Archetypal Character Arcs, Pt. 18: The Flat Archetype of the Parent

When we think of archetypal characters, the Parent probably isn’t the first to come to mind. Despite the fact that becoming and being a parent is one of the most obvious initiations within even our modern lives, we don’t often think of the Parent with the same enthusiasm as we do the Hero. And yet they are intrinsically linked.

The Parent is the Flat or “resting” archetype that follows or results from what is currently our most iconic character arc—the Hero’s Journey. In some ways, as with all archetypes, this is merely a symbolic evolution, since not all Heroes fresh from their battles will literally settle down to start families. But not only is the Parent historically the next obvious step for the Hero, it is also a deeply symbolic transitional period between the First Act of a character’s life and the Second Act.

Remember, the First Act of the life cycle of archetypal character arcs represents approximately the first thirty years of the human life—during which the primary transformation struggles of the Maiden and Hero Arcs are defined by the challenges of Relationship With Self. Successful completion of the Hero Arc signifies that the character has been able to achieve both individuation from the tribe as a child and reintegration back into it as an adult.

Now, as the Parent, the character rests upon the turning point into the challenges of the Second Act, during which the primary transformation struggles of the Queen and King Arcs will be defined by the challenges of Relationship With Others—and particularly the power dynamic of relating to younger people who have less power.

The Parent’s “rest” (and I know all parents are laughing at the word!) before the next transformation of the Queen Arc signifies a period in which the character can regroup after the travails and victories of the now completed Hero’s Quest. In essence, the character is a soldier returned from war who may now enjoy a hard-won and justly deserved peace.

More than that, as a Flat archetype, the Parent has the opportunity to bless the Kingdom to which he or she has returned. The character is now an adult with a good deal of important life experience. Whether the character uses this experience to teach and rear actual children or more symbolically in simply contributing to the health of the larger community, the result will be the opportunity for other characters to learn from the Parent’s hard-won thematic truths.

The Parent Archetype: The Hero at Home

Previous Arc: Hero

Subsequent Positive Arc: Queen

Subsequent Possible Negative Archetypes: Snow Queen (passive); Sorceress (aggressive)

It has become something of a cliché that the Hero’s Journey should end with the protagonist “getting the girl” and “riding into the sunset.” Usual complaints aside, this in fact refers to something of deep symbolic import. Specifically, what is being dramatized is the Hero’s return to and reintegration into the community, not just as the youth he was before, but as someone ready to form a union with another person and perhaps begin raising and teaching the next generation of characters.

In The Hero Within, Carol S. Pearson explains:

Symbolically, it is important that at the end of the old heroic myth, after he has confronted his fear by slaying the dragon, the Warrior comes home and marries. The reward for his battle is that he becomes, finally, a lover.

Pearson is here referencing the Warrior archetype more specifically than the Hero (although, of course, they share much in common archetypally speaking), but she points again to the inherent challenge of the Hero Arc being that of submitting his power to a “love worth fighting for.” Within the Hero Arc itself, it is possible (although not required) that this love be romantic, but by the time the Hero has returned to the Kingdom to become the Parent, that love will extend to encompass a much larger “family” to which the character is now willingly responsible.

In many ways, the Parent represents the mysterious “happily ever after” that classically ends so many Hero stories (and, again, I know the parents among us may be snickering!). It is a time when the harvest of the character’s life is ripe. Even if circumstances are not literally perfect in the external world (e.g., the character works long hours in or out of the home to care for the family), they are stable. And the character is primarily content with the status quo. Any personal changes that are yet to occur will take place later in the subsequent Queen Arc. For now “war is over,” and life seems to be going exactly as it should.

The Parent’s Normal World

After the questing of the Hero Arc, the Parent has returned home once more. However, it can be helpful to realize that the Village that comprised the Normal World at the beginning of the Hero Arc has, at least from the character’s perspective, broadened into a larger Kingdom. Having seen the world during the Quest, the character understands the world is a larger, more interconnected place than was obvious in the First-Act arcs.

More specifically, however, the Parent’s Normal World can be thought of as “the Hearth,” since the primary focus is on what’s happening in the character’s own home rather than “out there” in the larger world. The primary focus within this interstitial period is that of nurturing others, loving them, raising them, teaching them, helping them grow.

This is, of course, where we see the cycle start to repeat. Both the Child archetype and the Maiden archetype began with the character as a young person faced with the challenge of separating from the Parent and the Hearth. Now, that Child has become the very Parent from whom the next generation will eventually have to individuate as well. Indeed, the next challenge for the Parent, in the subsequent Queen Arc, will be that of letting the Maidens individuate.

For now, however, this challenge remains in the future, as the Children are yet too young and dependent. At this stage, it is vital that the responsible Parent, whether father or mother, provide the love and security that will give the Children a strong foundation from which to begin their own arcs.

