Archetypal Character Arcs, Pt. 1: A New Series

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.)

Creating Character Arcs (Amazon affiliate link)

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 psychiatrist and Jungian analyst 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.

Joseph Campbell:

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.

Related Posts:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever studied archetypal character arcs before? Tell me in the comments!

Go on the journey with your characters! Check out the Archetypal Character Guided Meditations.

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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.


  1. Thank you for writing this series. I think it will be tremendously helpful.

    One point in particular jumped out at me and this point: “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).” it was regarding the Mage archetype.

    The Karate Kid’s primary story was a Hero’s Journey, but the back story is about Mr. Miyagi BECOMING the mage. From Daniel’s perspective, Mr. Miyagi is always the mage, but in looking at him, this was a role he was reluctant to take on for very personal reasons that become clear later in the movie. It is also a role he cannot help but take on.

    In a similar vein Uncle Iroh in Avatar: The Last Airbender (series, not the movie. We don’t talk about the movie. It doesn’t exist.) appears to Zukho as always being the Mage, but this was a role that Iroh had to grow into and was not one that came natural to him.

    I’m sure there are many more examples of Mages and Crones becoming even though much of literature treats them as nearly static characters who have “always been this way” at least from the perspective of the protagonist.

    Looking forward to reading more in this series. You’re doing great work, Katie.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Ah yes, now that you mention it, Mr. Miyagi does seem a great example of a Crone Arc (i.e., becoming the Mage). I haven’t seen the movie for a long time, but that rings true in a lot of ways.

    • Hi Eric, I think you said you’re on a search for scholarly works that examine story structures from different world cultures. The best I’ve read on that subject is “The Written World” by Puchner. It looks at foundational stories (i.e. famous myths) not just from the West, but from the Middle East, India, Central America and Asia. Puchner includes a peek at how storytelling from one part of the world affected others.
      Example: The Panchatantra, a South Asian tale (it’s been dated from about 200 B.C.), is a frame story containing other smaller tales, and manuscript versions of it slowly made their way from India through the Middle East, where it influenced The Thousand And One Nights and then later arrived in Europe, where it inspired frame stories like The Decameron and The Cantebury Tales.
      There’s an article about that particular story here:
      The Panchatantra: The ancient ‘viral memes’ still with us – BBC Culture

      Eric, I’ve read dozens of scholarly works on the meaning and purpose of story, most of them from a cultural anthro viewpoint or a neuroscience perspective. While some of these are interesting, most just don’t have much meat on them—and they have very little to say to anyone who actually wants to write stories, not just study their sociological effect or purpose.
      As for structures that are different from the classical structures, there’s a book called “Meander, Spiral, Explode” which examines alternative narrative structures … But my takeaway from reading that was again a sense of disappointment. Plenty of postmodern lit writers write prose that deconstructs classic storytelling—but I’ve found those kind of “novels” rather senseless, lacking in narrative power and deep meaning, and more interested in “deconstructing structure” to make a point of pointlessness, rather than having an interest in telling a powerful story.
      (This is not to say I don’t read and appreciate literary works—but the best of those wield classic storytelling techniques!)

      Eric, I’d say your best bet is to stick right here; what Ms. Weiland is doing is absolutely cutting edge, when it comes to story theory and structure 🙂

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        Thanks so much for sharing about The Written Word, Paddy! I’m checking it out. My feeling about Meander, Spiral, Explode was similar, although it was certainly thought-provoking.

    • Peter Linton says

      RP ~ Excellent application of the KK story ~ P

  2. Eric Troyer says

    Whoa. Just when I was thinking my study of story theory was slowing down, you blow my mind with something like this! Thanks, Katie! However, every time you introduce something new, I have to go back to my WIP and rework it a bit. If you keep introducing new stuff, I’ll NEVER finish it!

  3. Kathy Keats says

    Enlightening as always. Thanks for your work.

