Archetypal Antagonists for the Maiden Arc: Authority and Predator

As the first transformational archetype within the “life arcs” cycle, the Maiden Arc is the quintessential “coming-of-age” story. It is the story of teenage angst, the joys and heartbreaks of growing up, and the struggle to individuate into a fully autonomous and mature human being.

Like all arcs, the Maiden’s doesn’t just happen. Nor (for all her eagerness to turn sixteen and get her first car) does she necessarily choose it. Although humans can prepare themselves for transformation arcs, we don’t get to initiate them for ourselves. The outer circumstances of our social environment and our own chronological progression through life are major factors in eventually creating the necessary forces to prompt a change arc. These circumstances can be viewed, in many ways, as the antagonistic force that defines both plot and theme in a life arc.

For the Maiden Arc, this antagonistic force can be seen archetypally as the Authority Figures who initiate her transition out of Childhood into the beginnings of a Hero Arc. But within her inner conflict (and sometimes externalized into the outer plot), we can see too that she also faces a frightening Predator—a fearsome guardian that seems to prevent her from passing through the gates of adulthood.

The Maiden’s Antagonists: Practical and Thematic

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As mentioned in last week’s introduction, there are actually multiple symbolic antagonists that can be seen as important within archetypal character arcs. Particularly, we can usually identify two—one that represents the protagonist’s outer conflict and another that primarily symbolizes the inner conflict. Which is which will largely depend on the unique factors of your particular story.

For the Maiden, these two antagonists are the Authority Figures and the Predator.

Authority as an Archetypal Antagonist

Successfully initiating into adulthood is not merely a matter of passing through puberty or turning sixteen or twenty-one. On a deeper level, it is an initiation of the soul—a deep transition from the innocence and dependence of childhood into the complexity and responsibility of adulthood. This initiation is, somewhat paradoxically, driven by the Authority Figures in the Maiden’s life.

The paradox lies in the fact that these Authority Figures want the Maiden to undergo her arc and grow up. The Authority Figures are inevitably those who encourage and even demand this transition. And yet, the Authority Figures are also those against whom the Maiden must struggle to “escape.”

It is always possible to represent these two facets of the Authority in different characters—representing the encouraging and initiatory Authority in a wise Parent or Elder, while representing the negative aspect of the selfish or smothering Authority in a shadow archetype such as the Sorceress or Tyrant.

However, I think most of us can recognize how both of these aspects usually reside within the same person. Parents who love their children wish to see them grow into responsible adults, even as there is a part of them that wants to maintain the Child in their care and control.

And so it is important to recognize that although Authority is the archetypal antagonist within a Maiden Arc, the Authority isn’t necessarily opposing her for evil or even purely selfish reasons.

In the Maiden Arc post, I mentioned that this Authority could potentially be characterized as either the Naïve Father or what Clarissa Pinkola Estés calls the “Too-Good Mother.” What is meant by these titles is that the parents have come to represent within the Maiden’s maturation a stagnation and/or completion of their ability to teach her. Even the best parents in the world will eventually run the course of what they can pass on to their children; at a certain point the Maiden must always strike out to learn for herself.

Of course, this Authority can also be represented by other facets of society, such as teachers, religious leaders, or political figures. It can be represented abstractly by an “institution” or the “system.” And it can even be merely internalized into the Maiden’s own evolving conscience. The loudest authoritarian voice, trying to convince her to remain in ignorance and irresponsibility, may be the voice inside her own head—telling her she doesn’t know what she’s doing, telling her she should just trust in those who know better, telling her she’s better off doing what she’s told. Indeed, this mindset can be the most formidable antagonist any Maiden faces and, if not overcome, can cause a person to remain unindividuated from Authority long into their lives.

The Predator as an Archetypal Antagonist

Authority is the more obvious archetypal antagonist whom every Maiden must face. But there is another important opposing force in her arc: the Predator.

Classically, the Predator is best represented in such tales as “The Seven Wives of Bluebeard” and “The Girl Without Hands.” Both of these stories feature a predatory masculine force that wishes to wed the Maiden. In the former, it is the title character Bluebeard, who notoriously murdered all of his previous wives and kept their bodies locked in a secret room. In the latter, it is the Devil, who chops off the Maiden’s hands when she refuses him.

Symbolically, the Predator represents a seductive but toxic masculine presence. The Maiden, on the cusp of sexual awakening and a whole new world that she does not yet understand, starts out lacking the wisdom to discern between this toxic Predator and the worthy masculine as represented in the Protector.

