet where are the other models?
The answer is that at least some of them are now arising (or rather reemerging). The feminine arcs in particular are beginning to find voices. Within the last half century, more and more writers, psychologists, and social historians are offering models for these under-explored female arcs. I want to quickly reference some of these to indicate where I believe their models line up with the six life arcs. Some of these books were written for writers, some not.
- First, we have Maureen Murdock’s The Heroine’s Journey—which I see as basically a female perspective on the Hero Arc.
- In her book 45 Master Characters, Victoria Lynn Schmidt presents her own take on essentially the same approach as Murdock’s.
- Recently, paranormal romance author Gail Carringer wrote a book also titled The Heroine’s Journey. I see her discussion lining up nicely with the Queen Arc, which we’ll be exploring later in the series.
- And finally, and more to the point of this specific post, screenwriter Kim Hudson examines the feminine counterpart to the Hero’s Journey, which she calls The Virgin’s Promise.
Aside from attributing some of the sources I’ve found invaluable in studying this subject, I highlight this primarily to indicate that there are different feminine arcs just as there are different masculine arcs. It’s also worth noting that there is often crossover in the models of these archetypal arcs and sometimes even in the arcs themselves. This is not an exact science. What I’m presenting in this series is simply my take on the subject—what I’ve found rings true for me in my own life’s journey and in writing my characters’ journeys. As ever in all things story theory, you should always heed your own instincts (which understand archetypes much more deeply than any of our rational minds do anyway) in reconciling any parallels or inconsistencies.
Now before we officially get started, I want to include two important reminders, which hold true for all of the arcs we’ll be studying.
1. The arcs are alternately characterized as feminine and masculine. This is primarily indicating the ebb and flow between integration and individuation, among other qualities. Together, all six life arcs create a progression that can be found in any human life (provided we complete our early arcs in order to reach the later arcs with a proper foundation). In short, although I will use feminine pronouns for the feminine arcs and masculine pronouns for the masculine arcs, the protagonists of these stories can be of any gender.
2. Because these archetypes represent Positive Change Arcs, they are therefore primarily about change. The archetype in which the protagonist begins the story will not be the archetype in which she ends the story. She was have arced into the subsequent archetype. The Maiden Arc, therefore, is not about becoming the Maiden archetype, but rather arcing out of it into the beginnings of the Hero Arc—and so on.
The Maiden Arc: Coming of Age
The Maiden Arc is the fundamental coming-of-age story. It is the story of a character who has left behind the Child archetype (which we will discuss later in the series when we reach the Flat-Arc or “resting” archetypes), but who has not yet individuated away from her family and into her own autonomy.
The Maiden represents sexual awakening and conscious burgeoning. Hers is that fraught period—recreated in so many YA novels—when the person is learning who she will become and, perhaps most poignantly, what she is willing to risk to become that person.
There is no guarantee she will accept the risk. As with all of the arcs, there is no promise she will fully commit to and complete her arc. Although we all grow up physically and assume adult responsibility, the inner arc may remain uncompleted long into our lives. The obstacles the Maiden confronts are vast because true individuation is often perceived as a threat by the tribe in which she exists.
Stakes: Individuating From the Tribe
Because the Maiden is so young—just on the cusp of adulthood—she will still be perceived as a Child by her tribe. This is why, symbolically, the tribe is usually represented by her own family in some way. Symbolically, she has not yet ventured beyond the walls of her home. But that home, which once seemed to be all the world, is beginning to seem very small. And the love of the parents, which once seemed so all-fulfilling, now begins to seem confining to her growth.
In The Virgin’s Promise, Kim Hudson introduces the primary dilemma of the First-Act arcs by saying:
Virgins and Heroes are symbols for the universal need to stand on your own…. Each time a social organization places someone at odds with their true nature, the Virgin archetype provides guidance towards becoming authentic.
Inherent in this dilemma we find the stakes of the Maiden Arc. The childhood life she has so far led is no longer proving to be “enough” for her—and so she must find the courage to risk giving it all up in some way (if only symbolically) in order to grow up.
Antagonist: Facing the Predator and/or the Too-Good Mother
I absolutely love Hudson’s structural presentation and highly recommend her book. However, the beat sheet I’m offering for the Maiden Arc (below) varies from Hudson’s Virgin’s Journey. Partly this is for the sake of variety and because I wish to encourage people to read Hudson’s excellent work, but also it is because I believe there is room within the concept of the Maiden Arc for several very important archetypal antagonists, which Hudson does not directly discuss.