  4. Matteo Masiello says

    Creating Character Arcs was the first book of yours I came across and think that is it an essential tool I use when I have an idea for a story. The part of your article today which resonates the most at the moment is “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” I always had a hard to coming to terms with character arcs and the hero’s journey as when I watched some movies I had no clue where they belonged and most movies (the good ones) had elements of different archetypes embedded in them. Things become clearer in relation to story once I came across Robert McKee’s Story and how these archetypes might function within different types of story. It made me realize that arcs don’t need to be so pronounced, obvious, explicit, or dramatic. In watching and reading stories I like searching for how a supporting character might have their own arc which may or may not relate to the protagonist. This presents me with more of a challenge when I realize that every one of my characters need some sort of arc, even if they appear in the story for a very short time. Not even individual characters too, but groups can function as archetypes and have their own arcs.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Archetype is *very* dramatic. It is explicit and concrete–not a nuanced human character but a “type.” Therefore, we have the opportunity to explore it in many varying degrees, everything from the dramatic starkness of the archetype itself, right on down through more nuanced personalities in which the archetype merely “echoes.”

  5. This promises to be an interesting and thought provoking series. I have to say as someone who’s read lots of histories and biographies that I don’t immediately see how these arc map to universally reality, but I don’t know what I don’t know, and this could very well fall into that very large pool,

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Any archetypal system is just that–a system. It’s a lens through which to view reality and hopefully gain insight on a big-picture pattern. But as with all abstractions, this particular system definitely isn’t meant to be taken universally or even literally. Many exceptions can be pointed out, but I feel the larger pattern still offers truths that are important and interesting.

      • Katie,

        Thank you for the clarification. I think approaching this with an open mind will prove valuable to me.


        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          And if it doesn’t resonate, just ignore it all! 😀

          • Sorry to keep prolonging the thread but I often learn the most from things that don’t initially resonate with me. Or to put it another way, if I want it simple, I need to get out of the writing fiction business!

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            I relate on both counts! 😉

        • Usvaldo de Leon says

          Spectaculicious as always.

          But I’m wondering as we examine the world if we impose an arc to it which might or might not be there. For example, my favorite hockey player is Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals and for years they could not win the championship and would lose in the playoffs in excruciating ways. This was because he was selfish and didn’t know how to win the narrative said.

          But then they won and the narrative IMMEDIATELY shifted. Now it was “the trials and tribulations he had to suffer before he finally prevailed”. It “taught him how to win”. Whatever, lol.
          And now of course he’s “a champion who knows what it takes to win.”
          I suspect we impose narrative because we just love story that much and that it helps us make sense of what we experience.

          Not sure if there’s a question there, sorry.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            My take is that story is defined by the ending. So we never know what a story means until it ends. But by its very nature, reality is a neverending story–so the meaning is always shifting.

          • Eric Troyer says

            Whenever my wife and I watch a movie based on truth, we always look up afterward how closely it actually follows reality. “History vs Hollywood” is a good website, but often there are other articles. Almost always the reality is much sloppier than the movie, often with endings that aren’t as neatly wrapped up as we are led to believe.

            So I believe arcs are imposed. I think we use them to help find purpose and order in life, when life often doesn’t supply that. Finding purpose and order helps give us a sense of control and meaning. I think that’s valid. But I think we also need to recognize what’s happening within ourselves. People who don’t, can fall down a rabbit hole, as do so many conspiracy theorists.

            Whoops. I’m rambling. Best to leave things there.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            Thanks for the History vs Hollywood site! That looks great.

          • Brian Cartwright says

            That’s because sports media demands a narrative. Nothing can be by chance or random variation or small sample size, Everything must have a reason or else there’s nothing to talk about and the literal need for the existence of sports media is threatened.

            *The Caps also tended to play the Pens a lot.

  6. Insightful post. What I like right away is how this expands the parameters of storytelling. It gives us so much more room to play around. I’m looking forward to more of this series on archetypes!

  7. Very insightful, I’m looking forward to hear the next episodes of the series!

    I was stuck with my character arc a few weeks ago and found your book (which is the second one I buy from you) and I loved it. And what you’re doing now with the podcast complements it perfectly, it helps me to make sure that the concepts are clear in my head.

