Archetypal Character Arcs, Pt. 12: The King’s Shadow Archetypes

Throughout the progression of the six archetypal character arcs that make up the human life cycle, we see a steady progression of the character’s power. As we explored in the positive King Arc, this final mid-life arc represents the height of temporal power. The King is someone who wields a vast amount of influence not just over his own life or within his personal relationships, but over extended numbers of people. Symbolically, he rules over a Kingdom, but more practically, his empire could be anything from a large family to a company.

In short, he’s the boss. He knows it. Everybody knows it. And he holds within his hand, whether literally or symbolically, the power of life and death over his subjects. Will he wield that powerful responsibly in a way that brings life to the Kingdom? This depends on whether he is centered within his positive aspect of King, or whether he is gripped by his shadow archetypes of Puppet and Tyrant. The Puppet represents the passive polarity within the King’s shadow; the Tyrant represents the aggressive polarity.

Along with the growing power that accumulates as a character progresses farther into the life arcs, so too the stakes rise proportionately. The more power the character accumulates, the greater his ability to do good to others—or evil. This evil inevitably results from a stagnation of growth. It could happen because a character was thrust into a position of leadership even though he failed to properly complete previous initiations. Or it could be he worked his way up through the aggressive archetypes, building his Kingdom on the backs of those he selfishly oppressed along the way.

It’s also possible for someone to responsibly and authentically reach an archetype, only to stall out in his growth by over-identifying with his current archetype. In King, Warrior, Magician, Lover, Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette refer to this as being “possessed” by an archetype. They indicate how the King archetype, particularly, may be forced into a shadow version of his own arc—still facing the propitiatory sacrifice demanded of him, but doing so unwillingly:

As Sir James Frazer and others have observed, kings in the ancient world were often ritually killed when their ability to live out the King archetype began to fail…. The danger for men who become possessed by this energy is that they too will fulfill the ancient pattern and die prematurely.

It is no coincidence that the negative archetypes of later arcs often act as antagonists to the younger arcs. A King gone bad makes a formidable foe with the opportunity for huge stakes. He shows up most often in Hero stories (in which the Hero’s Quest may be about trying to “heal” the Sick King) and Queen stories (in which the Queen must grow into a leader worthy of responsibly replacing the unfit King). In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell frequently refers to this villain as the “tyrant ogre” or “Holdfast”—the representative of a stalled status quo:

The upholding idea of the community is lost. Force is all that binds it. The emperor becomes the tyrant ogre (Herod-Nimrod), the usurper from whom the world is now to be saved.

Like all the negative archetypes, the Puppet and the Tyrant represent a personal failure to examine the Lies the Character Believes, to lean into growth, and to accept the next level of maturity and responsibility within one’s life. In The Hero Within, Carol Pearson references M. Scott Peck’s People of the Lie as:

…[defining] evil as those who would rather harm another than see the truth about themselves.

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 will 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 Puppet: A Passive Refusal to Be a True Servant-Leader

The passive archetypes inevitably represent missed steps within the character’s growth. They “skipped a grade”—but not in a good way. The farther they get in life, the more egregious this lack becomes, both for themselves and for others. The Puppet is a potent example.

As the passive polarity within the King’s negative counter-archetypes, the Puppet necessarily represents a character who at least nominally holds a great deal of power. But he is also a character who lacks the strength, ability, or perhaps even desire to wield that power. He may have been born to the power, or he may have fostered a seeming sense of “maturity” to the point that he sneakily advanced beyond his actual capabilities.

Pearson warns:

In Jungian psychology, the shadow is formed by repression. If we do not express the positive side of an archetype, it can take us over, but in its negative form.

Regardless of exactly how he manifests, the Puppet is someone who wields his power only randomly and to his own benefit. Either he is content to fob off all true responsibilities onto others, or he himself is at the mercy of someone more powerful (likely a Tyrant or a Sorcerer).

