Archetypal Character Arcs, Pt. 17: The Flat Archetype of the Lover

As Doris Day used to say, “Everybody loves a lover.” While that might not be universally true, what is true is that the Lover archetype is one inherent and even integral within the human life cycle. Although it is a deeply nuanced archetype that evolves with us for most of our lives—and shows up in many guises—it is particularly foundational to the First Act of our lives, when it first emerges in response to the coming-of-age lessons of the Maiden Arc.

The archetypal Lover, as I will be discussing it here, is not simply a person who falls in love. Obviously, falling in love can happen at any stage of one’s life and in relationship to any of the progressive archetypal character arcs. Specifically, the Lover as a Flat archetype within this particular system of archetypes is in reference to “first love” or “young love.” It is the period of awakened love and sexuality in which a character is just beginning to explore what it might mean to no longer be “one” with the tribe, but simply “one” with another “one.”

This is not a mature love. It is the intense, wonderful, passionate, exploratory, sometimes frightening first love of the young adult. Although it signifies growth, it is also an ironically destructive force, since it signifies the means and the route by which the youth finds a path away from the necessary “mother love” of the parents, from whom he or she has only so recently begun to individuate, and into the possibility of a supporting love and union with another individuated person.

As the “resting” period between the crucibles of the Maiden and the Hero Arcs, the Lover also represents the foundation the Hero will require for moving forward into his all-important Quest. As you may remember, the Hero Arc, which completes the youthful initiations of life’s First Act, is ultimately about learning to submit one’s personal Power to a worthy Love.

The Love of the Hero is not specifically a romantic love (although it is often represented as such). Rather, it is a Love that allows him to re-integrate as a mature adult with the tribe from which he has now successfully individuated. His explorations of romantic love both prior to and during his transformative arc rest upon the Lover archetype that knits together the journeys of the Maiden and the Hero.

Because the Lover has so far completed only one arc (the Maiden), the love experienced in this period is still unformed, possessive, immature, and often un-individuated. It is the teenage love eulogized in so many pop songs. The love that will be experienced later, in the Hero arc, is the maturing of this potential into a deeper, richer, more developed love—one that can give without giving away one’s self.

The Lover Archetype: Empowered Youth

Previous Arc: Maiden

Subsequent Positive Arc: Hero

Subsequent Possible Negative Archetypes: Coward (passive); Bully (aggressive)

There is a reason YA romance is so popular. At hardly any other time in life (at least not consistently) is one likely to experience the overwhelming intensity of emotion that is available when you are young enough to be in love but not yet fully emerged into the adult you will become. Young love is almost a merging—not always completely centered or healthy—but always transformative.

What is important about placing the Lover archetype between the Maiden and the Hero Arcs is the emphasis upon the character’s newly growing agency (which is closely linked to burgeoning sexuality). The previous Maiden Arc focuses upon an awakening from childhood into adulthood. That arc ends with the character beginning to step into adult power—and that power is very likely to be expressed (openly or otherwise) via the character’s budding pursuit of romance.

Like the Child archetype before it, the Lover archetype clearly represents a volcano of transformation. But as discussed here, the Lover is a “Flat” archetype. This is not because falling in love, especially for the first time, does not create massive transformation within a person. Rather, it is because the actual change that is linked to growing into and out of this archetype is addressed in the previous Maiden Arc and subsequent Hero Arc.

The Lover’s Normal World

The Lover is a character who has completed the previous Maiden Arc. The archetype can be represented by a person of any age, but chronologically within the cycle, the character is still quite young—mid to late teens. As shown in so many YA stories, this is a character who is perhaps just finishing up high school (and preparing for the Hero’s Quest that will follow). The character senses the changes gathering on the horizon, but does not yet need to fully face them.

Having gained the right and ability to move beyond the walls of the family Home in the Maiden Arc, the Lover’s Normal World is now represented by the slightly larger confines of the Village. The character’s world exists beyond simply that of parents and siblings. Friends, teachers, and employers are now relationships that he or she must navigate on the way to finding a grown-up role amongst the tribe.

The Lover still has quite a bit in common with the Child, but the foundational innocence is now gone. The Lover now knows that the world is not unchanging—and he or she is not unchanging in it. There is a great deal of uncertainty in the world that the character was not previously aware of. The Lover’s theme song might be “Que Sera, Que Sera” (since we seem to be on a Doris Day kick today):

When I was just a little girl
I asked my mother, what will I be
Will I be pretty
Will I be rich
Here’s what she said to me
Que sera, sera
Whatever will be, will be
The future’s not ours to see

The character is no longer completely at ease within this world, and as a result the world itself will be challenged to change itself to accommodate this character who is suddenly no longer a predictable Child.

The Lover’s Relationship to the Thematic Truth

What Truth has a character so young and unsteady as the Lover to communicate to supporting characters? Unlike the Child, who in some ways represents “all” potential truths simply because the Child does not yet have any personal truths, the Lover now has at least one Truth—gained from the transformation of the Maiden Arc. The essence of that Truth is “Personal sovereignty is necessary for growth and survival.”