In The Heroine’s Journey, Maureen Murdock describes this stage specifically in reference to the mother:

In most cases the mother is the primary object of an infant’s dependency, and the task of the child is to move from this fused symbiotic relationship toward separateness, individuation, and autonomy. If the mother is perceived by the child as the source of nurture and support, the child will experience her as a positive force; if she is perceived as neglectful or smothering, the child will experience her as destruction.

The Parent’s Relationship to the Thematic Truth

Although the Parent, like all the Flat archetypes, does not represent transformation, it is still a period of great valor. More than ever, the Parent represents a character who now bears great responsibilities for the well-being of others. True Parents (who do not devolve into the negative counter-archetypes) will prove themselves steady in the face trial and temptation. As Pearson says of this period:

Perhaps you have always been very independent and like to explore the world, but then you have a baby. Now you must sacrifice some of that desire for exploration in order to care for your child. To do it well, how can you access a more nurturing potential within yourself?

The true Parent is able to act as a positive and stable force within the world thanks to the thematic Truths learned in the previous arc, and especially the immediately previous arc of the Hero. That Truth may be thought of as simply, “All my actions affect those I love.”

By already completing the Hero Arc, the Parent has already proved his or her ability to sacrifice out of love. Now that sacrifice continues in a more prosaic (but no less poignant) way. It is via the daily affirmation of this heroic Truth that the Parent is able to enact tremendous change within the lives of supporting characters.

How the Parent Creates Change in Supporting Characters

Most obviously, the Parent will parent his or her own children. But the relationship can, of course, also be symbolic. The Parent may mentor children or young people who are not related, or may even act the parental role toward chronological peers. What is important is simply that the “children” are characters who have not yet reached the same level of initiation as the Parent.

Although the Parent can influence change for any “younger” archetype, he or she is most likely to enact an important formative relationship with the Maiden. The Parent/Maiden dynamic is extremely important, since the Maiden Arc represents the Child’s first and most important struggle against the Parent. This almost always represents a tremendous challenge not just to the Maiden who is beginning to individuate, but to the Parent as well. Parents who understand the lessons of the previous arcs can consciously allow and even guide a young Maiden in separating from them.

Pearson again:

In a world that changes rapidly, it is a rare set of parents who actually can groom the next generation for what is to come.

To the degree the Parent fails in representing the thematic Truth to the Maiden (or any other character), he or she risks becoming the antagonist in that supporting character’s own story (as we’ve seen via the Maiden’s symbolic antagonists of Too-Good Mother, Naive Father, and even Predator).

Types of Stories That Feature a Parent Protagonist

The Parent most obviously shows up in stories of family drama or comedy. Sometimes these stories are explicitly about the trials of being a parent, such as in Steve Martin’s comedy Parenthood. Or the story could be about the coming-of-age of a Maiden but shown through the perspective of the Parent.

Stories in which a Parent “takes on the system” to defend a child in some way are common. It’s also common to see the Parent represented by a teacher character who acts positively within the lives of students, even or especially if the students are not receiving proper parenting at home.

Parent protagonists can also be seen in stories that focus less on actual parenting and more on the struggles of providing for one’s family.

What is central to all of these stories is a specific relationship dynamic between a character who provides some sort of care and guidance for at least one younger or more vulnerable character.

Examples of the Parent:

Examples of the Parent archetype include the following. Click on the links for structural analyses.

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

Related Posts:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Can you think of any further examples of stories that feature the Parent? 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. Of course parent archetypes are making me feel all nostalgic for the 80s Disney cartoon, `Darkwing Duck’. He’s an egotistical masked vigilante who fights crime for all the wrong reasons (fun and glory) but he’s also a really good parent to his adopted daughter. It’s an interesting juxtaposition, and very much the heart of the show -the struggle between recklessly doing what ever he wants, and making sure his daughter is safe, healthy, and getting to school on time.

  2. This series has been extremely eye-opening! Thanks for all the work you put into serving the writing community. It is not taken lightly!

  3. Louis Schlesinger says

    Amen to what Abigail says! Your series has not only been indispensable in writing a Maiden Arc for my protagonist in the first book of a trilogy, it illuminates her journey to the Parent Arc by the end. Thank you for your insights and generosity.