The character will almost inevitably display a “spoiled brat” sense of entitlement that reveals his true level of immaturity. This puerility is exceedingly dangerous to others due to the power with which it is paired, but as with all the passive shadow archetypes, it represents a deep sense of fear and insecurity within the Puppet himself. He isn’t truly powerful; he just wields power. Gillette and Moore note:

This sense of deprivation and lack of “ownership” of the sources of and motives for power are always features of the passive poles of the archetypes.

In modern storytelling, a clear example can be found in the Game of Thrones characters Joffrey and Tommen Baratheon. Even though psychotic Joffrey exhibits clear signs of wanting to be a Tyrant, both he and later his well-intentioned little brother Tommen are obviously Puppets to their Tyrant grandfather Tywin Lannister. Both are Puppets purely for the reason that they were thrust into positions of power without having properly arced into the true maturity of the King (both being only teenagers).

The Puppet’s Potential Arcs: Positive and Negative

It is always possible for a passive archetype to rise to the challenge and learn the lessons of its related positive arc. However, the farther along a character is within the chronological arcs, the more likely he will have to go back to fulfill previous archetypes first. This “leveling up” can be done all within the same story in a relatively short amount of time. But the degree of transformation will be tremendous.

If the Puppet’s primary problem is that he is not chronologically advanced into the proper placement of the King Arc (such as in the case of the Baratheon princes in Game of Thrones), his best path of growth is more likely to be a return to his properly timed arc (i.e., Maiden or Hero).

However, the more powerful a character is, the harder it can be to let go of that power—however stagnated or unhealthy it may be personally. Only a person brave enough to undergo an extraordinary transformation is likely to release his ill-gotten temporal power, even if that power is just nominal, as it inevitably is in the case of the Puppet.

And so it is more likely that the Puppet will refuse to evolve and will therefore end his story as a tragedy in the midst of the Kingdom he could not and would not protect. Or he will rise up to seize more power, refusing to step aside even when it is time and instead using his position to oppress his Kingdom as the Tyrant.

The Tyrant: An Aggressive Refusal to Be a True Servant-Leader

The Tyrant is, of course, a chillingly well-known archetype—historically, globally, and personally. Humans have a hard enough time wielding power, much less surrendering it—and surrender is the heart of a true King Arc.

The Tyrant, however, never surrenders. The Tyrant will take his power to the grave—and his Kingdom with him. As such, however well he may manage the actual affairs of the Kingdom (and many do), he is ultimately a curse upon his Kingdom and his subjects. The true King steps aside to make room for new life; the Tyrant blocks that life and ultimately can give his Kingdom only death, even if he does not directly desire such.

Gillette and Moore speak to the profound unhealth that governs and emerges from the Tyrant’s refusal to sacrifice for his Kingdom:

The tyrant king is not in the Center and does not feel calm and generative. He is not creative, only destructive. If he were secure in his own generativity and in his own inner order—his Self structures—he would react with delight at the birth of new life in his realm.

Instead, the Tyrant proves his own distrustful and (ironically) immature relationship to power by doing everything he can to hang on to everything he’s got. Since, as we’ve seen, the King Arc is all about surrendering power and prestige as a preparation for the descent into the Underworld of Elderhood (and, eventually, the end of life), the Tyrant’s rejection of this arc is ultimately an attempt to reject his own mortality. The unrepentant Tyrant, then, is always doomed.

Campbell, of course, has much to say on the subject:

The figure of the tyrant-monster is known to the mythologies, folk traditions, legends, and even nightmares, of the world; and his characteristics are everywhere essentially the same. He is the hoarder of the general benefit. He is the monster avid for the greedy rights of “my and mine.” The havoc wrought by him is described in mythology and fairy tale as being universal throughout his domain. This may be no more than his household, his own tortured psyche, or the lives that he blights with the touch of his friendship and assistance; or it may amount to the extent of his civilization. The inflated ego of the tyrant is a curse to himself and his world—no matter how his affairs may seem to prosper. Self-terrorized, fear-haunted, alert at every hand to meet and battle back the anticipated aggressions of his environment, which are primarily the reflections of the uncontrollable impulses to acquisition within himself, the giant of self-achieved independence is the world’s messenger of disaster, even though, in his mind, he may entertain himself with human intentions. Wherever he sets his hand there is a cry (if not from the housetops, then—more miserably—within every heart): a cry for the redeeming hero, the carrier of the shining blade, whose blow, whose touch, whose existence, will liberate the land.