  8. Beth Farmer says

    I find that the characters I am drawn to, such as Adam Dalglish, Jack Reacher, and Miss Marple have new life experiences but don’t seem to change internally. I thought they were archetypical characters. As I recall, you covered this type of character in your book on character arcs, but I don’t have it in front of me and can’t recall the label.

    If I’m reading this article correctly, then you did a great job with the Hero and Maiden in Storming.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Unchanging protagonists are usually demonstrating Flat Arcs, in which they act as Impact Characters (mentors, of sorts) to the supporting characters, who are the ones to demonstrate change. I’ll be discussing Flat or “resting” archetypal periods toward the end of the series.

  9. Ellen M. Schnur says

    I am a screenwriter and your articles definitely work for screenplays as well. You have helped me with my protagonists arc.

    Big thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, the underlying story principles apply to almost all forms of story, both novels and screenplays among many others.

  10. Ivy Daylind says

    This series looks like it will be fascinating. Looking forward to seeing more.

  11. Anne LaRiviere says

    this series proves to be fascinating. You are changing my concept of my WiP. One question: Can multiple characters in sequence create an arc?.: :

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That sounds interesting but tricky. I think it would only work in a more experimental type narrative.

      • I think generational dramas that narrate the story of families over the course of a few generations could be an example? In general, each character has its own arc, but the “story” tends to be about a collective maturation/corruption process that comes to a head in the youngest generation, but that doesn’t make any sense outside the context of the previous steps taken by the elders. The journey is not individual but partially inherited.

    • ALR ~
      Love the challenge of your Q.
      My first thoughts were about lemmings. In the typical lingo (Archetype?) individual lemmings experience the world, well, individually, but they all react with one mind, one goal, one arc if you will, to their very mutual destruction. Really, a story may arise from that ONE lemming that chooses not to jump off the cliff–that’s the one with an arc, with a journey that may be worth telling.
      Applying your Q culturally, let’s brainstorm on current America. As a group, in the recent years, there has been a cultural shift away from celebratory statues/monuments of the Southern Confederacy. While this is going on SOCIALLY, there are groups that resist it INDIVIDUALLY–best witnessed by the banner wavers on Jan 6th. Now who has the character arc? Society or the Proud Boys or any given protester-fictional or otherwise. I dare say (<<– Yes, KM "dare say" is 2 words!) PB's getting arrested right now are undergoing quite the plot arc of their own.
      But your Q, ALR, is about communal arc. I dare say(!), after my rambling, a communal arc will come across as a "history" more than character arc. Even historical fiction (All Quiet on the Western Front, War and Peace come to mind) is centered around individuals. Then there's the "cultural shift" story of Ben Hur, but it's less powerful a novel when Wallace tries to universalize the Christ message, thus de-centering the protagonist Ben. Yet a story about how America changed after the Civil War is still history for the books–less an arc.
      Okay, ramble done, but I want to follow comments for any further discussion.
      Respectfully ~ P

  12. I’m looking forward to this series. I have been thinking lately about story types other than the hero’s journey. Thank you, your blog always provides great value information.

  13. Eileen R Hickman says

    Thanks for tackling this. I’ve done some reading on archetypes, but never in an organized fashion. I think your series is going to refine my thinking on this, so I’m looking forward to future posts.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Archetypes don’t *have* to be organized by any means, but I do personally find value in a system that builds upon itself and offers a bigger picture by the end.

  14. This series is going to be lit!

    I love the point that a person can do the Journeys at different stages in life. Danielle in “Ever After” was on a Virgin’s Promise Journey. But when she’s older and wiser, she might find it necessary to undertake the Hero’s Journey if her kingdom is threatened.

    Or exactly the other way around, a hero who saves a kingdom may need to figure out how to integrate into it when he returns. If writing a series or saga, keeping in mind that people can shift archetypes is a good way to keep the story fresh.

