Archetypal Character Arcs, Pt. 10: The Hero’s Shadow Archetypes

Here in the 21st Century, we often have a confused relationship with the Hero archetype. On the one hand, he is everywhere and we love him and resonate with him. On the other hand, his sheer omnipresence has inevitably highlighted his negative counter-archetypes in almost equal force. This is because wherever we find a would-be Hero, we also find the potential for his regression into the Coward and the Bully.

This is not because the Hero is any more flawed than any of the other primary archetypal character arcs. As we’ve seen, every positive archetype is partnered with a polarity of passive/aggressive shadow archetypes. But the Hero’s negative archetypes are particularly interesting (and cautionary) simply because of the profound and implicit pervasiveness of the Hero’s Journey in the literature and film of the last century. We are perhaps more apt to recognize the problems inherent within the Hero Arc simply because those problems are often the very ones that stymie us personally and culturally.

In their classic examination of masculine archetypes, King, Warrior, Magician, Lover, Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette point out the inherent, if comparative, immaturity found within the Hero Arc:

There is much confusion about the archetype of the Hero. It is generally assumed that the heroic approach to life, or to a task, is the noblest, but this is only partly true. The Hero is, in fact, only an advanced form of Boy psychology—the most advanced form, the peak, actually, of the masculine energies of the boy, the archetype that characterizes the best in the adolescent stage of development. Yet it is immature, and when it is carried over into adulthood as the governing archetype, it blocks men from full maturity.

As we’ve already explored in the post on the Hero Arc, this archetype is only the second in a cycle of six. It is the final journey of the “youthful” stage of life, which may be thought of as life’s First Act. The arc itself is fundamentally about growing up in the fullest sense—not just individuating (which should be accomplished within the preceding Maiden Arc), but responsibly reintegrating into society as a full-fledged adult.

It is an arc that comes for us all at some point—but one that, despite its prevalence, is misunderstood by modern society simply because we do not understand what comes next (i.e., the mature “adult” arcs of Queen and King). As Carol S. Pearson notes in The Hero Within, this is important beyond just character arcs and literature:

When the heroic journey was thought to be for special people only, the rest of us just found a secure niche and stayed there. Now we have no secure places in which to hide and be safe. In the contemporary world, if we do not choose to step out on our quest, it will come to get us. We are being thrust on the journey. That is why we all must learn its requirements.

If, however, the Hero fails to complete his transformation into the mature arcs of life’s Second Act, he is very likely to instead transition sideways into his negative shadow archetypes—the Coward and the Bully. The Coward represents the passive polarity within the Hero’s shadow, the Bully the aggressive polarity.

Once again with our series-wide reminder: The arcs and their related archetypes are alternately characterized as feminine and masculine. This is primarily indicating the ebb and flow between integration and individuation, among other qualities. Together all six primary life arcs create a progression that can be found in any human life (provided we complete our early arcs in order to reach the later arcs with a proper foundation). In short, although I use feminine pronouns in relation to the feminine arcs and masculine pronouns in relation to the masculine arcs, archetypal representations within these journeys can be of any gender.

The Coward: A Passive Refusal to Take Responsibility

As with all of the passive counter-archetypes, we find the presence of the Coward implicit within the beginning of the Hero Arc. However much the Hero may long for adventure in “the great wide somewhere,” he is not about to unequivocally volunteer. In the very beginning of his journey, he will display his immaturity in his laziness, complacency, or even outright cowardice.

Like Luke Skywalker at the beginning of his journey, he may whine and gripe a bit about his meaningless life in the middle of nowhere, but he won’t summon the courage to leave it until the Call to Adventure arrives (and even then he starts out at least symbolically refusing it).

LUke Skywalker Tatooine Farm Star Wars

There are good reasons for this. However much humans may need to grow and mature, our entire concept of survival is built around maintaining a status quo. This is why the Inciting Event and First Plot Point in a story, which force the Hero out of his Normal World, are inevitably “bolts from the blue”—signifying the arrival of conflict from outside the Hero’s safe world. Pearson says:

…although some people take off on the quest with a high sense of adventure, many experience it as thrust upon them by their feeling of alienation or claustrophobia, by the death of a loved one, or by abandonment or betrayal.