The Tyrant’s Potential Arcs: Positive and Negative

The responsibilities of the King are tricky ones. He must constantly weigh such questions as “How much power is too much?” and “Where have I the right to rule over my subjects—and where am I overstepping?” Every King will make mistakes. Present within every positive King is always the shadow of the potential (and sometimes actualized) Tyrant. As a result, there is also always the potential for a return to the King in every Tyrant (especially if he has proven himself faithful in his earlier arcs).

In Awakening the Heroes Within, Pearson talks about the one thing the King (or any archetype) can do to guard against or return from possession by a negative counter-archetype:

The danger of becoming rigid and locked into old ways and hence harming the kingdom is always present for the Ruler. One way to avoid becoming an evil tyrant is to continue to take our journeys throughout life so that we are constantly renewed.

Because the King Arc ends (at least symbolically, sometimes literally) with his death, it is not uncommon for a repentant Tyrant to also end by giving his life for his Kingdom. Depending on how far gone he is within the negative archetype, this may be the best he can hope for in trying to repair his own mistakes.

But he may also perish in less admirable circumstances. If he refuses to relinquish power and remains stubbornly in his unregenerative patterns, a younger Hero or Queen may arise to remove his blight from upon the Kingdom. Gillette and Moore reference the biblical story of King David replacing the Tyrant Saul:

Though the prophet Samuel has told Saul that Yahweh no longer wants him to be king—that is, to embody the King energy for the realm—Saul’s Ego has become identified with the King and refuses to relinquish the throne.

If the Tyrant is exceedingly powerful, and if he is not confronted by Heroes or Queens strong enough to dethrone him, the inevitable cycle of life may still push him off his throne at some point. Old age will claim him one way or another. But if he cannot gracefully accept the transition from King to Crone, he is likely instead to devolve into the manipulative (and in many ways greater) powers of the Witch, working for her own ends behind the scenes—and then perhaps eventually returning to the world’s stage as the even more destructive Sorcerer.

Key Points of the King’s Regressive Archetypes

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

Passive Shadow Archetype: Puppet is Irresponsible (to protect from consequences of Power)

Aggressive Shadow Archetype: Tyrant is Oppressive (aggressive use of Power)

Positive King Arc: Leader to Elder (moves from Regal World to Preternatural World)

King’s Story: An Awakening.

King’s Symbolic Setting: Empire

Kings Lie vs. Truth: Strength vs. Surrender

“Physical strength is the pinnacle of human achievement.” versus “Spiritual strength requires me to relinquish my physical strength.”

Kings Initial Motto: “I, the capable.”

King’s Archetypal Antagonist: Cataclysm

Kings Relationship to Own Negative Shadow Archetypes:

Either Puppet finally wields his Power out of a growing Perception.

Or Tyrant learns to submit his Power to the bigger picture of Perception.

Examples of the Puppet and Tyrant Archetypes

Examples of the Puppet and Tyrant archetypes include the following. Click on the links for structural analyses.

Puppet

  • Joffrey and Tommen Baratheon in Game of Thrones
  • Theoden in The Two Towers
  • Tsarina Alexandra in Rasputin and the Empress
  • Nels Olson in The Little House on the Prairie
  • Prince John in Robin Hood

Tyrant

Stay Tuned: Next week, we will study the shadow archetypes of the Crone: Hermit and Witch.

Related Posts:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Can you think of any further examples of stories that feature either the Puppet or the Tyrant? 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. Dennis M. Montgomery says

    One thing for certain with all the types and archetypes you have and are giving us we as writers have much to work with. The challenge for we writers are to make them believable.

    Another stimulating essay. Thank you.