    Above, Rick Presley mentions General Iroh. A Mentor is only supposed to pass on wisdom to a worthy student, and Iroh does not give Zuko advanced firebending lessons until Zuko has learned to let go of his hatred and anger. As much as Iroh loved Zuko, it’s instructive that he waited until his nephew was ready before sharing such a powerful secret with him. Had Iroh shared the secret earlier, he would have been a failed Mentor.

    It’s also instructive that Zuko couldn’t reach the required spiritual level until after he failed the False Rescue test in the Virgin’s Promise. His redemption arc required he fail that test, which is proof enough that a writer doesn’t have to treat the journey beats as a checklist for a character to sail through.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I really see these particularly life arcs (and, really, all of life) as a spiral. Every archetype is a complete story of its own, but every archetype can also be identified as part of a larger story, just as the larger story’s beats can be seen mirrored within the smaller archetypal arcs. It’s endlessly cool.

    • Jamie, you bring out a very important point. Your point about Zukho having to fail before he can succeed and be granted access to the Wisdom or Hidden Power is key to his character arc. This theme is seen everywhere from the story of Samson in the Bible who had to fail miserably all his life until his final redemptive act at the end to such frivolous movies as “The Legend of Drunken Master” where Jackie Chan’s character had to hit rock bottom before his mentor gave him the scrolls that taught him the hidden wisdom of the various fighting styles.

      While this is a standard part of this character arc or cycle, it is so easy to do this wrong, with the turning point coming to easily or too tritely (as in most Hallmark movies). What Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko do with Zukho is make it cost him dearly and also make his return very difficult as well. Kudos to them.

  15. Magnolia Steele says

    This! This is what I have needed! I can’t wait to delve deeper! Thank you!!!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thanks for reading! 🙂

      • Anne Greening says

        Thank you for a fascinating article. Two years ago, in my eighties, I started writing my first novel, and am still learning the craft of creative writing. The concept of the archetypical journey is one I had only a passing acquaintance with (a posh way of saying I knew nothing about it!). The further I read, the more I was hooked, and I am looking forward to the subsequent articles in the series.
        A personal niggle, if I may. Just one word sticks in my gullet: Crone! In this age of “isms”, and over-sensibility, this smacks of ageism. Whoever posited the naming of the stages slipped up here. It evokes images of an ugly, unkempt bent old woman, blanket clutched around her shoulders, mumbling spells; rather than the modern octogenarian, neatly dressed and lipsticked, driving herself confidently through the traffic to her bridge club, board meeting, or book signing. I’m not sure when the next apotheosis occurs, and she transmogrifies into a Mage, but I hope that is the arc that I have reached.
        I’d rather be a wizard that a witch.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          The names are tricky. I’ve spent a lot of time over them all, and I speak to some of the troublesome connotations of the different words (Crone being one of them) in their individual posts. I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts about it once we get to that post. However, from a personal perspective, I have to say I have rather fallen in love with the Crone. I think it’s time we reclaim the word’s (and the archetype’s) amazing positive qualities. I am looking forward to being a Crone one day! 😀

  16. I’m already loving these series. Thank you!

  17. I’m very glad I stumbled on your blog. Looking forward to the rest of your series. Like Eric commented I thought I had figured things out decently then you unveil a whole new level of wisdom.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’ve always said the day writing stops presenting with something new to learn about it is the day I quit! 😀

  18. Beth Schmelzer says

    Wow! My protagonists male and female in my two WIPs are young and I can now see how they need to reach their goals differently. Thank you for mentioning age and gender as well as genre! Resonated with my ideas.

  19. Ms. Weiland, you are doing working on the forefront of the greatest of all 21st century mysteries:
    The astonishing enigma of story and its universal compelling force in human lives and history; its attraction and pull on people from everywhere and in every age; its role in all our lives now and back and back across the millennia.

    I love reading books on storytelling from all sorts of perspectives (especially writing craft guides, those are my favourites) … And I’ve read “Women Who Run With the Wolves” (my wife had a copy from her graduate days) and recently delved into “Persephone Rising” from Pearson.