These antagonists are the Predator, the Too-Good or Devouring Mother, and the Naïve Father. Although any of these may be literally represented within the story (and often are in fairy tales and fantasy), they can also be symbolically represented or can be presented for what they truly are: psychic aspects of the Maiden herself.
The Predator, representing a toxic animus or masculine force within the Maiden, is the part of her, whether externally represented in the conflict or not, that would destroy her from within, blocking her consciousness, her individuation, and her true empowerment. In analyzing the classic Bluebeard story (about a Maiden who marries an older man and discovers all his previous wives murdered in a locked room) as symbolic of the Predator in her book Women Who Run With the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estés says:
Perhaps most important, the Bluebeard story raises to consciousness the psychic key, the ability to ask any and all questions about oneself, about one’s family, one’s endeavors, and about life all around. Then, like the wildish being who sniffs things out, a woman is free to find true answers to her deepest and darkest questions. She is free to wrest the powers from the thing which has assailed her and to turn those powers which were once used against her to her own well-suited and excellent uses. That, is a wildish woman.
Although, again, the symbolic possibilities are endless, the Predator is often represented as a destructive or devouring force apart from the parents or authority figures—and yet one to which, for “perfectly good” reasons the parents often sacrifice the Maiden. Estés also comments on both the Too-Good Mother and the Naïve Father, from whom the Maiden must individuate in order to escape the Predator (and, again, these are fundamentally internal antagonists within the Maiden herself, even if they are represented externally within the conflict):
To gain a little distance from the sweet blessing of the too-good mother, a woman gradually learns to not just look, but to squint and to peer, and then, more and more, to suffer no fools…. But, in a woman’s psyche, even though the father bumbles into a lethal deal because he knows nothing of the dark side of the world or the unconscious, the horrible moment marks a dramatic beginning for her; a forthcoming consciousness and shrewdness.
One of my favorite examples of some of these archetypes is in the Cinderella adaptation Ever After, in which the protagonist is literally sold to a predatory old man because her naïve father married her devouring step-mother.
Another amazing example comes from the original Terminator movie, which in so many ways is a symbolic representation of the feminine journey to power—externally representing both her inner Predator and Protector. She eventually internalizes the Protector’s power and destroys the Predator.
Theme: Growing Into Potential, Power, and Responsibility
Although you may choose to represent the stakes in a Maiden Arc as life or death (as in Terminator), they are most literally represented within quiet coming-of-age stories that are simply about growing up. The challenge of the Maiden Arc is whether or not the protagonist will awaken to and accept her potential, power, and responsibility as an individual.
This may be represented by a character who is literally a child on the cusp of adolescence such as Walter in Secondhand Lions.
Or it may be represented by an adult who rejected this initiatory challenge at the proper time in his own life, such as the protagonist in Nick Hornby’s About a Boy.
The Maiden’s story is foundationally one of a fight to empowerment. But whatever the external forces may be, it is foremost an internal struggle—whether the Maiden is willing to let go of the carefreeness of childhood in exchange for the terrible freedom of adulthood. Will she continue to cling to her own ignorance and naïvety, her own blissful lack of consciousness? Will she listen to what Estés calls the Devil?
[The Devil] wants the maiden to obey these tenets: “Don’t see life as it is. Don’t understand the life and death cycles. Don’t pursue your yearnings. Don’t speak of all these wildish things.”
Or will she rise up and confront the truth of Alice Walker’s words?
The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.
If she does rise up, she will be able to complete her arc with the following revelation as spoken by Estés:
These negative complexes are banished or transformed—your dreams will guide you the last part of the way—by putting your foot down, once and for all, and by saying, “I love my creative life more than I love cooperating with my own oppression.”
Indeed, Estés sums up the whole arc:
…the maiden represents the heartfelt and formerly sleepy psyche. But a warrior-heroine lies beneath her soft exterior. She has the endurance of the lone wolf. She is able to bear the dirt, grime, betrayal, hurt, loneliness, and exile of the initiate. She is able to wander the underworld and return, enriched, to the topside world. Although she may not be able to articulate them when she first descends, she is following the instructions and directions of the old Wild Mother, Wild Woman.
Key Points of the Maiden Arc
For easy reference and comparison, I will be sharing some scannable summations of each arc’s key points:
Maiden’s Story: An Initiation.
Maiden Arc: Innocent to Individual (moves from Protected World to Real World)
Maiden’s Symbolic Setting: Home
Maiden’s Lie vs. Truth: Submission vs. Sovereignty.