The Lover is such a young character that he or she is unlikely to be particularly articulate about this Truth. This character’s ability to create transformational change in others is far less about “telling” them anything and much more about the catalyzing influence of the youthful person’s very existence. The young flame burns brightly, and it acts as both effortless inspiration to those who would follow and unspoken reminder to those who have gone before.

How the Lover Creates Change in Supporting Characters

In discussing the Lover here, we are discussing the interstitial period when a character has individuated enough to fall in love but has not yet been asked to fully grapple with the ramifications of this great life change (which will occur in the Hero Arc). Instead, the Lover is a static character who is able to influence change upon others. Having undergone the Maiden Arc, this character already knows something that many of his or her peers will not yet have learned (and, indeed, something that many of the adults have either never fully integrated or somewhat forgotten).

As with all the Flat archetypes, the Lover is most likely to encourage change in those characters who are “behind” within the cycle. At this point, that means the characters most likely to be changed by a Lover protagonist are those who are on the Maiden Arc themselves.

Most obviously, the Lover is likely to encourage a transformation in the very person he or she loves. Falling in love for the first time can be the transformational spark that sets off the Maiden Arc. It is certainly possible (and common) for both young characters to be concurrently taking the Maiden Arc. However, it is also possible that the Lover character, who has already arced, is the one catalyzing the transformation for the other person.

Indeed, the ability to choose wisely and well whom to love is one of the great challenges of this individuation period, as Clarissa Pinkola Estés points out in Women Who Run With the Wolves:

A lover cannot be chosen a la smorgasbord. A lover has to be chosen from soul-craving. To choose just because something mouth-watering stands before you will never satisfy the hunger of the soul-Self.

Types of Stories That Feature a Lover Protagonist

The Lover most obviously appears in love stories—usually coming-of-age love stories. Sometimes these stories offer happy endings; just as often, and perhaps more realistically, they end tragically with the realization that however formative this early love affair, it cannot last into the next journey.

But Lover stories don’t absolutely have to be about a protagonist who falls in love with another person. What is important in utilizing this archetype is recognizing it as the interstitial period between the transformations of Maiden and Hero. Ultimately, what the Lover represents is discovery. In Sacred Contracts, Caroline Myss speaks of the Lover archetype (which she references more broadly and does not confine to this early period of life) as being defined by “passion” and “devotion”:

This archetype appears not only in those who are romantically inclined, but also in anyone who exhibits great passion and devotion. One can be a Lover of art, music, gardening, Persian carpets, nature, or needlepoint. The key is having a sense of unbridled and exaggerated affection and appreciation of someone or something that influences the organization of your life and environment.

In Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle quotes James Baldwin’s analogy of the Lover’s transformative qualities in comparison to the artist’s:

…the role of the artist is exactly the same as the role of the lover. If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.

We can find this in many coming-of-age stories which simultaneously develop the Lover character’s young romances alongside an exploration of some passion or talent, such as that of the Pre-Raphaelite painters of the 19th-center as portrayed in the BBC ‘s (not-particularly-historical-or-flattering) mini-series Desperate Romantics.

What defines a Lover story (in comparison to a Maiden or Hero story) is its somewhat episodic nature. Regardless of whatever joy or sorrow the protagonist may experience, and regardless how drastically the supporting characters may evolve, the story’s symbolic setting will not change. The Maiden Arc sees the protagonist move from Home to Village, and the Hero Arc sees the protagonist move from Village to Kingdom. But the Lover remains in the Village throughout. The Hero Arc will beckon later on.

Examples of the Lover:

Examples of the Lover archetype include the following.

  • Everybody in Sense & Sensibility
  • Everybody in Desperate Romantics
  • Tom in 500 Days of Summer
  • Westley and Buttercup in The Princess Bride
  • Romeo & Juliet in Romeo & Juliet
  • Augustus Waters in The Fault in Our Stars

Stay Tuned: Next week, we will study the Flat archetype of the Parent.

Related Posts:

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

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

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

Comments

  1. Great write up as usual. These flat-arcs are proving more interesting than I expected. Archetypes are often written off as just stereotypes, but they are so much richer than that.

    Just to play Devil’s Advocate real quick: with Romeo and Juliet, I always thought Juliet was on a Maiden arc. Romeo himself has no real arc, but Juliet does go from living to please her parents to rebelling against them to be with Romeo– a sort of individuation and breaking away from the tribe, even if it ends pretty badly.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      You’re right about Romeo and Juliet, I think. In fact, they perhaps end in shadow archetypes due to the tragedy of the story.

  2. Usvaldo de Leon says

    The doomed Lover: Romeo and Juliet being chief among them but also including Tristan and Isolde and Orpheus and Eurydice; in relation to this archetype, what is the idea being expressed by their stories? Is it an inducement to continue growing and not remain stuck in this archetype?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The idea of the Flat archetypes is that they are not currently undergoing a transformation arc. The Lover is admittedly a little dicey in this category, since falling in love for the first time creates the need for such massive growth. But I’m viewing the Lover as the period *after* the Maiden, in which much of that growth has started happening.

      • Great analysis of The Lover. I’m enjoying these posts for how they go beyond the obvious and superficial and show how the arcs all link together.