This is normal—indeed, archetypal. Part of the Hero Arc lies within the Hero’s own inner struggle against the Coward. But the Coward begins to prevail if the Hero’s initial Refusal of the Call is not quickly overcome. In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell notes, rather dourly:

Often in actual life, and not infrequently in the myths and popular tales, we encounter the dull case of the call [to adventure] unanswered; for it is always possible to turn the ear to other interests. Walled in by boredom, hard work, or “culture,” the subject loses the power of significant affirmative action and becomes a victim to be saved…. The myths and folk tales of the whole world make clear that the refusal is essentially a refusal to give up what one takes to be one’s own interest. The future is regarded not in terms of an unremitting series of deaths and births, but as though one’s present system of ideals, virtues, goals, and advantages were to be fixed and made secure.

Like the Damsel before him, the Coward often hides behind a guise of seeming wisdom and maturity. Why take risks? Why not let others endanger themselves for the good of all? After all, somebody has to stay behind and take care of things. But this is false maturity. Once the Call arrives (whatever its form—mythic or modern), it is not the Hero’s role to hold the fort. That task belongs to others—the Queen and the King. If he chooses to ignore this, he is doing it for selfish reasons and not for the good of his community—and, ironically, as Pearson points out, he will eventually suffer for it just as much as if he had risked all:

Many people subscribe to the false idea that being heroic means you have to suffer and struggle to prevail. The fact is, most of us will experience difficulty whether or not we claim the heroic potential within us. Moreover, if we avoid our journeys, we also may feel bored and empty.

The Coward’s Potential Arcs: Positive and Negative

Creating Character Arcs

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As noted, the Coward is already a kernel waiting to sprout within the Hero Arc. In many ways the beliefs of the Coward comprise the Lie the Hero Believes—and which the Hero will overcome within a Positive-Change Arc.

It should be noted his cowardice may also be projected outward and represented by supporting characters. Allowing supporting characters to “act out” parts of the protagonist’s inner self is also a deeply powerful thematic presentation. We can see this in such stories as Harry Potter, in which Harry’s lovable best friend Ron Weasley usually represents the Coward—even though he inevitably redeems himself at the end of every installment within the series.

In Star Wars, the Coward can be seen to be represented by Threepio, who is always the “voice of caution.” Often, but not always, this iteration of the Coward aligns with what, in the Dramatica system, is termed the Reason character.

Threepio telling Han Solo the odds Princess Leia Star Wars Empire Strikes Back

If the Coward does not summon enough courage to embrace his journey (whether at the very beginning of the story or later after he has been thrust upon it against his will), he will fall prey to one of two possible fates.

He might cling ever tighter to his fear and immaturity, which will cause him to stultify his growth. Even if life’s chronology pushes him ahead into later forms of adulthood and elderhood, he will remain frozen in the passive archetypes—Snow Queen, Puppet, Hermit, and Miser.

The second possibility is that he will pluck up his resolve enough to face his challenges head-on. In so doing, he will discover that he does, in fact, possess more personal power than he realized. But, again, his forward progression stalls. Instead of using this power to arc into the love and social responsibility of a full-blown Hero, he will instead use this power selfishly (and ultimately still from a place of fear) by turning into the Bully.

In The Virgin’s Promise, Kim Hudson talks about the underlying truths that join both of the potentially negative archetypal polarities of the Hero:

The choice of Coward emphasizes the unspoken quality of courage in the term Hero, and points out a deep and consistent truth about Villains and Shadow figures—they are cowards, choosing a selfish and greedy path rather than the heroic path of self-sacrifice for the greater good.

The Bully: An Aggressive Refusal to Take Responsibility

At first glance, the Bully can seem powerful—more powerful even than the true Hero. But like all aggressive polarities within the shadow archetypes, his power contains an inherent weakness. It is “stuck”—brittle—instead of free-flowing and transformative like the Hero’s.

In many ways, the Bully is the true shadow form of the Hero, as called out by Caroline Myss in Sacred Contracts:

From a shadow perspective, the Hero can become empowered through the disempowerment of others.

Unlike the Coward, the Bully may well have at least gotten a “passing grade” on individuating from his authority figures, in the previous arc. But he has not only stalled out in re-integrating into society in a healthy and responsible way, he has in fact blocked himself (and/or been obstructed by equally regressive social influences) from doing so. If the Hero is about arcing into Love, the Bully is ultimately an archetype stuck in hatred. Deep down, he has embraced a societal wound in a way that not only prevents his healing and growth, but also causes him to fear and resent the idea of reintegrating into a larger community.

And so, even if he surrounds himself with “minions,” he stands apart from the cycle of life. Like all aggressive archetypes, he avoids the painful challenges of true growth and instead tries to control reality. As so often happens in cycles of abuse, he becomes the very thing he himself fears and hates. In Women Who Run With the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estés speaks a familiar truth:

Most often we wound others where, or very close to where, we have been wounded ourselves.