    I’m astonished at your talent for drawing useful writing craft lessons from books that come at story from vastly different angles (particularly the self-help /business story categories, which Pearson’s and Estes’s books seem to fall into) … I peruse those and get a tidbit or two of useful info; you dive in, and come back to the surface with a treasure of insights!
    That’s partially due to different goals: everything I read is to help me with an ambitious YA novel I’m working on. You read those books in order to find universal ways to help writers composing countless stories across genres. It’s impressive indeed!

    Having read so many writing guides, and history of storytelling books, etc, I feel strongly that you are doing really remarkable work here. Most “science of storytelling” or “anthropology/sociology of story” works focus on somewhat nebulous concepts, and conclude with quite brief claims about story’s ability to enhance empathy, allowing readers/listeners to put themselves in others shoes, beefing up abilities to “read others”, the social advantages of that in both small bands of prehistorics and in corporate cultures today, etc.

    But here, you are working on the “how” of storytelling from the inside out, and marrying it to the why “meaning” in a way I haven’t seen anyone doing before—certainly not in so rich and fruitful and insightful a manner!

    Let me end with a quote to back up the claim I made at the start of this comment. This is from a very good book on the neuroscience of storytelling, Gottschall’s THE STORYTELLING ANIMAL:

    “Tens of thousands of years ago, when the human mind was young and our numbers were few, we were telling one another stories. And now, tens of thousands of years later, when our species teems across the globe, most of still hew strongly to myths about the origins of things, and we still thrill to an astonishing multitude of fictions on pages, on stages and on screens … We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.
    This book is about the great ape with the storytelling mind … a creature of an imaginative realm called Neverland. Neverland is your home, and before you die, you will spend decades there. If you haven’t noticed this before, don’t despair: story is for a human as water is for a fish—all encompassing and not quite palpable …
    Yet Neverland mostly remains an undiscovered and unmapped country. We do not know why we crave story. We don’t know why Neverland exists in the first place. And we don’t know exactly how … our time in Neverland shapes us as individuals and as cultures. In short, nothing so central to the human condition is so incompletely understood.”

    So, there you have it:
    Ms. Weiland, you are doing leading edge research, in a way, in the great mystery that so many other 21st century disciplines are just stumbling onto and wondering why it is so little explored or understood!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thanks for your kind words. Really, as ever, I am just musing on the varied and wonderful research from some amazing minds and trying to share what’s had meaning for me. This study of archetypal character arcs has proven itself *deeply* meaningful in my own life. I hope others resonate with these patterns in a similarly powerful way. At the least, I will be pointing out some excellent books that are full of good stuff for the curious writer!

  20. Hello, I am excited to see how to continue after the hero’s journey with the other archetypes. There is so much written about the hero’s journey, and I’ve always been like OK…. I have a good character… they have come into their own… and then I lose them as they become an adult… or more to the point in a lot of sequels I see the hero go into a flat character arc, and at that point follow-up story loses the drama of the character change that drove the first story…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The ending of the Hero’s Journey is kind of like the “Happily Ever After”–what happens after that? Obviously, we all know that life goes on. One grand adventure is the end of all the adventures.

  21. “Only connect,” E.M. Forster said. But that’s not as easy as it sounds.
    Yet you are connecting ideas across disciplines in a powerful way.
    (Maybe I’m hinting that you can easily—and truthfully—expand the story of your craft work here, M.S Weiland, to that of frontier explorer on the edge of the huge human mystery …
    Story! I really do believe Gottschall’s onto something—this force, narrative, that’s been staring us in the face for thousands of years—flickering at us in the firelight of our long prehist past, as we gathered to tell or to listen …
    But only in the last few decades have so many disciplines woken up to the weirdness of our universal yearning for story. Historians, literary critics, cultural anthropologists, neuroscientists, sociologists, linguists, trauma psychologists studying the stories victims tell themselves, and on and on …

    I’m guessing some of your regular Wordplayers have sampled enough of those kinds of academic views of story by now to see what I see:
    Researchers looking in at fiction from the outside have come up with a meager pouchful of vague and rather restrictive conclusions about storytelling … The only people really making headway on what story is and how it echoes out across families, friend networks, cities, societies and civilizations are the people working from the inside—writers and agents and editors!
    They grasp the inner patterns; they have a feel for the passionate arcs of emotions at the core of story; and so they draw in bits and pieces from those distant outsider-disciplines, and connect them in new ways … And come up with far more meaty treatments.