Although often characterized by a love interest, the Predator’s involvement with the Maiden need not be romantic or sexual. He represents foundationally the alluring dangers of the strange and exciting world “out there.” But in the beginning, the Maiden will not recognize that the Predator is, essentially, an extension of the dark side of that same Authority against whom she struggles to individuate. Should she fall prey to this controlling aspect of the masculine, she will not gain the independence she sought by “marrying” him, but instead will find herself entrenched deeper than ever within the very authoritarian structures she sought to evolve beyond.

It is possible that wise Authority Figures (from whom the Maiden nevertheless still needs to individuate) may recognize the Predator’s threat and offer counsel (at least partially unheeded) against the Maiden’s  involvement with him. But as in the above-mentioned folk tales, it is customary that the Authority Figures collude with the Predator’s plan to take the Maiden as wife. This could arise from a selfish desire to bind the Maiden further into their control or to their advantage (such as with Rose’s mother in Titanic, a woman who explicitly opposed her daughter’s individuation by demanding she marry a rich but brutal man), or it could be that the “Naïve Father” and “Too-Good Mother” (such as seen in the story of “The Girl Without Hands” and so many other fairy tales about cursed babies) are simply too foolish or enslaved themselves to recognize or oppose the Predator’s proposal to their daughter.

However, it is also important to recognize that the Predator is ultimately representative of a psychic aspect within the Maiden herself as she undertakes this journey. The Predator is the “inner critic”—the voice inside her young head telling her she is not good enough, smart enough, brave enough to see through the Devil’s tricks and make it through the Wilderness on her own.

In many stories, the Predator may be most representative of the protagonist’s inner struggle against her own insecurities and fears. Growing up, after all, is scary business—and often the dark and dominating parts of ourselves are our most formidable antagonists.

How the Maiden’s Archetypal Antagonists Operate in the Conflict and the Climactic Moment

The antagonist’s most basic role is to generate the plot conflict. The antagonist does this by consistently creating opposition, or obstacles, to the protagonist’s progress toward the plot goal. Via these obstacles, the protagonist is forced to reconsider her mode of being, her belief structures, and her tactics. The antagonist’s opposition forces her to evolve—thus allowing for an externalized story that also creates personal transformation within the protagonist.

In the Maiden Arc, the protagonist’s plot goal may be any number of things (graduating from high school, getting a job, running away from home, staying at home, attracting a love interest’s attention, learning a new skill, surviving a disaster, etc.). But the thematic goal will always be that of growing up, of gaining a certain measure of independence, autonomy, and personal responsibility.

This means the archetypal antagonists within a Maiden Arc are always fundamentally opposed, in some way, to her growing up. It is possible they are aligned ultimately with her maturation (what parent doesn’t want their child to graduate from high school, after all?), but just not the way in which the Maiden is going about it (e.g., maybe she wants to go to a different college than the parent’s alma mater).

What is important is that the protagonist will want something that represents or enables her eventual individuation and initiation into adulthood—and the Authority antagonist is creating obstacles, even if they are well-intentioned (such as Jess’s traditional parents in Bend It Like Beckham, who just want her to be happy and successful in the usual ways for their culture).

The Predator’s presence may be more complicated. Usually, he will act more as a Contagonist—a seemingly wiser Impact Character who appears to offer the protagonist what she’s looking for—a way out of her childhood into a new mode of being. But a true Predator will eventually prove himself also an obstacle to the protagonist’s individuation. She may realize that in order to individuate from the Authority, she may have to individuate from the Predator as well. (Although, as with Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre, it is always possible that the Predator may be redeemed after he recognizes his controlling ways and instead blesses the protagonist’s growth.)

Which of your archetypal antagonistic forces is the true antagonist in your story will depend on which is finally overcome in the Climactic Moment. Usually, the “subplot” antagonist will be overcome previously, but it is also possible that the true showdown in the Climactic Moment will allow for an easy resolution of the secondary conflict afterwards.

Unless the Authority in your story is truly malignant (as represented by older shadow archetypes), it is likely the Maiden’s transformation will (in Kim Hudson’s lovely phrase) “renew the Kingdom.” Parents and other Authority Figures will themselves grow through the Maiden’s initiation. They will recognize her as a burgeoning adult and an equal, they will step out of her way, and they will probably bless her future life by wishing her only the best.

In many ways, the Maiden Arc is the most inherently relational of all the life arcs, since its archetypal antagonist is one that, in most humans’ lives, is not corrupted, just restrictive. Authority only becomes the “bad guy” when it is selfishly opposed to necessary growth. Perhaps more than any of the other inherent antagonistic forces, the Maiden’s antagonists offer the opportunity for the strongest growth arcs of their own—as the Maiden’s transformation inspires them to take their own arcs. Indeed, the transformational arc that follows the static archetype of Parent is that of Queen, which is all about growing into a true leadership that allows for and encourages the independence and responsibility of those in one’s charge.