The Bully’s Potential Arcs: Positive and Negative

But there is always hope. As with all of the shadow archetypes, the Bully is not inevitably lost. Indeed, his retained flicker of inherent personal power—and his refusal to completely surrender it—signals the potential for positive transformation, as Myss (who is always quick to examine the “positive” side of the negative archetypes and vice versa) points out:

The archetype of the Bully manifests the core truth that the spirit is always stronger than the body.

Indeed, any ultimately positive Hero Arc may start out emphasizing the Bully side of the character’s polarity. Although this can present challenges for the author (and the readers), since the Bully is often unlikable as a character, it does offer the opportunity for a deep arc, along the lines of what Moore and Gillette eulogize:

The “death” of the Hero is the “death” of boyhood, of Boy psychology. And it is the birth of manhood and Man psychology. The “death” of the Hero in the life of a boy (or a man) really means that he has finally encountered his limitations. He has met the enemy, and the enemy is himself. He has met his own dark side, his very unheroic side. He has fought the dragon and been burned by it; he has fought the revolution and drunk the dregs of his own inhumanity. He has overcome the Mother and then realized his incapacity to love the Princess. The “death” of the Hero signifies a boy’s or man’s encounter with true humility. It is the end of his heroic consciousness.

But, of course, the fight for his better self may not end triumphantly, and the Bully may instead arc more deeply into aggression by rejecting the assimilation of “Love” found at the end of a true Hero Arc. In The Wounded Woman, Linda Schierse Leonard speaks of the Bully archetype in terms of a woman’s psyche and inner destructive animus, but her words hold equally true for anyone:

It is then that the masculine becomes brute-like and sacrifices not only the outer woman but also its inner feminine side.

If the Bully is deeply wounded and defeated in the outer conflict, it is also possible he may lose his willpower and resolve, instead reverting to the passive Coward. Indeed, because the Coward’s fear (of life, love, and power) lie at the heart of the Bully, the Coward is always with him. But only if his aggressive actions in the exterior conflict prove personally destructive will he abandon them.

Key Points of the Hero’s Shadow Archetypes

For easy reference and comparison, I will be sharing some scannable summations of each arc’s key points:

Passive Shadow Archetype: Coward is Ineffectual (to protect from consequences of Courage)

Aggressive Shadow Archetype: Bully is Destructive (aggressive use of Courage)

Positive Hero Arc: Individual to Protector

Hero’s Story: A Quest.

Hero’s Symbolic Setting: Village

Heros Lie vs. Truth: Complacency and/or Recklessness vs. Courage

“My actions are insignificant in the overall scope of the world.” versus “All my actions affect those I love.”

Heros Initial Motto: “I, the powerful.”

Hero’s Archetypal Antagonist: Dragon

Heros Relationship to Own Negative Shadow Archetypes:

Either Coward finally uses his Strength because he learns to Love and wants to defend what he loves.

Or Bully learns to submit his Strength to the service of Love.

Examples of the Coward and Bully Archetypes

Examples of the Coward and Bully archetypes include the following. Click on the links for available structural analyses.

Coward

Bully

Stay Tuned: Next week, we will study the shadow archetypes of the Queen: the Snow Queen and the Sorceress.

Related Posts:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Can you think of any further examples of stories that feature either the Coward or the Bully? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in Apple Podcast or Amazon Music).

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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. Usvaldo de Leon says

    If the coward is inside the bully, would this hold true that the damsel is inside the Vixen? Would that then follow for all the shadow archetypes?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, in many ways the polarized shadow archetypes are always flipsides of the same coin. People’s personality patterns will usually tend to manifest one side more strongly than the other, but it is rarely without at least occasional forays into its opposing counter-archetype.

  2. Another outstanding analysis — and of course the Hero is the one we’re all most exposed to, for good and ill/

    For the record, though: Ron Weasley only has occasional moments of cowardice, and he often goes into situations brave from the start. Ron is one place where we absolutely can’t confuse the movies with the actual character.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I saw the movies before I read the books, so that has perhaps colored my perception. I always think of Rupert Grint’s face in the spider forest. :p

  3. Hi Katie,

    I’m loving this analysis–I am working on a series where the protagonist arcs from being a coward in the beginning. So much of what this says rings true to me and what I’m writing. I haven’t had the chance to read all the other archetypes yet, but I plan to. Anyway, just wanted to say thanks for doing all this and making it available to all of us.