“Submission to authority figures is necessary for survival.” versus “Personal sovereignty is necessary for growth and survival.
Maiden’s Initial Motto: “We, the clan.”
(This is via Spiral Dynamics’ “Purple” Meme. If you’re not familiar with Spiral Dynamics, this probably won’t mean anything, but I was fascinated to realize the six arcs line up perfectly with the “memes” of human development as found in the theory of Spiral Dynamics.)
Maiden’s Archetypal Antagonist: Authority/Predator
Maiden’s Relationship to Own Negative Shadow Archetypes:
Either Damsel finally owns her Potential by embracing her Strength.
Or Vixen learns to wield her true Potential with true Strength.
Maiden’s Relationship to Subsequent Shadow Archetypes as Represented by Other Characters: Inspires Coward or outwits Bully.
The Beats of the Maiden Character Arc
Following are my proposed structural beats for the Maiden Arc. I am using allegorical language in keeping with the tradition of the Hero’s Journey (and honestly because it’s so powerful). However, it is important to remember that the language is merely symbolic. Just as the Maiden need not actually be a “maiden” in any sense, neither do any of the other mentioned archetypes or settings need to be interpreted literally.
This is merely a general structure that can be used to recognize and strengthen Maiden Arcs in any type of story. Although I have interpreted the Maiden Arc through the beats of classic story structure, it doesn’t necessarily have to line up this perfectly. A story can be a Maiden Arc without presenting all of these beats in exactly this order. Check out some of the previously mentioned resources (especially Kim Hudson’s The Virgin’s Promise) for other interpretations of the Maiden’s beats.
1st ACT: Protected World
Beginning: Provided For But Unprepared
The Maiden lives still on the border of a seemingly blissful childhood. Even if all is not perfect in the home of her parents, she continues to experience a division between the perceived safety and providence of her childhood home and the dangerous—or at least unknown—world beyond.
But even as a part of her remains complacent in her ignorance of the larger world, change is beginning to stir within her, and this change is reflected outwardly as aspects of the world beyond begin to slowly penetrate and change the Protected World of her childhood.
Up to this point in her life, the Maiden has been following the rules of her world in order to a) be rewarded by having her needs met and b) avoid being punished. But the rules’ requirements are beginning to cause her pain or constriction. The walls that are supposedly there to protect her are in fact preventing her from recognizing or defending herself against the Predator when he shows up.
Inciting Event: Predator’s Proposal
The Maiden’s quiet home world is interrupted by the arrival of a new force from beyond. This force may be obviously a representation of the dangers her parents always warned her she wasn’t capable of confronting. Or it may disguise its danger with a mask of seduction that she is not yet wise enough to perceive. Or this interruptive force may in fact be dangerous not so much literally but symbolically—in that the awakening of the Child into the adult world does indeed risk many dangers—as, for example, when the Maiden falls in love for the first time or is offered a “grown-up” opportunity.
Whatever the case, this “Predator” will at least seem to offer a way out of the restrictive world in which the Maiden is confined. He proposes to her—or to her parents. The Maiden herself isn’t yet wise enough to recognize that the Predator is just a dangerous extension of the same power that rules her Dependent World. As symbolic extensions of her own naïvety, the Too-Good Mother and Naïve Father likewise do not see through the threat and/or are eager to accept the proposal for their own gain and/or at least do not see how to avoid sacrificing their daughter to save themselves.
2ND ACT: Real World
First Plot Point: Inspired or Compelled to Fit New Identity; Protector Arrives
The Maiden accepts the Predator’s proposal, either out of trust for her authority figures or out of her own true but misguided instinct to move forward into a larger consciousness. Whatever the case, she takes a first and irreversible step out of her childhood Protected World and into the Real World of the adults. In so doing, she spreads her wings for the first time and begins to experiment with new identities and desires.
No longer entirely confined by the rules and protection of her childhood, she dares to explore. As the Predator’s betrothed, she is still playacting, trying on this new role and believing she is maturing without realizing that she is still acting out the beliefs and expectations of others. However, she is also beginning to discover truths about herself: who she was and who she has the potential to become.
At this time, the Protector arrives. This may be in the form of a literal Protector of some kind (often a Hero), but it may also be simply the rising of the Maiden’s own inner Protector—the healthy counterpart of the Predator. Even if a human Protector arrives (and even if he literally rescues her at some point in the story), he is not her savior. Whether a Lover or a Mentor, he represents merely a catalyst to prompt the inner change she herself must enact to reach autonomy.