Stay Tuned: Next week, we will study the Hero’s archetypal antagonists of Dragon and Sick King.

Related Posts:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Can you think of any more examples of the Authority Figure or the Predator as archetypal antagonists? 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. Did you ever see Dead Poets Society? I’m thinking the boy who commits suicide because he wants to pursue acting while his authoritarian father insists he becomes a doctor is a Maiden with a Predator father. It’s a failed Maiden arc, I guess, because he sees death as his only way of escaping his father.

  2. Grace Dvorachek says

    As I was reading this post, I thought of Oliver Twist. Is it possible that he’s a Maiden arc, and most of the other characters are Authorities and Predators? Though, as it seems to be common for Dickens, Oliver himself doesn’t appear to change quite so much as his circumstances do. So perhaps he’s a Flat Arc…?

  3. Well, Phantom of the Opera leaps to mind, with the antagonist actually being a little of both of these (developing the maiden, but then not wanting to share her). Contrasts interestingly with My Fair Lady. I think there’s some interesting interplay in the over protective parent, because I think a good parent does at some point try to point a child away from dreams that truly aren’t realistic. The Shaq is an amazingly talented person, but he had no chance of cutting it as a jockey.

    I think that if someone wanted to write a serious fictional work with child abuse as a component, they would do well to look hard at this. Abusers often see themselves as nurturing their victims, and looking after their best interests, but fail to see the horrible price they extract and the cage they trap the child in.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Interesting to contrast Phantom of the Opera and My Fair Lady. I’d never thought of that before but it does raise some interesting comparisons.

  4. “And you have no power over me!” –Labyrinth

  5. Oh, Katie, thanks for this timely post. I’ve just embarked on a YA novel which is (obviously) a coming of age story of sorts and this is hugely, hugely helpful.
    (OK, I had a pretty good idea of the outlines for what a coming of age antagonist might/should look like but, gee, good to get it down in black and white.)
    This is why you provide such a great service to writers everywhere. You’re such a great help. Keep it up, please.

  6. Having seen it now, Shang-Chi is definitely a Maiden Arc, a real perfect example too. There are both antagonists present, the father as Authority Figure, and a Predator that is quite thematically on the nose.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Haven’t seen it (or Black Widow) yet, but it will be interesting to go into it with this perspective.

  7. This is such a timely topic for me. My work in progress follows the Maiden Arc, and my second book in the trilogy will follow the Queen arc. Thanks, Katie!

  8. My favorite way to test plot/character/story/etc. theories is to test them on stories from other cultures which the authors probably don’t know (some theories hold up much better than others under such tests).

    Since I’ve recently been reading about the Mahabharata, I’ll start there. The first example comes to mind is Arjuna fighting Bhisma, who is the only father-figure he’s ever known. The Bhagavad Gita, the most famous section of the entire Mahabharata, is basically Krishna telling Arjuna ‘no, really, you have to fight and defeat Bhisma, you must stop deferring to him as a father-figure.’ Actually, the more I think about it, the more authority antagonists I can think of in the Mahabharata, for example Kunti only admits to Karna that he is her son and asks him to stop fighting her other sons, he points out that she came to him not to express motherly love or to even apologize for abandoning him as a baby, but only to protect her favored sons (especially her favorite, Arjuna). And going to an earlier part of the story, Karna’s biological father is a predator who forced Kunti to have his child (though the Mahabharata blames Kunti for being a foolish girl rather than the god who forced her to bear his child). So the maiden (Kunti) who falls victim to a predator (Karna’s biological father) later grows up into an authority antagonist whose children must grow against. Bhisma himself is arguably a failed maiden arc, since he submitted to his father and stepmother’s wish that he take a vow of celibacy and never have children lest the compete with his stepmother’s children. His choice to defer to his authority figures rather than insist on his own individuation might have eventually led to a war which killed over a billion people (not exaggerating about the death count, the Mahabharata has big numbers). (I’m sorry, this is probably confusing if you don’t know the Mahabharata, the family relationships are really complicated!)

    I wanted to look at examples from other non-Western-European-language stories, but since this comment is long enough I’ll stop here.

  9. Marcia Delahunty says

    I am thinking of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird as the authority figure antagonist and Bob Ewell as the predator. Scout also has to fight and / or come to aknowledge the power of institutiins and systems, such as education annd the justice system (permeated, as her society is), by the “enemy” antagonist of racism, against which she cannot win, and with whom she must learn to co-exist.

  10. Rachel Meyer says

    Just wanted to say I was watching How to Train Your Dragon the other day and thanks to your series, I was excited to find that it contains a Maiden Arc (or at least I’m pretty sure). This series has been wonderful.

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