  4. Eric Troyer says

    Loving this series!

    This line stuck with me: “Even if life’s chronology pushes him ahead into later forms of adulthood and elderhood, he will remain frozen in the passive archetypes—Snow Queen, Puppet, Hermit, and Miser.”

    So, theoretically a character could “progress” through a character life cycle while remaining in shadow archetypes? Interesting!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, many of us “go through the motions” of the arcs without truly fulfilling their internal transformations. For example, we see people going on “quests” without necessarily fulfilling the Hero Arc, people attaining positions of leadership without necessarily fulfilling the Queen Arc, and especially once we reach the elder years when clearly people chronologically *become* Elders, they will not necessarily undergo the Crone or Mage Arcs.

  5. I would love to pay you to review my draft of OUTCRY. Is that possible?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thanks very much for your interest in having me review your book. I’m not currently accepting solicited reviews. But I wish you all the best with your book!

  6. Carl Kjellberg says

    Hi Katie, love your insights and I have just tried out your ideas by doing a structural breakdown of the classic western novel ‘ Shane’, the story of a gunfighter who is afraid of use his gun. Here is what I came up with.
    The first pinch point occurs when the antagonist, a group of ranchers, challenge Shane but he responds by simply walking away. At this point, Shane’s actions are motivated by fear. The ranchers see Shane as a coward and so are emboldened to increase their bullying of the local townsfolk. By the the mid- point, Shane realizes he must use power but takes the path of a Bully and provokes a fight with the ranchers. He acts, not out of love, but because his pride has been wounded. His actions simply cause the ranchers to become more aggressive and they hire a gunman with the outcome that, at the third plot- point, one of the townsfolk gets killed. Finally, Shane picks up his gun. In the climax, we see Shane confront the head rancher and his hired gunman and kill both of them. Shane embraces his power and acts out of love, because he doesn’t want to see any more of his friends get killed or hurt.
    The story structure works well because it both utilizes and explores both of the shadow types faced by the hero before finally selling on the need to act out of both power and love.
    I am wondering if such a structure can be applied other stories as well.
    What are your thoughts?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Interesting. I had never really equated the character of Shane with the Coward, but this rings true.

      • Brian Cartwright says

        That sounds a lot like a radio episode of “Gunsmoke” that I heard a few weeks ago on XM. Matt refused to directly challenge the bully and his minions who came to Dodge. He went to arrest them at Kitty’s but back down and walked away. Chester was dumfounded but Matt said “I have my reasons” which was suggested in narration to be possible collateral damage, maybe to Kitty herself. I don’t recall it ever being fully explained but Matt got them in the end.

        *William Conrad is always my Matt Dillon

        The Shane novel was published in 1946, made into a movie in 1953 (currently at no additional charge on Amazon Prime) Gunsmoke was on radio from 1952 to 1962 so there’s a chance the episode was inspired by the novel before the movie was made.

  7. In Harry Potter, I don’t think of Ronald as a coward, because he always faces his fears when his friends need him to. If I were to pick a coward, I’d go with Luna Lovegood’s father In Deathly Hallows because he sells out Harry. Slughorn qualifies too. Bully? Delores Umbrage is the poster child.

    In thinking about this in the real world, there are some very dark examples. The Capos in the prison camps were Hebrews who chose to be guards and often became very sadistic ones. These men were often very successful in life before the concentration camp. And I think Adolf Eichmann, the architect of much of the Holocaust was a coward. If you read the “Banality of Evil”, he repeatedly defended himself as a man just doing his job, that he didn’t even particularly dislike the people he sent to their death. Inside every system of persecution like the Holocaust, there are always a mixture of people who take pleasure from the suffering, bullies with strong sadistic tendencies, and people who just do their jobs, cowards participating for their own safety and comfort.

    This is the dramatic far end of the spectrum. Most of us, maybe all of us, have had moments of cowardice or cruelty in our lives. As you’ve said, the hero finds it in himself to push back against those tendencies. Sadly in the case of the real world examples I sited, the price of courage was frequently death without glory.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I see the Bully as a comparatively young archetype. If the trend is not corrected as the character grows in age and power, the aggressive archetype only grows more dangerous, devolving into the Sorceress, Tyrant, and so on.