        The characters this post made me think of were Sandy and Danny from Grease. The musical sets up the question of whether Sandy and Danny will continue the Maiden Arcs they were on over the summer or succumb to the pressure of the tribes of their high school. You noted that the Lover can express love for not just an individual but for other things like art and music. In the case of Danny, he pivots from just trying to fit in by acting cool and indifferent to inspiring others as a Lover when the declares his deep affection and passion for his car- Greased Lightning!

        I also noticed that since the Lover’s message is the importance of personal sovereignty, the Lovers show up often in dystopian stories pitting personal sovereignty against totalitarian control.

        And of course there’s the cross-genre of dystopia YA fiction like Divergent and The Hunger Games, which combines the stress of resisting a totalitarian society with the stress of rebelling against parents and peers. High School Musical meets 1984!

        When it comes to doomed Lovers like Romeo and Juliet, perhaps the failure stems from the inability of these characters to arc into Heroes who can resist and transform the world for their love. They remain, like Tony and Maria from West Side Story, hoping passively that there’s a place for love “Somewhere,” without gaining the empowerment to make that place a reality. However, they still carry that possibility of inspiring others around them to recognize the value of love and to take up the fight to transform society in the future.

  3. Grace Dvorachek says

    This post was an eye-opener for me since I normally don’t write Lovers (mostly because there are way too many mushy romances out there). It helped me understand them more and see how it’s possible to write good romance characters. I’ll be keeping this in mind in case I decide to go towards that genre someday. (Or even if I have a romance subplot.) Thanks for the post!

  4. Anna Burroughs-Merrill says

    Just want to say how much I’m enjoying this entire series. Once you’re done, I hope you’ll gather them all up into an easy-to-refer to print edition.

    P.S. – distribute it WIDE, please, because sensible people refuse to patronize Amazon. Nook Press puts out a nice edition.

  5. i think that sometimes this arc shows up as backstory or segment to a larger story, serving as a catalyst for growth. For backstory, I’m thinking of Aragorn and Arwen in The Lord of the Rings. That does develop into mature love, but it’s initially a case of being smitten, and is big part of what drives Aragorn to become the king that is needed.

    As a portion, there is an old movie called “The Egyptian”. The MC initially goes from poor orphan to physician at the Pharoah’s court (I’m thinking that’s his maiden arc). Then he meets a courtesan who he is completely smittem by. She offers to show him the perfection of love if he will sell all his medical equipment, which will ruin him. He does this, and she dumps him. The MC hits rock bottom before working his way back and moving onto greater things, which I think forms a hero’s arc, though my memory of the movie is somewhat dimmed.

    As I think on this, I may be getting this wrong. There are a fair number of stories where a romantic sequence results in a change of character. For example in “The Godfather,” the marriage in Sicily offered an opportunity to lighten his character, but wound up hardening him. I’m not sure whether this constitute Flat Arc Lovers or are really something else.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      A shadow Lover is probably most likely to show up as one of the shadow archetypes for the first three arcs. In that case, the Lover would act as a negative Impact Character, influencing the Change character for the worse rather than the better.

      • So the character in the Egyptian feels more like a good fit, and she’s really more fully developed than the other two (with all due apologies to Mario Puzzo and JRRT). You have better things to do, but if you get the chance I think you’d like the movie. It’s from 1954, so I’d be surprised if you ran into (for the record I saw it MANY years after that).

  6. Interesting! The acquisition of talent or skills is quite suggestive of necessary preparation for the Hero too.

    Nancy Drew strikes me a flat character whose passion is solving mysteries. Instead of learning to navigate social relationships as a typical Lover character, she’s learning the skills to be a detective.

    Harry Potter seems in a cycle of Lover-to-Hero every book except the last, in which he’s on the Hero’s Journey for the whole novel.

    • Joan Kessler says

      That’s interesting about Nancy Drew, and the Hardy Boys, as they don’t age in the stories, so there is no archetypal growth. I’m getting a clearer picture of Flat Arc characters.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Ah, yes, interesting thought about Harry Potter.

  7. Joan Kessler says

    This is an interesting pause between arcs, and a beautiful one of self-discovery, not just of love but of exploring what’s drawing you into the world. These Flat Archetypes are more interesting than I thought.

    And yay for Doris Day!

  8. I absolutely love writing the archetype of the lover who uncovers a path of self-discovery about their need to love themselves first. Especially if the protagonist is a woman. Woman are the most giving creatures in their relationships. They often underestimate their value. I try to write about women who love who aren’t necessarily superheroes. A strong woman in this day and time is characterized as the endgame. When in actuality, strength isn’t always measured by how we challenge our equality with men or even other women. Love yourself and be your best lover. In real life I’ve determined that the person we love is transformed into the best human possible. We see them as these perfect beings because we love them. I try to write about women in love as lovers of the truth.
    Thank you for your fantastic post.

  9. “Love is not love which alters it when alteration finds, or bends with the remover to remove: O no! It is an ever fixed mark that looks on tempests and is never shaken; it is the star to every wandering bark….

    romeo and juliet

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