  2. As silly as this sounds, I am glad Michael Corleone made this week’s list. When the Shadow Archetype series started, he jumped out to me as a character I wanted to dig a little deeper into. I’ve been comparing his arc to each week’s post and coming away with… kinda’ sorta’ but not really… he is too competent for the hero arc, and the queen didn’t fit right… I was starting to think it might be a couple of arcs happening back to back, or he just didn’t fit one at all.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The first half of the first movie could be seen to have a Queen Arc, as he rises to a position of leadership to protect his family. But clearly, he devolves from there into a dark Ruler, who ends up murdering members of the very family he started out to protect–unlike his father who knew when to surrender power.

      • Thank you. That really clears it up for me. I can see now how the arcs fit together. 🙂

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          The first film is also a good example of how it isn’t always necessary to stick to one-archetype-per-story. I think this is especially true when the character aborts a Positive Arc and ends up in a shadow, as Michael does.

          • It seems like if a main character is to go into a meaningful Shadow Arc, they need to go through a positive arc first. I wasn’t a big GOT watcher, but Daenerys Targaryen, as you mentioned, is probably another good example. If she had just started as a despot in training, the end wouldn’t have been as emotional. We got to root and fear for her before we saw how power corrupted her.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            Yes, she rises into a Queen, but then struggles in the King archetype. She liked liberating better than the mundanities of leadership.

  3. Staci Ana says

    Yay! Another post from K.M. Weiland!! They never cease to be amazing. Thanks so much!!

  4. I’ve been wondering where the static versions go in all this. For example, would the Mentor be a king somewhere on his own journey, who has not yet reached the point of sacrifice? Or would the Mentor be a King who “stalls out” and fails to reach his purpose in becoming a sacrifice, choosing rather to be in limbo? Or is limbo not possible because being “possessed by an archetype” is necessarily a descent into one of the shadows, something like if one is not growing, one is decaying?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’ll be talking about the Flat archetypes in the third part of the series, later on. I see them interspersing between the Positive Arcs. So: Child, Maiden, Lover, Hero, Parent, Queen, Ruler, King, Elder, Crone, Mentor, Mage.

  5. Grace Dvorachek says

    Another great post! I think the shadow archetypes are helping me recognize the King in my own MC. However, I was wondering if he really would a be a King, since he’s only nineteen. He’s the prince of a fictional country who is suddenly thrust into the role of king after his father’s untimely death. The appearance of his long-lost older brother at his coronation leads him to believe that his kingdom is in danger. Having been brought up to see the peasants as the “lower class,” he believes they deserve the mistreatment they get at the hands of the nobility. All along, he is unknowingly being manipulated by the antagonist, whom he believes is a trustworthy advisor. By the end of the story, he’s learned the Truth that true worth doesn’t come from your wealth or station, which then alters his view and treatment of the peasants. Would this be a King arc?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sounds to me like he’s possibly on a Queen Arc–learning to be responsible in caring for all of his “children.”

      • Grace Dvorachek says

        Oh, okay! It was probably the term “King” that threw me off a little bit… but I can definitely see the Queen in him. Thank you!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Yes, when we’re dealing with characters who are real-life maidens, heroes, kings, queens, etc., it can get confusing!

  6. One way to avoid becoming an evil tyrant is to continue to take our journeys throughout life so that we are constantly renewed.

    That line resonated because part of the worldbuilding in my trilogy involves a group of immortals. Some can wield magic, others are gifted with prophecy. One of them is a main character in the story, and a thousand years ago she as a prophet instituted a rule that the immortals had to live amongst mortal humans every 75 years. Enough to see change and renewal, and avoid the trap of stagnation — and wield their powers responsibly where mortals are concerned.

    Furthermore, the kings in their land are only allowed to reign for 75 years (three generations of humans). In tandem with the other policy, this is how the kingdom of immortals avoids becoming sclerotic or tyrannical.

    Of course, having to mix with mortals brings other problems…

    Just loving this series, and looking forward to the rest!

  7. This is a fabulous series – thanks for all your wonderful clarity – I found last week’s Queen post particularly illuminating – I can see the passive snow queen and the aggressive sorceress quite strongly in my own mother – and how she would switch from one to the other in different situations. It makes sense that this dynamic is a result of a failed maiden/hero arc.