    Lisa Cron is a perfect example.
    I bought WIRED FOR STORY hoping for an interesting neuroscience-outsider view of narrative—and instead got an absolutely fabulous book on writing craft from an insider who had read the neuroscience and made her own connections.
    Given Ms. Cron’s deeper than academic understanding, her book on the neuroscience of storytelling was more insightful and more useful than, say, “The Science of Storytelling”, which tackles the same territory and fails to make much more than a few obvious remarks.

    And now, by way of thanks for all your hard (and rich, potent, useful!) work on behalf of all of us aspiring novelists, here’s a very short story about the power of stories to give meaning and motivation (you’ve probably seen of versions of it in corporate story guides, etc):

    Walking through the countryside, you encounter a man building a low wall from a pallet of stone blocks. He’s miserable, groaning, wailing, “Why do they force me to do this? It’s so futile. My poor hands and back!”
    He’s unhappy because he’s enslaved, working without a story.
    So you keep walking, come upon a woman building an identical wall from the same sort of blocks. She appears weary but content, and tells you “I’m constructing a home for my family, to keep us safe and dry.”
    She’s satisfied because she’s motivated by a simple personal story of survival and shelter.
    Walking on, you come upon a man building a third identical wall from identical blocks. But he is so enchanted with his work he’s beaming with pride and purpose, bursting with energy, visibly excited. And many others are approaching, their horses dragging more pallets of stone.
    “What are YOU doing?” you ask.
    “I’m building a great cathedral,” he says. “THIS is just the beginning …”
    He’s motivated by an overarching shared story of humanity—by an archetype of architecture and structure and meaning and immensity 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Your allegory is spot on! Thanks for sharing the previous book titles. I grabbed The Written Word and added the other to my wishlist.

  22. Claire Graber says

    I’ve always been a writer, but I took a significant detour through mathematics and taxes before returning to the pen with any kind of confidence. So while I have studied things like mathematical groups with no logarithmic function or the myriad examples of broken government websites, I’ve never had the opportunity to study archetypes.

    Thanks doing this series! I’m excited to learn!

  23. I know this question doesn’t have anything to do with this post, but I thought you could bring a me a little advice. Anyways. I’m writing a high fantasy novel–which has been a bit of a challenge to my artistic abilities. (No joke) I’ve noticed that a lot of high fantasy novels can get a little oversaturated so I’ve been trying to keep everything somewhat minimal. The world is made up of a number of different tribes who haven’t different cultures ect. But the area of language has been a bit of an issue for me. I don’t have a PhD in linguistics so that’s been a bit of a let down. When I was a kid me and my brother made up a secret language, and we spoke in that language all day (it annoyed the heck out of parents) so that’s about where my experience in linguistics reach. Haha.

    I don’t want to write the entire novel in a fictional language, but I thought that maybe incorporating language into some of the cultures (just the main ones) would make it a little more realistic. Or do I need it at all? Anyways. I would be awesome to get your advice on this.


    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It can add color and realism to include snippets from different languages. But you certainly don’t have to. And you can just make up your language any way you want. There are lots of ways to research and dig deeper into linguistics, but it’s really up to you how far you want to take it.