  4. This is where you start getting into the flat arcs I’ve been curious about. Just what it is that distinguishes the parent from the ruler from the elder from the mentor – looking forward to those posts.
    So is it basically that a character stays in the flat arc of Parent until the moment the Maiden pushes back, that push being the inciting incident that sends the Parent character into one of the change arcs? Where the refusal to allow separation sends the Parent into the negative arcs of Snow Queen or Sorceress, but acceptance of the push to change sends the Parent-turned-Queen on the journey to release the Maiden to her own adventure? Is it possible for a character (like Marmee) to stay in the Parent arc yet guide the Maiden through the rough journey of separation? Wouldn’t the decision to guide the Maiden through the process, the decision of letting go and allowing her to separate, be the climatic decision that turns a Queen into a King?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The Parent character doesn’t *necessarily* have to arc, but because this archetype lives primarily in relationship with the fellow Flat archetype of Child, if the Parent fails to arc congruently along with the Child into Maiden, then it can end with the Parent regressing into a shadow archetype.

  5. Joan Kessler says

    This is great for writing parent characters in MG and YA. It’s easy to write them off as flat characters and forget that they’re on a journey of their own. Thank you for these wonderful posts!

  6. Grace Dvorachek says

    I’m loving these Flat archetypes! Some people find it hard to write original Flat Arc characters since they’re so… well, flat. But they’re still real people, and, as Joan said above, and they’re on their own journey. They’ve got personalities and quirks and hobbies and lives just the same as any other character. And, yes, even Flat characters have faults. They believe the specific Truth of the story, of course, but since they have more Positive Change Arcs ahead of them, they still have more Truths to learn. I knew all this somewhere in my head before I ever heard of more than one Flat archetype, but this series is putting it all in words. Thank you so much!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I love Flat-Arc stories. Done with nuance and understanding, they can provide deeply inspiring examples of living life well.

  7. Umm, err. Parenting as a flat arc…. A resting period…. Well, this is fiction we’re talking about.

    I’m a little uncomfortable with Hagrid as a parent role as he never tells Harry “no” nor does he take responsibility for him. There’s also no tension in the relationship, which I think there should to be. I think that’s part of Harry’s central story that he doesn’t have parents and he longs for them, and part of the beauty of his relationship with Jenny is his ties to the Weasly clan, including the parents.

    I could also pick at Andy because Oppy doesn’t really grow, but he does have Barney who models a problem older child fairly nicely.

    I’d through in the Family Man as an interesting spin on it as the Nicolas Cage character gets a chance to see the life he might have had as a parent.

    Thank you again for another great column. These are truly a gift from a most generous heart. God bless you.

  8. The one I immediately thought of when you asked for other stories: To Kill A Mockingbird.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Although I think Atticus could arguably demonstrate more advanced archetypes as well, he’s definitely the quintessential Parent in relationship to his children.

  9. There wasn’t a link to this post from the Lover post. I was just on that post and wanted to read this one without returning to my email but couldn’t. Maybe your already working on the link, but I thought I’d let you know just in case.

    By the way, I love this series. It opens up many options for my current WIP. A series with four POVs-a maiden arc, a couple of hero arcs (one male and the other female), and a parent. Even a supporting character of the crone arc and antagonist of the king turned tyrant. When writing a series, is it possible for a flat arc character to start his or her subsequent arc between the middle of the other arcs? In other words, at the midpoint of the maiden arc (during the first book), the parent begins the queen arc. While the maiden arc ends at the end of the first book, the queen arc continues until the midpoint of the second book. I realize it makes things very complicated (my brain hurts to consider it). But I believe a lot of effort put into something can make that something worth it.

    Also, I know several people have asked if you plan to make this series into a book, which you have confirmed your intentions to do so, but may I make one suggestion for that book? Obviously, it’s up to you, but I would find it more helpful if you were to stick to three or four stories or movies when giving examples. What I mean is, when you posted examples of positive arc for each plot point, many were of books or movies that I hadn’t seen or read. They were hard for me to relate to them. If you had stayed within one or two stories, as you did in your posts and books “Structuring Your Novel” and “Creating Character Arcs,” it would have been easier for me to follow. Incidentally, I find your books and post to pretty much be the same, which I do appreciate. I bought your books thinking there might be something more in them, but there wasn’t. Granted, it’s often easier to grab the book, but sometimes I could find what I was looking for faster on your website due to it being well organized. Please don’t take this as criticism. Both your website and books have been invaluable. Here is the point I’m trying to make. When you write this series into a book, maybe stick to a handful of books or movies by which we see a progression of a positive, flat, or negative arc. I know that could be complicated, but you’re well-read over multiple genres (which I can appreciate but have no intention of doing), and I believe you capable. Having a large following of people who write in different genres, you know which movies and books to use as examples. Again, only a suggestion which you can completely ignore, but I’m hoping it has merit.

    Thanks for all your efforts in helping us want-a-be authors.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thanks for the suggestions! And for the reminder to link from the Lover post.

      And, yes, there’s a lot of flexibility in working with archetypes, so I see it as totally feasible to overlay different characters’ chronological journeys in less than “perfect” ways. That’s how it happens in real life, after all.

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