    I’m wondering what your thoughts are about characters showing up with different archetypes in different areas of their life? So a character might be a positive King archetype at work where they feel confident and are skilled at running a family business, but then might play out as a tyrant or passive King or even Queen when it comes to relationships and their personal family? Or could they even devolve further down the journey back to maiden?

    I feel that we are only just touching the tip of the subject and particularly how it helps writers with their own character arcs. There are so many combinations and possibilities for a character to switch back and forth over the course of the story. Is there a possibility that ‘archetypes for writers’ will be your next book?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Ah, great point about characters being “in” different archetypes in different areas of their lives. I definitely see this as accurate. It also ties in with something I referenced a bit earlier on about how we can go through smaller “cycles” at earlier times in our lives. So even if we may be in a Hero phase in our chronological life, a smaller chapter of our lives (say, college) may see us in a Crone phase of sorts as we near its completion.

  8. Thanks for another thoughtful article. I do wish we could come up with better titles for these arcs as most actual Kings/Emperors/big muckity-mucks have not behaved like the King arc, in terms of gracefully giving up power, but its hard to come up with a better title without making it unwieldy.

    Thanks again.

    • I kept thinking while reading this entry about how the “The Man” is modern slang for both “the person on top keeping everybody else down” and “the person demonstrating high levels of ability and self-possession.” Same for “The Boss.”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Big Muckity-Muck’s not bad. 😉

  9. I’m really fascinated by the concept that a character can be placed into the external position of a certain archetype or life stage without having passed through the arc necessary to successfully occupy that space. This makes it a simple matter to create suspense: just keep a character “stuck” longer in one stage and the consequences for the world will become more dangerous and far-reaching. It makes “raising the stakes” an inevitable consequence of keeping characters blocked in their arcs while time takes its natural course.

    I’m also interested in these transitions in which a character gains greater external power and responsibilities before becoming more internally powerful and responsible. I’d imagine a good “oh no!” moment in a story is any time something happens that bumps an under-prepared character into a slot of greater influence before he/she is ready. (For example, in a scifi series in which the captain becomes incapacitated and only person who knows how to fly the ship is an already-established coward/bully or ice queen/sorceress.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “I’d imagine a good “oh no!” moment in a story is any time something happens that bumps an under-prepared character into a slot of greater influence before he/she is ready.”

      Yes, definitely! Usually, this is the “call” to take the next journey. But just because a character is called doesn’t mean he or she will accept the challenge.

      • I hadn’t connected this bump-up in external life stage with “the call” but that’s a good point!

        I was thinking more of an antagonist ‘leveling up’ externally without ‘leveling up’ internally. So, for instance: Your dad is dating a Vixen? Now she’s your evil step-mother Sorcerer Queen. That manager who was given a job through connections without learning how to do it? Now, he’s the CEO as Puppet King. That kind of thing.

  10. Quick question & then maybe a follow up…
    .
    Have you read any of the Dune series?
    .
    I have more to think about, but there may be a primal example of the King turned Tyrant in the main character of Paul Atreides. He overthrew one tyrant (Dune) only to become one (Dune Messiah). Herbert’s sequels are hard to take for someone looking for Luke Skywalker in the series.
    .
    Anyway, I know you’re busy and probably get a ton of recommendations, but this blog inspired many thoughts on Dune.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I read the first one and one or two of the sequels, but it’s been a long time. Based on what I remember, he’s a good example!

  11. Don Fenestre-Marek says

    Will there be a print collection of this series at some point? I’ve been listening to the podcasts and frequently find inspiration in your descriptions of these archetypes and their arcs. I may need to sit down and make some kind of reference chart for these articles to more fully grasp the possibilities.
    Thanks for posting these!

  12. Joan Kessler says

    Another great post! Thanks for breaking it all down. I’m looking forward to the handy reference book next year.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Characterization is an important element of a story. Stavros Halvatzis examines the inner life of characters in stories, Lisa Hall-Wilson offers 4 tips for writing your character’s PTSD and trauma memories, Samantha Downing lists 4 tips for writing about family grudges, and Katharine Grubb gives us 10 tips for creating a dysfunctional family in fiction. K. M. Weiland also continues her series on archetypal character arcs, part 12: the king’s shadow archetypes. […]

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