An Introduction to Archetypal Stories

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.

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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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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Matteo Masiello says

    I was writing archetypal stories before I knew the word existed or its meaning. I sometimes wish I could regain that innocence because I sometimes feel I am so self-aware of all the “theory” behind the writing it has ruined my ability to be creative. Then I think that I am only immature when it comes to writing. It’s my own fault because I never did enough of the work. I never put in my “10,000-hour rule”. Maybe 2 or 3, even 4 thousand if that. That is the dark hole I find myself in looking up at that pinhole-size of light. Then I take a breath, hit the reboot button, and start again. With the most recent story I am wiring, a nightmare theme that deals with how parents experience unimaginable acts of violence committed by their children, it’s forced me to mediate on my own experience of trauma growing up and how it has made me what I am and if I am not careful and self-aware, how might that have affected my own children. I also wonder how many archetypes I am still incorporating into my story and in being aware of them, how can I, should I, subvert them. I realize that the most important archetype I am working with here is the one of “the wounded healer” Carl Jung is quoted as saying…”a good half of every treatment that probes at all deeply consists in the doctor’s examining himself… it is his own hurt that gives a measure of his power to heal. This, and nothing else, is the meaning of the Greek myth of the wounded physician.” He was referring to Greek mythology’s, Chiron, the centaur, who was poisoned with an incurable wound by one of Hercules’s arrows. Jung mentioned the Chiron myth “wounding by one’s own arrow means, first of all, the state of introversion” It’s not ironic then that I was always more interested in Jung than in Freud. What I also liked about Jung’s psychology is his acceptable that there is danger in becoming conscious of one’s own wounds. Making one’s self vulnerable to other people’s wounds puts yourself in a position to become infected by it, but also infecting the other with your own wounds. Jung’s closest colleague, Marie Louise Von Franz, said “the wounded healer IS the archetype of the Self [our wholeness, the God within] and is at the bottom of all genuine healing procedures.” So this is the archetype I am working with in my story, since my story is sort of an ensemble cast in that I provide glimpses into how the antagonist and supporting characters are going through the same thing as the protagonist as they act out how they think is the best way to deal with the unimaginable.

    • Frank Booker says

      I love your introspection. I’m writing a story about the PTSD of surviving an alcoholic home, and the power of the father/alcoholic in the psyche of his son. Of course, it’s persona and hard to wade into. Such a morass! I like the idea of the wounded healer. I’m in AA and that’s what AA is all about. We are all wounded healers trying to help each other. Thanks.

      • Matteo Masiello says

        Thank you Frank…I think maybe it’s been taking me so long with this story is 1) how to structure it (KW, thanks for your instructional book Structuring Your Novel! It is so so so helpful) 2) my own laziness and writers block 3) the subject matter is very painful – not just in terms of autobiographical but in the research I do with respect to abusive/neglectful parents – how to make someone like this the protagonist? – as well as it manifests in people who are not coping with trauma – the notion that parents can have thoughts about regretting that they had children – or who resent their children and living with that tension that they love them too. And satisfying all the tropes of the horror genre. I’m looking for redemption for any of my characters!

      • Matteo Masiello says

        My protagonist and antagonist are both in recovery which is what makes them identity with one another and makes both of them outcasts too with their community. It makes them harder to battle with one another against a “common” enemy.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I think you’re mining lots of great archetypal potential here!

  2. I love this post. I love archetypes. I remember I was really happy and excited when I realized that the Hero’s Journey existed, and that `Star Wars’ followed it. That was not long after the first `Pirates of the Caribbean’ movie came out, and I spent a long happy while figuring out that it ALSO follows the Hero Journey, with Captain Jack Sparrow taking on the role of mentor figure. It really widened archetypes for me- the realization that an arch-typical role didn’t have to LOOK familiar. Their role is defined by their place in the story, not their trappings.

  3. Honestly, I haven’t thought about archetypal stories much, but I guess I wrote some in the past. For example, the coming-of-age story I used to work on about my character Cynthia Carson. It was a story that took place from the 1930s to the 1960s. I’m thinking of revising it in another story under a different title and storyline, at least the part of the 1960s during her young adulthood. Anyway, in the 1950s during her teen years, I had a lot of archetypes: the bully, the MVP, the popular cheerleader, the nerd, etc.) Some of these are actually in my debut novel “With You Forever’ which I mentioned during Eva’s class reunion.

    And I’m sure some books I’ve read have some archetypes too, such as Mama Flora’s Family. In the story, Flora has two sons (Willie & Luke) from different fathers. Willie struggles to make ends meet and was raised without his father who was killed when he was a baby, and Luke is a successful lawyer and was raised without Flora when he was taken away after birth. The brothers clash over their differences, as Willie dropped out of school to help support his mother and cousin/sister Ruthana. Years later, Don, Willie’s oldest son gets trapped in gambling, flashy clothing, and all the other things Willie was involved in, repeating the same lifestyle, which is another form of archetype too. These are just some of my examples of writing and reading archetypal stories.