First Pinch Point: Predator Sees Through Disguise
The Maiden continues to explore her awakening consciousness into adulthood, but she does so in a sort of shadowland, avoiding the full awareness of those who remain back in her Protected World. Whether she is aware of the Predator’s true and tyrannical nature, or whether she still partly believes in the seductive promise he seems to offer, she is becoming less and less subject to him—and therefore more and more threatened by what he offers.
As she secretly grows away from the identity he has assigned to her, he becomes suspicious and sees through her disguise. He recognizes she is not entirely a guileless, defenseless Maiden any longer but is on the cusp of breaking away from him. He will threaten or punish her in an attempt to bring her back under his power. She is deeply frightened—well aware of all she stands to lose if she departs her Protected World for good.
Midpoint: Identities/Loyalties/Wants Conflict
A Moment of Truth arrives when the Maiden is confronted by the divide that has grown between who she used to be—and still tries to be—in the Protected World and who she is becoming in the Real World. Whether symbolically or literally, she is forced to confront the two realities represented by the Predator and the Protector—and she must choose which identity to internalize for the future. She may do this by allying with an actual person representing the Protector, or merely symbolically by stepping into this role for herself and venturing into the Real World in an irrevocable way. She embraces her emerging self and the exciting Truth of who she has the potential to become, and she demonstrates true responsibility for her own choices in some significant way.
Second Pinch Point: Unmasked
Eventually, her choices and actions at the Midpoint are discovered, and she is unmasked. Her new identity fully emerges to everyone back in her Protected World. Whether well-meaning, controlling, or both, the people she has previously relied on are shocked by her transformation. Depending on their own symbolism, they may be alternately threatened, grieved, and/or proud.
Regardless, there are stakes to pay off. The Maiden’s tribe will not fully relinquish her into the Real World without a struggle. There will be people who do not want her to change and leave, and these people will do whatever they can to keep her in the Protected World “for her own good.”
False Victory: Bride Price
The Predator returns with a more seductive or threatening offer than ever. He still wants his bride, and he is not willing to lose her. He ups the bride price and/or threatens the Maiden’s family. Those around her beg her to consider what is best for the family that has always protected her. She herself is deeply conflicted. The stakes seem far too high. Can she really sacrifice everything she has ever loved—and perhaps her own survival—for the chance at this true life she has now glimpsed? She begins to think that perhaps this redoubled bride price is worth the exchange.
Third Plot Point: Marriage Treaty Threatened, Wanders in Wilderness
The Maiden resists her impending enslavement to the Predator, and the Predator grows more and more threatening. The stakes rise, and her family’s well-being appears to be at stake. Her once seemingly serene Protected World is now in an uproar. She withdraws and “wanders in the wilderness” (Hudson’s term, which I love).
She is caught now between worlds, and she can never go back. Never again can she be the innocent, protected Child she once was. To sacrifice herself to the Predator, as her tribe demands, would be to turn her back on the burgeoning new self she has discovered and doom herself to an imprisoned half life—neither Child nor adult. To throw off the Predator and grow beyond the tribe also demands a sacrifice, but only this death will offer the chance of a rebirth into something new.
Climax: Fights Back Against Predator
Even right at the door of the church, the Maiden fights back against her marriage to the Predator. She will not surrender what she discovered. She will not hide her newly won understanding of her own potential, power, and responsibility. She will fight. She will declare herself (in Jane Eyre’s words) “a free human being with an independent will.”
Climactic Moment: Comes of Age
And she will triumph. She will overcome the Predator, perhaps with the help of the Protector and others whom she has inspired with her courage and independence, or perhaps alone having internalized their support. If the Predator is truly evil, she will banish him forever from her family’s home. If the Predator is representative only of the overprotective forces that would “devour” her out of misguided love, then she will at least attempt (and likely succeed) to make peace with them. She is an adult now—an equal—and she will treat others as such, receiving from them their respect in return.
Resolution: Kingdom Is Renewed for Another Generation
Restrictive elements (such as the Predator and the Evil Step-Mother) will be cast off and banned from the Kingdom. Other characters, who prove themselves willing to embrace and benefit from the Maiden’s courageous growth, will be renewed. By coming of age, she ensures the tribe will continue into a strong new generation.
Examples of the Maiden Arc
Examples of the Maiden Arc include the following. Click on the links for structural analyses.
Stay Tuned: Next week, we will study the Hero Arc.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Can you think of any further examples of stories that feature the Maiden Arc? Tell me in the comments!
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