    • Peter Linton says

      Snips (Is that your nom de plume?) ~
      I’m writing Elves and Dragons also. Different languages is a challenge-one that Tolkien avoided by calling what’s spoken as “common.”
      I’m exploring the possibility of using a random language generator (Yes, they exist, google search it) for such creatures that do not tap into the common speech of my fantasy world. So far I like the “look” of it on paper, but I have yet to be given solid feedback on how it comes across to the reader. Tolkien’s infrequent use of Elvish or Orcish are translated in the ensuing dialogue and don’t trip up the reader.
      Another author I’ve read uses special quote marks (ex: «») and another employs italics.
      I’m interested in your chosen tactic.
      ~ P

  24. Looking very forward to this series. I’ve run into walls up against the Hero’s Journey because a lot of interpretations shoehorn every story into Campbell, but not every story fits well. When I stumbled across Gail Carriger’s “The Heroine’s Journey” (again, not intended to be gendered) it opened worlds of possibility for me by shifting the archetypal players into different roles. In terms of the above, it demonstrates a different leg of the journey, so to speak. It’s worth checking out for the meta, and the meta-meta.

    I’m digging the podcast, too–sometimes *hearing it* makes something unlock that reading it couldn’t quite achieve. So thank you for both the blogs and the podcasts!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      From my perspective, what is really happening in many of the attempts to “shoehorn every story into the Hero’s Journey” is that people are recognizing the more general shape of story structure which *can* be found in the majority of narrative stories. This story structure is both inherent to and influenced by the Monomyth, but it is not specifically about a Hero in every instance. Because we recognize the structural pattern as also part of the codified Hero’s Journey, we tend to easily jump to the conclusion that, “Oh, every story must be the Hero’s Journey!”

      • Away from computer for two months recovering from fall. And this series will follow my wishes for more info on archetypes . I have both your books on archetypes and am reading one and working on the workbook, but going slowly. Your series could not have come at a better time Katie. How great this is. So grateful for this wonderful and timely series you are doing. Many, many thank you-s.

  25. Thank you for describing, for my purpose, the Hero and Heroine’s journey in a comprehensible unpulluted way!

  26. Crawford Wheeler II says

    I found this just as applicable to life as to crafting new stories.

  27. I’m thrilled to see relatively recent discussion on this one! I’ve gone through these excellent architypes and i thought my story was maiden, but I’m starting to wonder since I don’t have a Predator contact my protagonist for most of the manuscript. She’s 15 years old, and obtains power in a way where she struggles more and more with what it means. So it’s got elements of the standard hero and the Maiden. Yet, I do like the idea of the predator reaching out earlier in the manuscript, and I feel that the hero’s arc is pretty over done. Should I change it?

  28. Tyler Ray Witte says

    Wow, and to think all this could be enough material for a book, like, “Structuring Your Novel” or “Creating Character Arcs”. That would be great. I need paper to mark up!
    – Tyler

  29. Katie, you identified these as “positive change” archetypes. Are there “negative change” archetypes? If so, can you give a few examples? I read a lot of grimdark and horror, and many of the protagonists experience a fall from grace or a failed hero’s journey (tragedy). I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Each of the six positive archetypes is partnered with two possible “shadow” archetypes, which I talk about later in the series (starting here). I don’t sketch out specific arcs or journeys for the shadow archetypes, but there are many ways you can use them, especially in partnership with the general beats of a Negative-Change Arc.

  30. Coming back to this series in text form since I wasn’t able to listen to the whole podcast. Is there an ebook I can download that collects these posts together? That’d be awesome.

  31. Hi there! I love this article, and I will definitely be reading your book.
    Can you tell me if these archetypes apply to kidlit too? That is, middle grade?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, archetypes can be found in all genres for all age types. Most commonly, you’ll find younger archetypes such as the Child or the Maiden in books with young characters. But any of the archetypes can can show up in any type of story.

      • allison p lee says

        Fantastic. Thanks, K.M.! Your website, books, and podcast have been such a resource for me in this new endeavor. Thank you.


  1. […] Your characters are yet another craft element to be mastered. K.M. Weiland kicks off a new blog series with archetypal character arcs, part 1, while Becca Puglisi give us the author’s guide to redeeming villains. […]

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