    • Matteo Masiello says

      I love this premise as it is seemingly based in the real and at the same time an expression of archetype. What comes to mind when I consider a story that is plausibly based in the world as we know is, ironically, the movie Stranger Than Fiction, with Will Farrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Queen Latifah, Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman. Farrell is a character in Thompson’s novel as she writes it and he comes to be aware that he is the character. He goes to Hoffman, a literature professor who initially asks Farrell questions about himself. After answering the questions, Hoffmann reveals he has been trying to pinpoint what type of story he is in and what type of archetypal character he is. This for me shows how we are all archetypal characters in our own stories (of our own creation or someone else’s?) in our everyday lives.

  4. Harald Johnson says

    Brilliant start to this series, Katie. And I assume there will be a book at some point? 😉

  5. cool. I was watching a movie the other day with my family and by the midpoint I knew that the story was one of those…
    Ambitious protagonist who has friends and a family but lies to himself that he needs more and gets that by the first plot point, but by the midpoint starts neglecting his friends and family and becomes a jerk up until the end were he realizes that he had everything he ever needed right there in the beginning
    Everyone else in my family was blown away, HOW DID YOU KNOW THAT. I was just sitting back on the couch. “Idk. I guess I just saw that same thing before in a ton of other movies like The greatest showman, high school musical 2, and Sky high.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Watch it. Pretty soon they won’t want to watch movies with you anymore. 😉

    • My partner and I went to see “The Force Awakens” at the cinema. In the middle of the movie there was a scene in which Han and Leia were talking and Han promises to Leia that he will bring their son home.

      I turned to my partner and whispered “Han’s going to die.”

      My partner thought I’d seen a spoiler online.

      The more you study story structure and layout, the more you’ll find yourself predicting the key events of movies. You may never be able to watch one the same way again.

  6. Matteo Masiello says

    Not that understanding ruins my appreciation of books and movies, but I have to stop myself from criticizing them. The bottom line is that books and movies are made for entertainment and it is a business. Writers want to make a living working at their craft. Publishers want to make money off of their investment in the writer. There is fine line crafting a story that will sell, receive enough “buzz” from critics and fans, while adding something “new” to the genre and format. But is it too much to expect as a reader or viewer that the next new book or movie we watch is crafted well enough to the sophisticated audience that it somehow breaks new ground or is there just to satisfy our need for entertainment? I watch movies and read books as throwback stories and don’t expect the creators to redefine the genre. Whether or not a story breaks new ground is something that is not know and can only be done if it can stand the test of time. But we are told that the next thing is the next “new” thing. I expect that archetypes are familiar enough to engage me or retain my interest but don’t expect too much from the creators in breaking new ground.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, I think about this sometimes too—how I get bored with the “same ol” in new stories but can watch the old movies that originated the tropes over and over again.

  7. Dennis M. Montgomery says

    If what Willa Cather says is true in one of her quotes:

    There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they never happened.

    Then why should we as authors bust our butts to be original? What is the point of repeating these three stories? Did I miss something in this essay?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Originality is built on top of the familiar. It’s variation on a theme. Human lives themselves are *not* original: we are all born, we all live, we all die. But the variations within our lives make them unique. Some of us are writers. Some are inventors. Some are parents. Etc.

      You might enjoy these posts: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/?s=original

      • Dennis M. Montgomery says

        Thank you for the link. It was most enlightening and from it I have discovered (creative wise) I have done some things right in my book.

        I love guitars and appreciative of finely crafted ones. I am intrigued by the concept of the perfect guitar one that is not only is easy to play physically, but is also an uninhibited extension of the guitarists’ spirit.

        I also like elves, giants, and dragons and so have included them in my book.

        I also like magic and have it in my book.

        I’m interested in questions of morality. Is it ever Godly to kill?

        I’m interested in forgiveness and redemption.

        I love food and so does my protagonist.

        I love the French language and names which I have also included.

        I also know that most of my love loves and interests are considered no nos in today’s marketing schemes, but I feel compelled to include them anyway. To not to do so feels cowardly and dishonest.

        One item I’m not passionate about is marketing which is my downfall.

        This year, I will deal with it.

  8. “‘You may think you are telling your characters’ stories, but actually you are telling us ours.'”

    Don’t tell my family this. Then they’ll think that I spend all my time in my room or outside because I’m a superhero. : D

  9. I’m so excited by this new series! Many years ago I listened to a collection of Joseph Campbell audio tapes (yes, a long, long time ago) on Archetypes and was fascinated. Most of what I learned has probably evaporated so am keen to revisit.

    Love your curiosity and compassion for the craft and for teaching, Katy. You’re brilliant – thank you.

    My ears are perked!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, there will be quite a few Campbell references coming up! It would be hard to discuss this subject without doing so.

  10. SE Blackman says

    The serendipitous timing of your posts astounds me. I’ve only recently begun searching out archetypes, trying to understand why they are so important. I decided some months ago to write a fairytale, (as a conscious objection to the stress that COVID has imposed on my work for the last, never-ending year) but simplifying the narrative form means that structure actually matters more. Theme matters more.
    I’ve known about the Hero’s Journey forever, but never examined it in detail until now. I find it very funny that you keep referencing books I’ve just discovered as I flounder, trying to figure out what I’m missing.