  8. I know I brought up Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits last week 🙂 but I’m finding his analysis of Win vs. Lose philosophy interesting in this context of the Bully and the Coward. The Bully is clearly “I win – you lose”, and the Coward is clearly “I lose – you win”…interesting food for thought. Here’s a link that explains it a little. https://www.theprofessionalwingman.com/blog/2009/5/28/giving-and-taking-the-winwin-or-no-deal-philosophy-of-relati.html

  9. It amazes me of how accurate the descriptions are, this last arc of articles has been incredible. I didn’t know you could pinpoint something so precisely.

    Great job, K

  10. If the Maiden’s antagonists are the archetypes of Too-Good Mother, the Naive Father, and the Predator-Groom, what are the antagonist archetypes of the Hero, other than the dragon?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Later on this year, I’m going to explore the archetypal antagonists in more depth. I would summarize the Maiden’s antagonists as Authority and Predator, and the Hero’s as Dragon and Sick King.

      • Oooo. Sick King – my mind goes immediately to Tolkien. I’m so glad posts of these antagonist archetypes are part of the larger series.
        With every branch of this massive tree, I love how ever more branches appear and lead us to ever more possible combinations and complications.

  11. Judith Andersson says

    I am working on a story about a female protagonist who gets seriously hurt by the bully character. There is no help to be found from others, so for a long while she becomes the victim. Later in life, when under normal circumstances she would have arced to an elder role, her strength returns but the protagonist finds she is forced to forge her own armor and become the female warrior in order to protect her village, reset justice and maintain peace and equity. What is the best way to draw her arc?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If she’s spent a long period of her life in the passive shadow archetypes, then she will need to at least sketch the important lessons of each of the associated positive archetypes until she is “caught up” to where she needs to be.

  12. cool, I think the mc in my novel is a coward (no offense, thats just how I’m writing you, man). He is forced to go on a dangerous mission with a group of other criminals but he spent most of the first half just going along with whatever the group does. I’m at the midpoint right now where after everyone else in his group got poisoned he is the only one left and needs to get the cure on his own which is difficult for him because he spent his whole life following orders and having the plans made for him. I guess I’ll try to put more into why he chooses to love and defend what he loves because now he just wants to show he can be the hero

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Many Hero stories begin with the protagonist in a Coward space. It makes for a great arc.

  13. Peter Moore says

    One thing I’ve noticed with bully archetypes is that they can be fiercely loyal. You don’t see them very often as loners. Would you say this is an aspect of the bully itself, or a reflection of the coward and/or hero aspects? I bring up hero because the bully may not see him/herself in a negative way. Justification and rationalization push shadow archetypes just as strongly as they do antagonists.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Interesting observation. It makes sense that the Bully would always be seen in company, since his ego relies on being able to push back against or overpower others.

  14. I just wanted to say what an insightful and thought-provoking series this is. It’s interesting the way a character can mature biologically but remain lurking in the shadows of a previous archetypal cycle. Hero stories with adults rather than juveniles in the Hero role are of course pervasive. But I wonder if that’s intentionally addressing a latent-Hero journey, or if it’s the belief that the Hero’s Journey is the only way to tell a story. And is that simply an unawareness of other life stage journeys as story structures, or is it a reflection of a society that’s stuck…
    I want to say thanks for making this easier for us, but I’m not sure that ‘easier’ is applicable! Anyway, thanks for all of this!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Speaking as much from my own life experience as anything, I think modern adults are being called on their Hero Arcs later and later in life.

      “but remain lurking in the shadows of a previous archetypal cycle”

      This is so well said!

  15. Patrick Hui says

    I really appreciate this series of articles, which contains the most systematic discussion of archetypal characters and their character arcs that I have seen anywhere.
    In a way, the passive / aggressive / positive types remind me of Eastern religions and philosophies, where the ideal is balance between two extremes. For example, the passive type could be associated with the Yin concept of Taoism (the Yin concept has been associated with softness, coldness, darkness, water, etc.) the aggressive type could be associated with the Yang concept of Taoism (the Yang concept has been associated with hardness, heat, light, fire, etc.), and the positive type could be associated with the balance between Yin and Yang (the ideal of Taoism).

  16. Um, Katie. You should write a book on this subject. People would buy it. It’s me. I’m people. XD Seriously, though, it’s been a long time since I’ve been THIS excited about a subject. I’ve been bingeing your podcasts while folding laundry and anxiously anticipating the next one. I’m learning SO much! Thank you for doing this series. And I do seriously hope you turn it into a book one day!

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  1. […] characters are the soul of our stories. K.M. Weiland continues her archetype exploration with the two shadow archetypes of the Hero, while David Corbett examines the criminal as hero. Elizabeth S. Craig has tips for creating strong […]

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