  11. Whether lovers or heroes, sages or outlaws, jesters or commoners, the archetypes are all aspects of life and personality common to us all.

    The innocent sins and his conscience awakens to lead him down the road to wisdom that renders him a sage. The commoner among us meets a beautiful woman and becomes first a lover, then a ruler of sorts as parents rule over children. That steadfast couple’s struggle to care for family and friends makes them affluent, but then thieves take success and prosperity from them, killing the husband as they do. Our steadfast wife then becomes an outlaw to and provide for her children. One of their innocent children grows into the hero who repays the thieves and restores the family’s standing. We each experience many archetypical qualities and phases throughout life.

    Jung postulates that archetypes are part of a “collective unconscious” where humans share memories of universal experience. With all due respect to Mr. Jung, that seems unfounded mysticism to me. At different times we are all the innocent, the caregiver, the nobleman, the hero, the outlaw, jester, commoner, ruler, lover and sage, and it is in those aspects of being that we find our best writing. When our words drip life into any such part of ourselves as we leave on the page, that is when we bring an archetype to life and become creators (yes I know, another archetype).

  12. I love this series, Katie. It really speaks to my interest in stories and archetypes. I read Women Who Run with the Wolves many moons ago… so good! I will have to revisit it now. Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung fascinated me in high school. Makes a lot of sense to me now thinking about how adolescence is such a time of figuring out who we are and what our stories are and will be. And understanding that we are so connected. Lots to think about.

  13. Jack Bannon says

    I know Carl Jung said archetypes are part of a “collective unconscious” where humans share memories of universal experience. With all due respect to Mr. Jung, that seems unfounded mysticism to me. After all, the seasons of our lives take us through many of the mythical archetypes in their natural course.
    We begin as The Innocent and through the natural course of our mistakes and sins, our conscience awakens and so the journey to wisdom begins. This eventually leads some of us to become The Sage in our elder years. Along the way, we encounter evil that tries to wrest any success we have from us so that men can prosper without work. In the call to oppose evil, we may play the part of The Hero from time to time, and if the evil is within a governing body, we may perhaps play The Outlaw for a time as well.
    As we grow, we meet that man or woman we just can’t live without and marry up to settle down, becoming The Lover. As children arrive on the scene, we also spend time as The Ruler, rather like miniature versions of loving kings or queens. In raising them we understand the role of The Caregiver. I personally have been The Jester at times, haven’t we all? But I realized somewhere along the way that all people are beautiful things and powerful, ready to surprise you with how they exceed my own little life. Truly I am The Everyman.
    I hope I bring these to my writing, but alas, I remain unpublished. Perhaps I will never be The Artist.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      You’re an Artist whether you publish or not. That’s something else I want to post on later this year (way later) after I finish this series.

      • Jack Bannon says

        I tried to post something last night and it didn’t go up right away. When it did post, I didn’t see it and it was under the name “Ja.” Sorry about that. I didn’t discover the error until tonight when I was reading through the posts. Anyway, when it didn’t initially post, I rewrote it and posted again, so since the two posts are almost the same, you may want to delete one. Thanks for telling me the first post was beautifully put by the way. I’m not sure where I made the mistake that kept it from posting correctly, but I’m sorry about that.

  14. Dear Ms Weiland, I love your beautifully crafted posts. And look at the marvellous comments they attract. What stimulating pages. You relate aesthetics to all kinds of writers. Thank you, Ianet Bastyan

  15. “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.”

    Do you think you’ll be covering Negative Change Arc archetypes at some point? I loves me some tragedy, and would love to dig into how we get from “Oedipus Rex” and “King Lear” to “Attack on Titan” and “Madoka Magica” (anime references; ask the kids).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, the series will be a lengthy one that will also discuss “negative” shadow archetypes as well as “flat” or resting archetypes.

  16. This sounds a great series. I am really looking forward to it.

  17. Usvaldo de Leon says

    Is Star Wars still revered because it got archetypes better than its imitators or just because it was more or less first on the Hero’s Journey? The beat I always think about is Han leaving- cause Harrison Ford is VERY convincing in that scene – and suddenly showing back up to save Luke. This is a great beat and I have never seen it done as effectively since. I think that is because Han shot Greedo, clearly showing he is an Outlaw only innit for himself. So I’m wondering: does this work due to careful writing, the novelty factor or because I was a kid when I saw it and was easily convinced?

  18. Such a fascinating discussion! I will definitely have to re-visit this post or queue up the podcast in the future 🙂 I remember my dad talking to me about archetypes when I was younger, and I like to think through them when it comes to making stories but I’ve never intentionally weaved them into my stories. I love how you talk about digging deeper and how fiction and these archetypes explore our humanity. Fantastic! 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, I’m sure you’re probably using them without even realizing it. There *are* many different types of archetypes. This series will only explore a few possible ones.

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  1. […] are certain over-arching decisions to be made about your story. K.M. Weiland gives an introduction to archetypal stories, Clare Langley-Hawthorne looks at tense in a novel, and Tiffany Yates Martin demystifies the […]

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